Anarcheologos

The Creative Exploration of Language

Dependent

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have to be created, because there are already extant words from Old English that have the same meaning but have been superseded by Romance or Latin terms.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.

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