The Creative Exploration of Language

Monthly Archives: January 2015

The Trouble with English


Occasionally, when I am struggling through a non-English text, it occurs to me just how nonsensical my native language truly is.  I don’t mean it, however, in the way that this comment is usually made, in relation to the many irregularities in the way English words are spelled and conjugated.  While I do find these issues annoying, they can be mastered through simple repetition.  What truly frustrates me about English is the chaotic relationship between sound and meaning.

Due to the heavy influx of non-native words into English over the course of its history, a large percentage of our vocabulary has been standardized in a way that does not give a hint, either explicitly or implicitly, of its deeper meaning.  For instance, what does the words surprise mean?  This is a common word and most people would not be at a loss for an answer to my question.  But what if I persisted on going one level deeper by pointing out that surprise is made up of two distinct parts, sur– and –prise.  What do those parts mean?  This question is not easily answered by anyone who lacks a strong knowledge of Latin.

These are questions that native speakers of German would generally not need to ask themselves.  In German, the word for surprise (in noun form) is die Überraschung.  This word also breaks down into two parts, über– and –raschung.  However, to a German speaker, the individual parts of the word have meanings that are understandable or at least potentially so: über means “over” and raschung is part of a complex of words beginning with rasch– or ras– that all imply something like a “quick, intense disturbance”.  Other such words are:

  • rasch- “quick”
  • rascheln- “to rustle”
  • rasen– “to rave” or “to rage”
  • rasend– “terrific” (in the sense of “intense”, e.g., a terrific thirst)
  • der Rasende– “maniac”
  • die Raserei– “fury”

This connection appears to hold even when the first vowel is altered to the au diphthong, as evidenced by the words below:

  • der Rausche– “intoxication”
  • rauschen– “to roar” (if water), “to rustle” (if woods), “to hiss” (radio)
  • das Rauschgift– “intoxicating drug”
  • rausfliegen– “to be chucked out”
  • räusspern– “to clear one’s throat”
  • rausschmeißen- “to chuck out”
  • der Rausschmeißer- “bouncer”

It is not my contention that the average German speaker consciously considers these other words or concepts when hearing or using die Überraschung, but I do believe that there is a subconscious effect.  What I mean here is that the connotations of quickness and intense disturbance become imprinted on the mind of German speakers such that when they hear the particular combination of sounds that are present in a word like die Überraschung, a subtle impression of the sense carried by the entire complex of words is brought to mind.  It doesn’t seem to me that surprise can generate the same web of related images and impressions for an English speaker.  This is because the word has only an explicit meaning, at least to non-Latin speakers, which is nearly everyone.

To give an even more direct example, the English word secret is derived from the Latin secretus, meaning “hidden”, and is nearly isolate in the English dictionary.  The only similar word that comes to mind is secrete, which has a very different meaning from secret, though both ultimately find their source in secern, which means something like “to sift apart”.  I might render this in modern terms as “to compartmentalize”.

The German word for secret is das Geheimnis, which clearly contains the word das Heim, meaning “home”.  In German, therefore, a secret is something which is kept within, or not talked about outside of, the home.  The connection between these two words is clear and direct in a way that simply doesn’t exist for an English speaker encountering the word secret.  This isn’t to say that English words derived from a foreign source cannot generate a complex of related meanings, but rather that when it is able to do so it begins from a point of limitation (because there are fewer words that share its sound pattern) and confusion (because the constituent parts of the word are not clearly understandable), which limits its possibilities in this regard.

This distinction between the explicit and implicit meanings of words reminds me of Alfred Korzybski’s well-known formulation “the map is not the territory”, which was also much discussed by Robert Anton Wilson.  Through this lens, the explicit meaning of a word is the map, which is a utilitarian tool for gaining information on a subject, but nothing more.  The implicit meaning of a word would then be equivalent to the territory, the relatively boundless space that is represented by the map.

What I like bout the map-territory metaphor is that it makes clear that the difference between the two is experience.  For example, looking at a map of Sweden can give you certain information the country, but actually being there and hearing the sounds, smelling the smells and seeing the architecture and the life of the people allows you to feel Sweden, and, I would argue, to begin to understand it.

Here lies the trouble with the English language, in my opinion.  Due to its varied etymology, its system of implicit meaning is discordant and largely broken because it lacks consistent connections between sound and meaning.  This has a detrimental effect on the experience one has when using the language, as one is not able to access the web of connections that would be provided by a more consistent etymology.

What do you think?  Do you agree?  What other languages do you know and how are sound and meaning correlated in that language?

Please let me know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading,

S.R. Hardy