While reading this article we were thinking about how hard it is to explain grammar to non-English speakers. Mark Forsyth is the author of The Elements of Eloquence:How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase and in this piece he describes very thoroughly the mysteries of our knowledge of English.
Do you know (without googling it!!!) how the adjective order is in English? I bet you can’t write it down or say it aloud, can you? But, you can all say “a beautiful, tall, young, blonde, Dutch woman” without thinking in which order you should say that. You know a rule without knowing that you know it. How cool is it, ah?
The same happens in the following case: if I say “ablaut reduplication”, what do you think of? Ablaut… I swear I’m not pulling your leg, this word exists and it’s not a swearword. Well, it’s just the fact that when repeating a word altering a consonant, the order will be I, A, O. In other words, would you say zig-zag or zag-zig, ding-dong-dang or ding-dang-dong, flop-flip or flip-flop? Amazing, isn’t it, you even know this rule by heart!
We are cleverer than we think we are!
But how can we explain those peculiarities to non-English speakers?
As my Russian teacher would say: “you have to accept it, my dear. It’s the way it is.”