In the English language, there is a word that describes ”a mild desire, a wish or urge too slight to lead to action” – velleity (which seems very useful), and there is a word for that sudden sensation of falling when you are just getting to sleep – a myoclonic jerk, which we’ve all felt before. Although we do not realize it, English has an extremely wide, rich, and diverse vocabulary. It allows for a distinction between house and home, forceful and forcible, childish and childlike. English has an abundance of synonyms, that if I was to tell about a big piece of land, it could not only be described as large or massive, but humongous, vast, capacious, or whopping. And what about the words and phrases that have contradictory meanings, depending on the context it is used in? For instance, a door that is bolted is secure, but a horse that has bolted has taken off, and while trying one’s best is positive, trying one’s patience is negative. So where do our words come from and how have they formed or evolved into the modern language that we speak today? In “The Mother Tongue – English and how it got that way”, Bryson explores the unexpected and surprising origins of English.
Perhaps the most well known way in which English was first created is thorough adopting foreign words. English is an extremely eclectic language that derives at least half of its common words from non-Anglo-Saxon stock. Words that are used in daily conversation today, such as shampoo comes from India, potato is from Haiti, slogan is from Gaelic, and ketchup originated from China. Many words have also been created through a single Latin root, the greatest example being discus, which has given us disk, disc, dish, desk and dais. Another unique way in which words have been created is through marrying a native noun to an adopted adjective; mouth is a native noun but oral is the adopted adjective, and other pairs include moon/lunar and book/literary.
Words have also been created or made up by famous and respected users of the language, like Shakespeare. According to calculations, every tenth word that Shakespeare used in his writings (which totaled 17,677 words) was original. Today we thank him for critical, majestic, hurry, and lonely – all words we could not do without today.
Interestingly, in the past words have been created by error. Many words in English have been created through misreadings and mishearings; “sweetheart” was once “sweetard”, and “asparagus” once “sparrow-grass”. Words have also been created by adding or subtracting something, i.e., by using prefixes and suffixes such as –ness, -pre, -ment, -able, to name just a few. English has an admirable (or maybe confusing) variety of prefixes – there are at least six ways of expressing negation using prefixes: a-, anti-, in-, il-, im-, ir-, un-, and non-. English also possesses the ability to make new words using compounds by combining two existing words, like airport, landmark, and seashore.
Finally, some words change meanings while the word itself stays the same – this I find to be most interesting. Believe it or not, counterfeit once meant “a legitimate copy”, enthusiasm was once a term for “mild abuse”, and girl used to refer to any young person, male or female.
Bryson has shown how fascinating tracing the origins of English can be, but what about the emergence of English as the “global language” in the modern world? Around 375 million people in the world speak English as their first language today, and the rest all try to.
In all seriousness, English has become the most global of languages, in different areas such as business, science, education, politics, and music. The six member nations of the European Free Trade Association conduct all of their business in English, even though not one of them is an English-speaking country. For 157 national airlines (out of 168 in the world), English is the agreed international language of discourse. India prints more than 3000 newspapers in English, and the French, known to be most determinedly non-English speaking nation in the entire world, no longer publishes their famous international medical reviews in French, only in English.
The underlying question may be, why? How did the English language become the language of the modern world? Bryson writes in his book that although there is no reliable way of measuring the efficiency of a language, English possesses qualities that make it slightly better for communication compared to other languages. For instance, there are seven different forms of you in German, where English simply relies on one. German is also full of multi-syllabled words like Wirtschaftstreuhandgesellschaft (a business trust company), which few people can pronounce. Comparably, English is much more concise. And while in Korean and Japanese you must always consider the social position of the person you are addressing for even basic words like thank you, English is mostly free of gender and status.
These reasons may be why English has become the global language that everybody can understand. However, English does have a “deceptive complexity” which can make things complicated and illogical. For example, it is impossible to concisely define the word what, used in daily conversation by all speakers. There are also words and expressions we commonly use that do not make logical sense: when you are overwhelmed, where is the whelm that you are over, what does it look like? Why do we spell four with a u but forty without? Why do we pronounce caramel as if there was no second a?
Bryson leads us in the fascinating exploration of the history and nature of the English language. Inspired, I searched for the origins of my own language, Japanese.
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