Why The French Hate Us

Dr. Engel At The Cape Fear Literacy Council Luncheon

June 28, 2017

interview by Gina Gambony



Gina: Elliot, you are coming down for the Literacy Council here in Wilmington [North Carolina]. 

Dr. Engel: Right. 

Gina: Have you been here before? 

Dr. Engel: Yes. In fact I have been to Wilmington to speak many, many times. UNCW has an evening program with dinner and a speaker afterwards. I think I just did my 43rd for them last April, and I've spoken in high schools throughout Wilmington because of my work at NC State University. I covered an awful lot of counties and New Hanover was certainly one of them. 

Gina:  And your specialty is language and literature…

 Dr. Engel: Actually it's not; my specialty is Charles Dickens. But we felt that a topic like Our Slippery Mother Tongue: A Light History of English would work much better for a literacy luncheon than Dickens. And to be honest, I talk about Dickens all the time, so I'm delighted to speak on something else. I certainly have done lots of research on linguistics and English language. My field specialization is Dickens, but I'm an English professor, so I should be able to cover anything that has to do with writing. 

Gina: What drew you to Dickens? 

Dr. Engel: Oh, well actually it wasn't Dickens. I went to UCLA for graduate school and had the absolute best professor in the entire department. Her name was Dr. Aden Nisbett. Her field happened to be Dickens. At the time I wasn’t crazy about Dickens. I took her class and caught her enthusiasm, and the reason I'm a Dickens expert today is because of her. If she'd taught on Jonathan Edwards, I'd be in Colonial literature. It really was the person. It took her enthusiasm and her great teaching to make me turn to Dickens, and then once I read him I was hooked. 

Gina: That's so interesting. You were probably fertile ground to be infected with that virus. 

Dr. Engel: Not really -- interestingly, because I'm Jewish, the one thing I never really cared for really was A Christmas Carol. The one work that everybody knows! I'm not saying because I'm Jewish I couldn’t appreciate it -- I think it's a great story -- but it was just not something that was ever read in my house. We weren't into Christmas stories. We knew a lot more about The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry, who, by the way, is a North Carolina author. And the other thing about Dickens that made him less appealing to me growing up: his novels were four or eight hundred pages long, or longer. So kids don't read Dickens and they certainly don't read him in the original. 

Dr. Nisbett said, “There is no topic so inherently interesting that a terrible professor cannot make dull. And there is no topic so inherently dull that a great professor cannot make fascinating.” She was a living monument to that. 

Gina: Well I think when I said that you might have been fertile for it, I guess it’s because I am holding some assumptions about you, which is that you grew up in a stable household, you're smart, and your basic needs were taken care of... I'm always interested -- and I was an English teacher for eighth graders for several years -- 

Dr. Engel: I bet you didn't teach Great Expectations. 

Gina: No, I did not. 

Dr. Engel: Good. Or A Tale of Two Cities, even worse for eighth grade. 

Gina: No, I did not. But I did bring in some stuff for my gifted students that was a little above them, and we still made good of it. 

Dr. Engel: Because I came from a Jewish family, education was absolutely the top thing. They say the definition of a Jewish dropout is somebody who doesn't have a Ph.D., and that is virtually true. All my Jewish friends went on to law school or grad school. So I had years of loving to learn and being rewarded highly for it by my mother and father -- and they were immigrants; my father came over from Hungary -- he grew up there -- and my mother's family had just come over from Russia when she was born. Unfortunately, they were not allowed in their countries of birth to achieve that way. So it became all the more important. 

Gina: You know one of the things that really interests me is how to get people excited about literature, people who aren't coming from a garden like that, like you came from. 

Dr. Engel: Right, it was a garden, absolutely. 

Gina: This professor ignited the enthusiasm, and -- making a bridge here to the Literacy Council -- imagine being an adult person and not being able to read. 

Dr. Engel: Absolutely. But what I said before applies as much to them if not more than to anybody else and that is if they have the right instructor, if they have a sensitive person, they don't have to know a great deal in-depth about literature. But if you're going to teach literacy, you have to know an awful lot about how to motivate people who have never been reinforced about  intellectual things. A great teacher will be able to make headway with illiterate people more than any other factor, more than the workbooks. I think you've got to have the person, the mentor who's leading them. 

Gina: I agree completely. I think there's only so much that a teaching program can do with an individual. You've got to have someone who can set you on fire. 

Dr. Engel: Absolutely. 

Gina: Let me let me ask you about your lecture topic -- Our Slippery Mother Tongue, a Light History of English. Tell me about that. 

Dr. Engel: OK. Well the emphasis is on "light" because in a 30 or 35 minute talk when you have to cover, and actually begin gosh, I begin 250,000 years ago -- you cannot talk about the history of the English language without first talking about language in general. In other words, why am I moving my vocal chords right now? That's the only way that I'm able to communicate with you, and I begin by pointing out that for thousands, tens of thousands, of years on earth people never used the voice; they used sign language or gestures. So I go way back and give them kind of a background as to how language developed before English. 

And then most of the talk is about the enormous influence of Germanic on our language. We're not a German language, but we're in no sense a Romance language even though so many of our words are Latin. We are zero percent Latin at its base. England is the only place that Caesar, or any other Roman, conquered fully where, for reasons I will explain, we were not forced to speak their language. 

So I talk about how this language is really a hybrid of the German and the French. And what makes it remarkable is that we have 650,000 words in our language; that compares to 140,000 words in most languages. We have four times more words than most languages, and we have two times the number of words than the second biggest language on earth, which I'm sure you could guess is Chinese. So the question is, how did we get all these words, why are we part Latin and part French? And I think the more people understand why we speak the words we do, the more they will appreciate not just the history of language, but the history of England in America and how we came to be where we are today. 

Gina: So since we have so many words, is that why we're the smartest people on the planet? 

Dr. Engel: Yes, and of course that's been proven by test after test (laughs). It means we can say the same stupid thing in more different ways than anybody else on earth. And this is why the French absolutely hate us. 

The French have a wonderful saying (and I'm not going to say it in French because my accent is bad): ”To speak properly, you must pick the exact word to match the exact thought.” Of course they say that; they only have 160,000 words! It drives them crazy that in English we have 650,000 different words. For example, if you want to say you're having a really good day, we have 195 synonyms, 195 words that mean Good. Great. Terrific. Fantastic. But to show you what life is really like, for saying we have a BAD day we have 230 of those, 230 different synonyms to say we're really having a lousy experience. 

So that's why we have Shakespeare in our language. Now, we can't say we're the smartest people because we speak English, but more critics have called Shakespeare the greatest writer of all time in any language, by far, than any other human being who's ever lived. I'm sure Shakespeare is a genius among geniuses, but what he had that nobody else on earth had who didn't speak English was a vocabulary. He didn't have the 650,000 back then, but he still had, even back then, four times more words than almost any language. And as a writer, the only tools you have are words, and he had this enormous advantage, as all English writers do today. 

Gina: So the French don't like us because we have so many words, but we still can't say anything with a lot of meaning. 

Dr. Engel: Exactly (laughs). Actually, the two are connected. They think we're sloppy speakers, which we are, because we have that luxury. If we stand there long enough, the right words are going to fall out sooner or later. With the French, they've got to sit there and think about it. They're jealous underneath it, but they're also very pleased that their handicap -- not having a huge vocabulary -- allows them to pick much more specific, accurate words than we need to.