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WASTING WORDS?

by Joan L. Cannon

As a one-time English teacher and the daughter of a grammarian, scholar, musician, artist, writer, and all-around nit-picker, I have a host of pet peeves. Especially about our magnificent, inconsistent, thieving, frustrating language. Theres the usual list of annoying errors in diction and grammar like using like for as and bring for take and convince for persuade. I could go on ad nauseam with those.

Languages evolve. If you dont believe it, look at a King James version of the Bible and compare passages with any modern translation. Words dont mean now what they used to. Thats a study that will forever interest anyone who has fun with etymology.

Take the famous Corinthians, Chapter 13. King James calls it Charity, the Revised Standard calls it Love. The Greek word is charitas, which with two other words mean love, but of three specific kinds. The one chosen, at the time it was written in the letter from St. Paul, meant something close to our current meaning of charity. I admit it was that interest in how words have come to mean what they do now that made me, after four years of high school Latin, enroll in a Greek class in college. Those two languages are the main sources of scientific, learned, artistic vocabulary in English. Anglo-Saxons were quick to loot whatever would be of use, even when it came to language. Today, all modern languages are growing exponentially because of the advance of technology and science.

The first year of Greek was Attic Greek (nothing to do with that haphazard stuff stored above the living area in your house), which is the literary, prestige form of the language from about 800 to 300 B.C. Like the tedious Caesars Gallic Wars, it means reading about war with the Persians as told by the Greek commander Xenophon. The second year was a choice between Homeric Greek (earlier by several hundred years, definition obvious) and Koin, which is the common language used for much of the New Testament, and dates from about 300 B.C. to about 500 A.D. If only because I had an instant pony in my copy of the New Testament, I chose the latter.

I bring up all that Greek because it provides examples of how a single, highly declined language changed in less than a millennium. The changes in meaning within Greek, and the English translations and biblical versions and interpretations derived from them, provide scholars and theologians endless material for debate.

One of the most attractive things about English is the size of its vocabulary. We have more words than most other modern languages according to the Oxford English Dictionary, over 500,000. Of course we dont need to know them all and couldnt use them all (though I think Nabokov may have tried). Yet, that richness makes maximum precision almost always possible.

Compare the traditional remark about Eskimos who have twenty different words for snow. When I think of the problems, both personal and public, that result from misunderstandings stemming from careless misuse of words, I get pretty upset. Darn it, theres a difference between convincing someone that your position is right and his is wrong, and persuading him to do something about it! The media have been the biggest offenders in this laxity of language usage, but schoolteachers who have been inadequately educated themselves run a close second.

Having vented about that, Id like to revert to the remark about language being a changing organism. Even all those years ago when I was in school, most of us didnt learn about such refinements as gerundives unless we were also studying Latin or a romance language like French. I have to admit, the subjunctive is fluctuating these days, and I dont see why we need to get upset about it. Thats because if someone says, If he was going, Id go too, there isnt any useful difference between that and If he were going, which would be correct usage with if.

English declension has diminished in size, and its probably a good thing too. I believe even Greek has long since abandoned the verb form used for two only and has adopted simply singular and plural forms. French, Italian, Russian, etc. have a familiar form of verbs like the old thee and thou that have now disappeared from English, and I dont know if it makes much difference. Even if it does, whats dead is dead.

I just hate to see the useful distinctions tossed out like a lot of other antiques that are still valuable for their utility.

©2009 Joan L. Cannon for SeniorWomenWeb

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