July 15, 2012
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Somber is another word I became interested in through Spanish. To clarify, it is not that I had never encountered the word before, but rather that I had never stopped to think about it until I came across its Spanish variant, sombrío.
To go back to its roots, somber derives from a compound Latin term made up of two elements, sub-, meaning ‘under’ and -umbra, meaning ‘shadow’. So, the original meaning has to do with something that is under 0r something which casts a shadow.
In Spanish, both the literal and figurative meanings persist in the word and its variants. For instance, sombra means shadow and a sombrero is literally something that casts a shadow over the face of the wearer, while sombrío conveys the same emotional sense as its English counterpart but has additional power because the connection with shadow is more readily understood. The explicit nature of this dual meaning allows the poetic possibilities of the word to be used to full effect. In English we have to resort to different words altogether when talking about a literal shadow and a somber mood, thereby breaking the implicit connection between the terms and weakening their poetic force wrought by visual and auditory correspondence.
It seems to me that what English vocabulary has gained in variety due to its now thousand-year old shotgun marriage with French has come at a significant cost in terms of its aesthetics and poetic possibilities. The average English speaker does not understand the connection between shadow and somber the way a Spanish speaker would understand the implicit connection between sombra and sombrío. I can’t help but feel that instances such as this represent a misalignment that weakens English as a language. I see it as a tear in the fabric of the language that has been patched over by time but remains, nevertheless, a blemish.
Finally, we should be remembered that language is a living thing and nothing prevents us from rebuilding it and driving it in a direction that is pleasing to us, and all the better if this is done in accordance with history, tradition and the grammatical rules of the language. For instance, the purely English replacement for somber would seem to be ‘enshadowed’ or perhaps ‘enshaded’. Personally, I prefer the first of these.
Some might laugh, but to my ears describing the mood in a room as ‘enshadowed’ or even loading figurative meaning onto the word ‘shadowy’ so that it is not just a physical description has a nice ring to it and is the kind of creative and exploratory endeavor that should be encouraged.