The Creative Exploration of Language

Monthly Archives: December 2012


Sound is an interesting word because, despite its relative simplicity, it carries a number of extremely divergent meanings.  As is often the case with English homonyms, this is due to words entering the language from other languages with which it came into contact.  In the case of sound, this would be Norman French and Old Norse.

When considering sound in a modern context, three potential meanings quickly come to mind.  The first, and native English, meaning is to be whole or healthy.  The word is still used in this context relatively often (e.g., in phrases like of sound mind) and in phrases relating to inanimate objects (e.g., determining that a set of stairs is sound.).  As might be expected, there are strong cognates in German (gesund, Gesundheit) and Dutch (gezond, gezondheid).

The second meaning that comes to mind easily is something that is heard.  This meaning came into English via French (son), itself derived from the Latin sonus, which both carry this meaning.  The word morphed in Middle English into soun and from there seems to have been modified further into a more familiar form by adding a ‘d’.  In this case the equivalent terms in German and Dutch (klingen and klink, respectively) do still have a cognate in English, which is clinkClink, however, also seems to have been borrowed from Dutch and refers in English to a specific type of sound and not sound in general.

The third meaning of sound that comes to mind immediately is of a narrow body of water, either between two landmasses or between an island and the mainland.  Two well known examples from the United States are Puget Sound and Long Island Sound.  This meaning comes from the Old Norse word sund, which was used to describe just such a body of water.  The same word also exists in Old English, but seems to be indirectly related, as it holds a meaning related to swimming.  As with the Latin-derived term described above, there seems to have been an effort to make the word conform to comfortable patterns by changing the spelling and pronunciation, in this case by adding a vowel.

English is perhaps uniquely susceptible to these types of overlaps and inconsistencies due to the amount of borrowing that has gone on from other languages over the centuries.  However, the issue has been exacerbated by the fact that, unlike other languages such as French, German and Afrikaans to name a few, there is no board or commission designated to oversee the language and institute rational reform or even consistency within the language.

As a native English speaker, I recall being baffled as a child at English spelling conventions such as pronouncing “laugh” as “laf” and I have always marvelled at the ability of people around the world to learn what to me seems to be a largely non-sensical and capriciously structured language.  Having spent a considerable amount of time studying other languages, I find that it is hugely helpful to have reliable rules and phonetic spelling applied to a language and I believe English could benefit greatly from this.


Dependent is a common word that is generally understood and one that is well established in English, as evidenced by its many uses and variations.  It is most frequently used in one of two ways, either as a noun (e.g., such as when noting how many dependents one has on a form), or as an adjective (e.g., X is dependent on Y).

Dependent comes to us, as do so many words in Modern English, from Latin (dēpendēntem), via French (dépendant) and is made up of two main elements: de- meaning “from” and -pendent referring to something that hangs.  So, dependent means something that hangs off (or “hangs on”) something else.

I know that many view the different registers available in English (Romance vs. Germanic in everyday speech, and Latin in academic and professional situations), as a strength, but I cannot help but see it as a fundamental weakness.

The reason for this is that when we use a word like dependent, very few of us can assign any meaning or context to the word outside of the rote memorization of its definition, since its separate parts mean nothing in and of themselves to the average English speaker.  For this reason, the word lacks depth, much like a cardboard cutout when compared to an actual person.

Contrast this situation with other Germanic languages and the difference is starkly apparent.  In German, Afrikaans, Dutch and Norwegian, the words for dependent are abhängig, afhanklik, afhankelijk and avhengig, respectively.  Based on a review of this list, it is relatively easy to reconstruct likely Modern English cognates, such as offhanger (noun) and offhanging (adjective).  While these words might seem new or even made up to modern ears, they do clearly communicate the idea being expressed in a simple manner.

They achieve this clarity because they are made up of two commonly used and understood English words.  This instant familiarity and understanding imbues the word with a sense of depth, nuance and poetry that is born from the associations the speaker or reader brings to the word parts.

So, should one reconstruct new words based on words commonly used in Modern English?

My answer to this question would be: yes and no.  In many cases, new words don’t have to be created, because there are already extant words from Old English that have the same meaning but have been superseded by Romance or Latin terms.  In other cases, if a word simply did not exist in an older version of English or is not attested, a new term should be constructed based on solid linguistic foundations and research.

In the case of dependent, there is an Old English word, gelang, that was used in adjectival situations, but as the meaning of this term is less clear to a Modern English speaker,  would support the reconstruction noted above that sticks close to the pattern of the other Germanic cognates.

While many would scoff at such efforts, I believe that we as writers and lovers of the English language, and language in general, are fully justified and even obligated to explore the possibilities offered by this process.