Sunday, July 19, 2009

Language is promiscuous (to put it politely).

I'm reading a book by Henry Hitchings called The Secret Life of Words. It's kind of fun teaching English and finding myself back in the lexical world like I was up until college when I found design. I am forever intrigued by the way language and design work side by side as two disciplines which just about as closely linked as they are different from one another. I love design, but it's really fun popping into a different kind of world for the time being.

Anyway, I'm babbling.

The reason I'm writing is because teaching English has re-immersed me into the word world, and I'm really liking it.

The Secret Life of Words is so interesting. It mentions the way languages over the centuries are very promiscuous. I haven't gotten very far, but the book takes various English words and reveals the way they traveled into the lexicon.

One of my favorite tidbits so far comes from the section that talks about French and Latin/Greek influence is words we still use commonly today and how we often have three terms for the same thing, one Anglo-Saxon, one French, and one from Latin of Greek origins.

Anglo-Saxon: neutral connotation
French: sophisicated connation
Latin/Greek: learned from a text rather than from human contact, abstract or scientific

rise, mount, ascend
go, depart, exit
fire, flame, conflagration
holy, sacred, consecrated
word, term, lexeme

These are words that are so common in our minds and day to day, but so I was really interested in considering a more precise description of their meanings and their origins.

Here's another gem from Hitchings on resisting semantic evolution:

Should we have fought to keep this words in our vocabulary?

bicycle = wheelsaddle
forceps = nipperlings
pathology = painlore
concert = glee-mote
butler = cellar-thane
ressurection = gainrising

Hitchings says probably not, and I think he has some really good reasoning.

"We frequently hear pronouncements about what words 'ought' to mean, and these often make studious reference to etymology, as if words must cleave to their etymological roots. But could we find anyone who would insist, in a spirit of etymological nicety, that a candidate must be dressed in white, or that a school should be, as it was for ancient Greeks, a place of leisure?...None of this is to say that we need no guidance on matters of usage. There are compelling reasons for punctuating and spelling according to a particular conventions, as there is a wanting a degree of stability in our language. But fighting battles about individual words and tiny increments of semantic change is bootless."

So, that's about where I am now. It's a really good book.


  1. Very interesting post; I was reading about linguistics myself recently, and about how the language that we know shapes our thinking (can we really think without language?) and whether very different world views originally shaped disparate languages.

  2. I know. I love thinking about that. Hitchings was talking about Arabic languages and a few words can mean one thing, the complete opposite of that thing, and a way to describe a camel all at once. I wonder what that shapes thinking. So interesting.

    With Chinese characters I think about it because there has to be some kind of effect of a language that resembles images and the emotional reaction that goes along with images versus words. I wondering if that's why I find people here getting so excited about "cute" things like stickers, or seeing how much my students faces light up when instead of writing a check on their work, I sometimes draw a smiley face with its tongue sticking out.