Archives For English

Our Common Tongue

May 9, 2013 — 5 Comments

Bruegel BabelThe ancestors of Europeans and Asians spoke a common language 15,000 years ago, as the ice age was ending.

That “discovery” sounds remarkably familiar to those acquainted with an ancient story about a colossal edifice erected in the ancient past. The Hebrews preserved a record of the achievement in the eleventh chapter of the book of Genesis. At the time of the tower’s construction, all of humanity consisted of “one people [sharing] one language.”

The argument for just such a common language is made in a detailed study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. After finishing this column, you may wish to read the original journal article, which is available here.

The mechanics of the study will be of great interest to all logophiles (word lovers).

Using sophisticated statistical analysis, the researchers identified 23 different words that have remained recognizable for fifteen millennia. These “ultraconserved” words include some of the fundamental building blocks of basic communication. They include: not, mother, man (i.e. male), we, this, hand, old, fire, ashes and (rather oddly) worm.

The study identifies “proto-words” that underlie common terms in extremely diverse languages. It is no accident that these universal words are the ones that are the most concrete, frequent and essential for human communication.

The Languages of the World Etymological Database, part of the Tower of Babel project . . . records reconstructed proto-words for language families from around the world. Proto-words are hypotheses as to the form of the word used by the common ancestor or proto-language of a given language family to denote a given meaning.

These words are reconstructed by first identifying cognate words among the languages of a given family and then, because cognate words derive from a common ancestral word, working back in time to reconstruct the probable features of that shared ancestral form.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a brilliant linguist, and his abiding love of languages provided the impulse for the creation (and intricate history) of all of Middle Earth.

C.S. Lewis was one of the twentieth centuries greatest writers. He was also a scholar—one with an outstanding grasp of literature. Lewis acknowledged that words describing immediate, touchable concerns can be distinct and firm, just like the realities they connote. However, when language moves farther from such elements, it invariably grows more abstract.

All language, except about objects of sense, is metaphorical through and through. To call God a “Force” (that is, something like a wind or a dynamo) is as metaphorical as to call Him a Father or a King. On such matters we can make our language more polysyllabic and duller: we cannot make it more literal. The difficulty is not peculiar to theologians. Scientists, poets, psychoanalysts, and metaphysicians are all in the same boat. (God in the Dock, “Horrid Red Things”).

The linguistic study described here notes that frequency of usage exerts a stabilizing influence on words. Whereas less common (and more abstract) vocabulary “evolves” more rapidly.

A rule-of-thumb emerges that words used more than around once per 1,000 in everyday speech evolve slowly enough to have a high chance of being judged cognate among more than two of the language families; this might equate to around 16 uses per day per speaker of these high-frequency words.

Throughout history various languages have vied with one another for precedence. In the Mediterranean world Greek, for a season, and then Latin for another, were the “universal” tongues. The phrase lingua franca (literally, the “Frankish language”) has now come to refer to any language that is extensively used as a common bridge between speakers of different tongues.

Such languages, of course, enhance communication. That is not to suggest, however, that the development of these “dominant” languages is without critics. It seems, for example, that France was delighted in their language serving for many years as a standard for international diplomacy. Today however, France continues to staunchly resist the advances of English. (In 1994 the initial version of the Toubon Law overreached in requiring the extensive use of French in nearly all contexts. You can read about some implications for international businesses here.)

Even C.S. Lewis regretted some of the negative influences of American English on the mother tongue. In his book Studies in Words, he mourns:

I have an idea of what is good and bad language. . . . Language is an instrument for communication. The language which can with the greatest ease make the finest and most numerous distinctions of meaning is the best. It is better to have like and love than to have aimer for both.

It was better to have the older English distinction between “I haven’t got indigestion” (I am not suffering from it at the moment) and “I don’t have indigestion” (I am not a dyspeptic) than to level both, as America has now taught most Englishmen to do, under “I don’t have.”

It remains to be seen whether any single language will come to truly dominate the world scene. Being able to communicate freely across all political borders sounds like a noble goal. It is ironic that should that day ever arrive it will mark a return to how things once began.


The painting reproduced above was painted circa 1563 by the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Vivacious Vocabularies

October 24, 2012 — 19 Comments

One reason I love reading C.S. Lewis arises from his adroit use of the English language. His vocabulary is immense. It is pleasant to run into words one seldom encounters on the drab byways of modern journalism and tangled thoroughfares of contemporary “social media.”

Consider the following example. I was exploring The Allegory of Love when I read this: “There is nothing in literature which does not, in some degree, percolate into life.”

What a delightful verb! It evokes for me recollections of my youth when my parents would refer to our coffee pot as the percolator. Simultaneously, it reminds me of more recent—less happy—usages: “I’m sorry, but inadequate soil percolation means you’ll have to install a far more expensive septic system than normally required.”

