Reading today about Felix Baumgartner’s amazing free-fall skydiving record and that fact that he “went through” the sound barrier doing so, reminded me of a strange school-master I once had. He was a young, charming, neatly-dressed, mannerly and wealthy but curiously unmarried German immigrant from South-West Africa called Peter Baumgartner. Though he taught us history, his English was none too good, and I am ashamed to say his pupils mocked him unmercifully for it. His pronunciation could be suspect too. I remember wondering for many minutes what “Peppls in a drort” meant. It was, in fact: “People in a drought.”
In connection with the Baumgartners and their love of going through things, I well remember the occasion when he made one of the classic mistakes in English of not associating a subordinate clause clearly enough with the noun he wished it to qualify. (In Russian this is hard to do as case endings signify what applies to what. In English it is position in the sentence that is usually crucial.)
One day, he took up his stick of chalk and wrote on the blackboard a brief chronology of something I can no longer remember. Naturally, while he had his back to us, chaos broke out in the room. When he had finished writing, he turned to face the class and in his usual pleading, reasonable way asked us to settle down. Once we had done so, he pointed to what he had written and said more confidently, “Now, boys! Votch ze board vile I go through it.”
Chaos again, this time in the form of hysterical laughter. Herr Baumgartner looked round the room, bewildered in his polite German way by the appalling manners of fifteen scions of the local Anglo-Saxon plutocracy. Such can be the price of disrespect for the rules about word-order in English!