Vox Newman

Word Up | May 23, 2012

I’m fascinated by words, maybe beyond fascinated: I like how they look on a ‘page’ and how they form a coherent picture when they combine.  But, more to the point, I love how they take shape in my mind and how they feel, coming out of my mouth (this may have contributed to my need to share my words with everyone).
I guess you could say that is why I write.

Even more than this basic emotional response, I am also driven by a rational deconsruction of the words that I present and those that are presented to me.  Mostly, I favour the efficiency of words, meaning that my preference is to use the smallest most common word that represents the concept I am thinking of.  This began when I turned against the idea that a larger vocabulary suggests more knowledge: to be more precise it was in opposition to those who think that big words and/or words that went unused by the ‘commoners’ show that the person knows what they’re talking about.

Obviously, so far, I’m not being as ‘low-brow’ as I’d like because that’s just the nature of some thoughts: they are sometimes too elaborate for their own good and in this case, ironically so.  But, I’d like to think I’m still using words as efficiently as possible given the circumstances.

Speaking of my love of words, I’m really keen on their origins and uses.  I’m referring here to etymology (partly) and semiotics (less so) in that thinking about how a word came to denote a concept, how that word evolved to denote concepts in comparison to how we use it today and how it conforms to cultural communication is neat to do.  But even cooler is what contributed to that word and how it now affects society.

What I mean by the above, is basically who gave us the word and who’s using it?

Take as an example the English language (for obvious reasons): it’s basically a pidgin language, or frankenstein’s tongue because there’s a plethora of other languages that contributed to the language I am currently writing this in.  First you take Old English, which is practically indeciferable to the modern speaker of English, and then you add Gaelic (Celtic), Latin, French and German.  This alone suggests what happened in England for the last several thousand years: you could take a good guess about its history.

So there you have the pillars (there are many more languages that English borrowed a smaller number of words from) of the language a great deal of humans now use to communicate with one another.  This borrowing of words is one reason it has become a ‘lingua franca’.

And there you go: that word is a perfect example of the concept I want to get to; it’s an Italian-based (Italian being closely evolved from Latin) word and it basically means a language that people who have different mother-tongues use to communicate.  The ‘franca’ part was the Italian word for the French and what those from the Middle East referred to all Western Europeans as Franks (or faranji).  In addition, French itself was one of the most important languages and a paramount lingua franca in diplomacy for several hundred years because France was such a powerful political entity.

What I take from this word is that it is Latin-based, it refers to the French and we use it for these reasons.  France and Rome were sprawling political entities that spread their power and influence far and wide and, therefore, French and Latin became the language used by many non-French and non-Romans.  They became languages where important business was conducted so the word itself suggests a level of importance.

Another example is the word ‘Frank’ and its use in the phrase ‘to speak frankly’.  The Franks were a tribe of German origin who conquered and settled in Gaul (modern France) around the time that the Western Roman Empire collapsed.  The Franks were noted for their plain, honest speech which got right to the point without embellishment.  So, when you are speaking frankly, you are cutting through the bullshit of polite speech and getting to the heart of the matter.

A final example is the word ‘Greek’ and its use in the phrase ‘it’s all greek to me’ which generally gives the feeling that something is so complicated as to be almost indeciferable.  The ancient Greeks (mostly due to the Athenians) are commonly seen as scientists and philosophers and, therefore, many of their words worked their way into Latin and most European languages, especially in those areas.

What I’m working my way towards is how speakers of modern English use and perceive words with these different ethnic origins.

I started thinking about this when I was writing Fey Girl and trying to find a word that decribed a porch on a temple in India.  “It can’t be just porch,”  I thought as I researched it on Wikipedia.  Turns out I was wrong, it is just a porch and as far as I can tell there is no unique word for it.  However, there are several words that all describe the same structure, one of which is the word I ended up using: ‘Verandah’

Here’s why: the origin of that word is Sanskrit (an Indian language that spread into Europe and influenced a lot of tongues), the scene was in India, and I decided that the word added more ‘flavour’ in that context.  What I mean to say is that it would ‘feel’ more like the temple was in India on a subconcious level.

You see, I theorized at this point that we perceive the nature of a word on a subconcious level, at least partly, by its origin.  What I began to think after this was that our perception of the origin was also ‘flavoured’ by how we perceive the history and culture of the peoples who were connected to those original languages.

Here’s how I imagine the main languages that influenced modern English are generally perceived

Latin (with Greek): Philosophical/scientific, technical and flowing.

French (with Latin): Diplomatic and flowery.

German (with Frankish/Saxon/Angle): Gutteral, common and to the point.

I was unsure how to place the Celtic and other languages, but I was focusing on the three above anyway.  Thinking back to verandah vs porch I realized that many things have from zero to hundreds of words to denote them (non-fiction has no word [more on this another time] while penis, breast and vagina have hundreds).  What I thought further, was that of the common things in our lives (which were also common to those three cultures hundreds of years ago) that generally have a handful of words that are used. 

Not that I’ve done much research on this, but my general knowledge leads me to believe that, of those handful, each of the above cultures must have contributed a word that we continue to use.  And this is the neat part: when you use these words, do other people perceive you in a light reminiscent of the general view of the culture it came from?

Or to simplify it: when a politician speaks using mostly Germanic words, is this a factor in us calling them ‘a man/woman of the people’ or someone who shoots from the hip?  When they use mostly Latin, do we think that they are intelligent but an elitist?  Or with French words do we think they are more stately but aloof?

I really think that there might be something to this idea and I’d love to see it studied.

p.s. Given that this post is about how I write, if one were inclined to grade me, please temper that inclination by the fact that I wrote this on my phone while distracted by work and without the help of spell and grammar checking software. Tread lightly grammar Nazis. Haha


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