It’s discouraging when you consider the sad state of modern vocabularies. I read somewhere that people typically only use about 10% of the words they know. So a common vocabulary of 5,000 spoken words would mean they know (i.e. can recognize written or audible forms of) about 50,000 words. Shakespeare used 29,000 words in his plays and sonnets, suggesting an expansive vocabulary. Likewise, brilliant authors like C.S. Lewis would boast a praiseworthy mental dictionary.

I am sometimes curious about my own vocabulary. I consciously attempt—in conversation as well as writing—to utilize at least 15% of the words I know. After all, the English language is so rich, it’s criminal to limit ourselves to pedestrian words. It’s like having all the ingredients for a delicious feast available to us and settling for slapping together a peanut butter sandwich.

I also love the precision that comes from using the exact word that suits the occasion. For example, in a thriller it matters greatly how the hero’s nemesis inflicts injury. A skilled writer would never say “Professor Moriarty cut Holmes.” Instead, we would learn that he slashed . . . stabbed . . . sliced . . . scarred . . . carved . . . or perhaps he merely nicked the detective. Likewise, we would probably know the type of weapon he was using. It would not be a mere “knife.” It might be a saber . . . a dagger . . . a pocketknife . . . scalpel . . . carving knife . . . or perhaps even a bayonet.

Lewis addressed this richness in vocabulary in an essay on “Transposition” which appears in The Weight of Glory.

If the richer system is to be represented in the poorer at all, this can only be by giving each element in the poorer system more than one meaning. The transposition of the richer into the poorer must, so to speak, be algebraical, not arithmetical. If you are to translate from a language which has a large vocabulary into a language that has a small vocabulary, then you must be allowed to use several words in more than one sense. If you are to write a language with twenty-two vowel sounds in an alphabet with only five vowel characters than you must be allowed to give each of those five characters more than one value. If you are making a piano version of a piece originally scored for an orchestra, then the same piano notes which represent flutes in one passage must also represent violins in another.

It is wonderful to be fortunate enough to speak a language with a diverse vocabulary. English is such a tongue. Now, if we could just simplify its complexities and purge its irregularities, we would enjoy the best of all linguistic worlds.

English is a fascinating language. Certainly not the simplest to learn, but extremely versatile. You might say that among the circus of languages, English is the contortionist. (That analogy might make German the strong man and Romani the fortune teller.  As for the bearded lady . . . I’ll leave that to your personal conjecture.)

I’ve formally studied several other languages, yet I consider myself a master of none. Nevertheless, when it comes to English, I do take some pride in my skills, and would be willing to claim for myself the status of journeyman. Among other credentials I have my “verbal” score on the Graduate Record Exam, which placed me in the 97th percentile.

It goes without saying that C.S. Lewis (along with most of his fellow Inklings) was a Master of English. One of his many insights warned of language’s occasional tendency to confuse rather than illuminate.

Language exists to communicate whatever it can communicate. Some things it communicates so badly that we never attempt to communicate them by words if any other medium is available. (C.S. Lewis, Studies in Words).

As much as I discover about English, I find there is still more to learn. This week I enjoyed thinking about contranyms. It’s uncommon enough a word that you know your spell checker won’t recognize it. One of those words only an English major is expected to know.

We all know, of course, what synonyms and antonyms are. Useful little tools for playful manipulation of language. A contranym is a word that possesses two “contradictory” meanings. For example a “citation” which can be awarded for either good or issued for bad behavior. Or, consider “literally,” which has its literal meaning as well as its recently developed and contradictory definition of “figuratively.” For lovers of words that’s a particularly discomforting contranym, and it literally makes my head explode. (No, seriously, please don’t ever write or say something like that unless it is in the form of dialog you’re composing for a semi-literate character.)

There are many more examples.

“They left for London, without a thought as to the luggage they left at the station.”

“He was certainly bound for jail if they discovered the Internal Revenue agent he had left bound in his basement.”

“He buckled his belt a mere moment before his legs buckled beneath him as he was struck by the errant meteorite.”

“Apparently there are many thoughtless oversights when programs are left to governmental oversight.”

Homophonic contranyms are not spelled alike, but they are pronounced similarly. “My aural test is scheduled tomorrow, immediately before the oral defense of my dissertation.”

There are actually a couple of alternative names for contranyms. They can be called antagonyms or autoantonyms, which only serves to make the hazy water that much murkier.

Our next lesson will feature that amazing category of words that are “polysemy.” (Not really, I think this has been enough linguistic thinking to cover us for at least a week.)

Oh, one final note, for those who were curious about the choice of the image above for this column. Contranyms are also referred to as “Janus words,” in honor of the Roman deity who constantly gazes in two directions. Very fitting.