Forum: Wobbling one's way along in words - Ian Gordon on freewheeling in another language.

 作者:陈枢     |      日期:2019-03-03 06:07:01
By IAN GORDON One learns one’s own language as one learns to ride a bicycle. All I can remember of learning to ride is getting on my father’s old bike one day when he was out, taking a few painful tumbles, then wobbling from side to side till somehow I got the hang of the necessary balancing act. There I was, riding a bicycle. Nobody ‘taught’ me. We ‘learn’ our own language in much the same way; a few painful tumbles, a few precarious balancing acts (wobbling between ‘I saw it’ and ‘I seen it’) and we are away. Children on their first arrival at school still have plenty to learn about their own language, but they are already equipped with much of its idiom, most of its intonations, and all of its major structures. Nobody ‘taught’ them. Learning a second language as an adult is very different. If learning one’s first language is akin to the instinctive ‘learning’ required for riding a bicycle, learning a second language is like acquiring the skill needed to drive a motor car – you can no longer rely on a series of self-correcting wobbles, you have to know the position of the brake, the accelerator and the clutch, and what they do. Acquiring a second language means you have to know not only the lexical items (the ‘vocabulary’) but also how to use a complex series of controls, labelled with such technical terms as ‘transitive verb’ and ‘indirect object’ and ‘secondary stress’. Instinct and intuition are not enough. All this arises from an appeal I had from a Chinese student baffled by the English use of ‘quite’. He had consulted several standard dictionaries. Their answers were confusing and some of them contradictory. None told him how to use ‘quite’. We (who ride our bicycles with unconscious ease) can say colloquially that Dame Kiri te Kanawa is ‘quite a singer’ or even ‘quite something’, meaning this as the ultimate compliment. But if we say of someone else that she is ‘quite a good singer’ the word ‘quite’ is now less complimentary. The lady who is ‘quite a good singer’ is agreeable enough to listen to, but she will never make Covent Garden. How can the same word at one moment denote the highest praise and at the next be slighting in the extreme? The most common meaning of ‘quite’ is ‘absolutely, completely’ as in ‘I am quite ready to leave’, ‘He had not quite finished’, ‘The answer had quite gone out of my mind’. Although ‘quite’ can modify other kinds of words, it is generally used before adjectives: ‘quite impossible’, ‘quite superb’, ‘quite perfect’, ‘quite ridiculous’, ‘quite mistaken’. From this absolute sense there grew the colloquial usage ‘quite a . . .’ followed by a noun. In Emma, Jane Austen writes: ‘You are quite a humorist, and may say what you like. Quite a humorist.’ In that passage ‘quite’ reinforces the sense of the word ‘humorist’. This construction dropped out of English literary language but it survived strongly in the US in the spoken idiom. ‘He is quite a guy!’ From the US, the usage has been reintroduced into spoken English. The same ‘absolute’ meaning attaches itself to the typically British laconic formula of complete agreement with the previous speaker: ‘Quite so’ or simply ‘Quite’. If you now look at the kind of adjective to which ‘quite’, in the sense of ‘absolutely’, attaches itself, you will find that they are all adjectives of one type; they are themselves absolute in meaning and hence do not normally form a comparative or a superlative. If something is impossible it cannot be more impossible or most impossible. This kind of adjective is technically called nongradable. A quite different usage has developed with gradable adjectives, which comprise the great majority of our stock of adjectives. As its name implies, the gradable adjective can form a positive, a comparative, and a superlative (for example, good, better, best; fast, faster, fastest). When ‘quite’ is put in front of a gradable adjective it does not mean ‘absolutely’. On the contrary, it means anything in a range from ‘moderately’ to ‘only moderately’, the precise grade depending on context and intonation. In front of a gradable adjective, ‘quite’ (especially in British English) downgrades. To say someone is ‘quite good’ at his job is to damn with faint praise, ‘quite good’ being lower down the gradable scale than ‘very good’ or ‘good’. The contrast can be seen in near-synonyms. ‘Quite munificent’ implies great generosity because ‘munificent’ is nongradable. But attach ‘quite’ to its gradable near-synonym ‘generous’ and the result is different. ‘Quite generous’ downgrades – someone who is ‘quite generous’ has not made as large a contribution to an appeal for funds as one who is ‘generous’. The complexities of ‘quite’ do not end there. There is a set of adjectives which are gradable (for example, ‘beautiful’ with its comparative ‘more beautiful’ and its superlative ‘most beautiful’). But the positive of this kind of adjective is already itself a kind of superlative, semantically expressing an absolute quality. If you say a girl is ‘beautiful’ you rank her very high indeed on your beauty scale. Other adjectives in this ‘already superlative’ category include ‘stupendous’, ‘outstanding’, ‘excellent’, ‘hideous’, ‘horrifying’, and are all strongly assertive in meaning. ‘Quite’ with such adjectives behaves as if they were non gradable, adding strong reinforcement to the meaning – ‘quite outstanding’, ‘quite beautiful’, ‘quite horrifying’. ‘Quite’ can be quite a problem and dictionaries designed for native speakers offer no real help to the foreign learner. A word then to all you freewheeling easy riders, who balance and steer with native instinct: next time you hear an Asian student using offbeat English, just think how you would feel if you had to get off your bike and twiddle with the unfamiliar controls of a language like Chinese? Learning another language can be quite something. Ian Gordon is a dictionary editor and language consultant in Wellington,