THE MOTHER TONGUE AGAIN REVISITED

In previous essays I have always credited Sven Lernevall of Stockholm with the observation that the English language is a rich language. Sven’s native tongue is Swedish and he has mastered the English language gracefully. When I comment on the mother tongue, it seems to me that the comments tend to be endless. I suspect that this is a function of Sven Lernevall’s rules that the English language is a rich one and there are additions almost daily.

You may recall an essay which was done recently which commented upon the prevalence of the word “right” in our discourse. There is a right way to do things, and the thing to be tended to is “right in front of you.” In that essay, it appears that some comments on “right” were left uncultivated. And so let us take a look at them.

Recently I visited a physician in New Jersey whose residence is in New York. As a means of passing time, I asked him, “Do you still live in New York?” I expected to be told that New York was his home and would be the home of his children. I was flabbergasted to find that the physician told me that recently he had abandoned New York City and moved to a residence in one of the less populated areas of New Jersey.

Apparently after Thanksgiving, the physician and his wife had notions of moving to New Jersey to be closer to his work in Berkeley Heights. With that thought in mind, the two of them decided to take a look at an open house which had been carried by the builder for more than two years. Now if that house had been offered to me, I would have had some questions. The first question would have to do with the location of the house. The second would have to do with its design. In any event, the builder persuaded the physician to buy this house. The physician told my wife and me that the builder made “the price right.” So “the price is right” is another entry into the long series of stories about the “rightness” or the “righteousness” of the English language.

Now, leaving the builder and the physician on the right issue, we are confronted with the subject of human rights, which should not detract from our appreciation of animal rights. In this debate, it is clear that the rights will always prevail.

Now to demonstrate my impartiality, I have searched in my lexicon for something to balance the “rightness” of our language. Two entries popped into mind. When something is not fully consumed but is so good that it is saved for the next meal, we call it leftovers, not rightovers. Sometimes the leftovers taste better the second time around than on the first time. Then of course, it is common to hear someone say, “I left my wallet behind” as distinguished from “I right my wallet behind.” But on balance, the rightness of our language is overwhelming as opposed to the leftness.

I suppose that the rightness and leftness of things constitutes some sort of neologism. But for the time being, I think it is appropriate to put the issue of rightness right there for review at a later date.

Now we come to four phrases, having nothing to do with rightness, that have enriched the English language. All four come from the pen of the Australian composer Eric Bogle. Bogle is now an Australian but he was born in Peebles, Scotland. Bogle is the composer of the well known anti-war songs “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” and “No Man’s Land,” also known as “Private Willie McBride.”

The first lines are from “The Promise,” a song composed by Bogle to comfort the widow of a fellow song writer. In that song, there is a haunting refrain. It says:

“I can’t foretell the future,
The wheres, the whens, the whys.”

I have been a long-time observer of music and the English language, and I have never before seen this construction having to do with the wheres, the whens, the whys. That is a masterly composition which does great favor to the English language.
The second phrasing does not have to do with the love of two human beings, but rather it has to do with Bogle coming to the conclusion that he now felt more at home in Australia than he did in his native Scotland. The lines are from the song “Green and Gold.” They are:

“I wandered half the world over,
left no wild oats unsown.”

The line about leaving no wild oats unsown seems to me to deserve a Nobel Prize.

The third reference to a song by Eric Bogle comes from “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.” On this occasion in 1915, the Australians were sent into a battle at Suvla Bay where disaster against the defending Turks awaited them. There is a line to the effect that:

“And those that were left, well we tried to survive,
In that mad world of blood death and fire
And for ten weary weeks I kept my self alive,
Though around me the corpses piled higher.

Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse overhead,
And when I awoke in me hospital bed,
And saw what it had done, well I wished I was dead.
Never knew there was worse things than dyin’.

This is a powerful indictment of careless wars such as our invasion of Iraq. I hope that every prospective soldier will listen to the line from Eric Bogle. In this case, the Turkish shell had caused the loss of both legs to the Australian soldier. “Never knew there was worse things than dyin’.” These are sobering thoughts to every prospective soldier.

Finally, the last Boglism is contributed by his mother Nancy. When Bogle was a youngster, he may have expressed the wish that weekends could come sooner, so that he could avoid attending school. Nancy Bogle responded to these sorts of wishes with the comment, “If wishes were fishes, we would all cast nets in the sea.” Eric, her son, fashioned a lovely song with the title, “If Wishes Were Fishes.” There is a lot of truth in the thought that if wishes were fishes, we would all cast nets in the sea.

There you have my thoughts on this cold Sunday afternoon as February draws to a close. Yesterday I heard my first radio broadcast of an exhibition baseball game being played between the New York Mets and Atlanta. That means that spring is not far away. Once it arrives, I will be emboldened to search out more richness for our mother tongue.

E. E. CARR
February 27, 2011

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Bogle probably takes a close second to Mencken in the contest for Pop’s most-admired content producer. Currently he features in 10 essays, compared to Mencken’s 19.

I appreciate the attempt to balance leftness against rightness. He’s correct in that left words make up a pretty short list. “Leftenant” and “left out” are pretty much the only additions that come to mind that are not explicitly concerned with the leftward direction.

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