You and I have known each other quite a while–37 years!–and we’ve certainly had our ups and downs. I’m told that I was gaga over you for the first few years, reading early, talking nonstop–not even pausing for breath when I talked but instead teaching myself how to speak on inhalation. Other people thought it was cute at first, but I know they soon grew sick of my obsessiveness with you and your willingness to feed that obsession.
My ardor cooled the longer we were together, which I’ve heard is normal in any long-term relationship. I had other interests that you didn’t share, though you were happy to quietly accompany me in my fort-making and bike-riding. You told me stories and kept me entranced, as though you knew that others were trying to tell me the truth about you, pulling me away from you. Mr. Hubbard, third grade, who taught me that some parts of you were better left to my own secret discoveries and not to be shouted on the playground when I jumped from the swings; Ms. Carlson, seventh grade, who told me that you were too deep for me and encouraged me to leave you for math; Ms. Talasek.
Oh, Ms. Talasek: bright-eyed, slightly manic, endowed with a magnificent Roman nose, and deeply, deeply in love with you. She’d swan about the room, book in hand, and elocute like her life depended on it. She began our studies on 1984 by reading aloud the first sentence and finishing with “Just listen to that! ‘Striking thirteen,’ the way those vowels all hammer together!” She beamed. My eyes widened, then narrowed.
We’ve never talked about this, but you must know that her admiration was the reason I spent less time with you at that point. To discover that someone else knew and loved you better than I did–and that you apparently welcomed her attention! Well. In truth, I’m not ashamed of what I did. Relationships falter. Ends come. I took her love for you as a sign that perhaps we were done. German was good to me, in its own regimented way. And perhaps this smacks of justification, but I would never have even known about Latin or Greek if you hadn’t introduced me.
And that. You’d think I’d have noticed all the Latinate and Greek words you had collected in previous dalliances. The Italian and Japanese. The French. No wonder you never commented on my indiscretions.
I tried to forget you and move on, but everywhere I looked, there you were. Boys with interesting hair wooed me with songs they’d written–songs that featured you prominently. On the bus, I’d stare out the window at the passing landscape, trying to get excited about German’s subjunctive, and the bus would stop right in front of a sign with you plastered all over it. I’d go hiking to escape you and find that someone had sprayed you all over the rock I was sitting on. You were under my skin, stuck in my head, written on my heart–and I’ll be damned if those aren’t all idioms that you gave me.
Running from you seemed like madness, so instead I decided to see what made you tick. I took Old English and studied your baby pictures. All those letters and digraphs you’d outgrown, how rough and tumble you were as a toddler, all swords and ships and battles. It was a different side of you. I was intrigued, but still cautious: I knew you.
Then that fateful February day. The snowdrops were up in spite of the snow. Thin winter light supplemented by humming fluorescents. A chilly subterranean classroom. Beowulf lines 212 and 213, recited aloud by me: streamas wundon / sund wið sande. I had to stop, suddenly breathless. The sound of it, the alliterative “s”, that deliberate and chewy structure. I said it again; it eddied around my mouth. I saw you. No swords or ships or battles. Streams wound, sea with sand–you were beautiful.
I hope you bought the Beowulf scribes excellent beer in appreciation for all they did for you.
Chaucer documented your awkward teen years, Shakespeare your irreverent early adulthood. The more I read, the more I was captivated with you again. First loves are always the strongest.
It’s a good thing you are so amazing, because working with you has not always been easy. I don’t think you realize how absolutely illogical you can be. Tutoring ESL students was a trial of my affections. How could I defend you as a language with regular and easy verbs when your 200 most common verbs are all wackily irregular? You try explaining irregular plurals to a Chinese teenager. Don’t even get me started on your orthography.
But they’d go back to their rooms, and I’d petulantly pick up a book, and you’d throw me a word like “oleaginous.” You send me.
Lexicography is a mixed bag, I’ll admit. All your inconsistencies–not to mention your inconstancy–are paraded in front of me daily. You’re “regardless” to one set of people, and “irregardless” to the next. \LIE-brair-ee\ and \LIE-berr-ee\, doesn’t matter to you. Some of your nouns are singular and plural and count and noncount all at the same time. You want the whole world to be in love with you, and you pitch woo wildly. In every direction possible.
At the same time, you’ve been under attack. Dryden and the neo-classicists who wanted to put you in a Latin corset. Modern groups who protest the very existence of half of your vocabulary. People who want to hack off your unattractive bits and make you into their own wholesome-school-girl fantasy language. Yet you move on, (ir)regardless. Your weedy thriving isn’t an irritation to be tolerated–it’s a miracle, one I am daily grateful for.
According to my baby book, 36 years ago today I opened my slobbery little mouth, glubbed the word “cup,” and began the longest relationship of my life. Happy anniversary, English. I love you dearly, whoring and all.