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O, for the love of language!

By Staff | May 29, 2009

Yes, I am a nerd a word nerd, to be precise. Having gotten that out of the way, I would like to share my passion for the English language. You see, we speak the single richest language on earth.

Because England was invaded and conquered so many times; because England, herself, conquered so many peoples; and because the United States took over from Germany in the world of science after WWII, English has the largest vocabulary in the world. An exciting tidbit like that doesn’t mean merely a bigger dictionary.

The largest lexicon in the world means limitless breadth and depth to any expression of thought. Human capacity for expression is remarkable; it is a gift. We can express thought and emotion in words, tone, body language, and, of course, through the universal language of music. But verbal language is our primary means of communication, and the study of other languages enriches our understanding of English.

Other languages expand our view of the world because words are wonderful things with layers and layers of meaning. The Russian word for ‘air’ is ‘vozdukh’. The prefix ‘voz’ adds ‘upward’ movement, and ‘dukh’ means ‘spirit’; thus the word conveys a ‘rising of the spirit’. What a marvelous way to think of air!

In our word ‘educate’, we have Romans drawing from Greeks. ‘Educate’ comes from the Latin ‘educare’ meaning literally ‘to lead out’. The Roman leading-out rather than putting-in view of education came from Plato, a Greek who believed that knowledge already existed within the student. For Plato, knowledge was inborn awaiting the teacher’s guidance to draw it out for recollection. ‘Educare’ has another layer of meaning – ‘to rear’ or ‘to bring up’. Again this carries the idea of leading the best out of a child.

In French, we have a new way to look at our word ‘formidable’. To us this word means ‘daunting’, even ‘threatening’. To the French, it means ‘excellent’. In these two words, we might see how great effort can overcome the most intimidating of challenges to produce something magnificent. Now, what was threatening has the potential to inspire.

German’s influence on English is so strong that many words are understood just by looking at them: ‘Freund’ means ‘friend’; ‘Buch’ means ‘book’; ‘Mann’ means ‘man’. In Old English, nouns were declined as they are today in German, and they had three genders as do nouns in modern German.

Germanic influence came to England with the Angles, Jutes, and Saxons a few decades after the Romans left the island. In this period between the fifth and eleventh centuries, Old English took shape and was influenced by Vikings as well.

In 1066, England was invaded by French-speaking Normans, descendants of Vikings who had settled in northern France. French became the language of the ruling class, and English was derided as common and inferior for nearly four centuries. The residue of this snobbery lingers today. Take, for example, the verbs to ‘reek’ and to ‘scent’. ‘Reek’ comes from the German ‘riechen’ while ‘scent’ comes from the French ‘sentir’. Both words in German and French mean ‘to smell’ or ‘to give off a smell’, neither negative nor positive. But ‘reek’ does not mean ‘smell’ in English; it means ‘stink’! That’s because German-origin words with French-origin equivalents took on a negative meaning in this period.

Every word in every language has history, but in English, words have both their English and foreign histories. The origin and evolution of each word’s definition add layers of meaning, leaving us with a language of nuance, depth, and delight. With so many rich words from which to choose, we can express almost anything. While centuries of invasion and later England’s own empire-building are tragic at best, what a gift both conquerors and conquered have left us. From them, we have an infinite palette with which to paint our human canvas.

Skjelver is a Rugby author.

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