The Creative Exploration of Language

Monthly Archives: January 2015

The Trouble with English

Sometimes when I am reading a non-English text, it occurs to me just how nonsensical my native language is.  I don’t say this because of the many irregularities in the way English words are spelled and conjugated.  While I do find these issues annoying, they can be mastered through repetition.  What frustrates me about English is the broken connection between the elements of many words and their root meanings.

Due to the heavy influx of non-native words into English over the course of its history, a large percentage of our vocabulary now does not give a hint 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?  You would have to know Latin in order to answer without resorting to a dictionary.

This type of question is not one that native speakers of, for example, German would need to ask themselves with frequency.  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 on their own or implied via sound symbolism: über- means “over” and –raschung is part of a complex of words beginning with rasch– or ras– that all imply something like a “intense movement resulting in 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”
  • der Rasenmäher– “lawnmower”

This connection between the r-sch/s sound pattern and intense movement holds 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”

If I translated die Überraschung into English literally, I would get something like “the overrusshing.”  There is an echo of this in the colloquial expression “to be bowled over.”

It is not my contention that the average German speaker consciously thinks of the concepts “over” and “rushing” being combined when they hear die Überraschung, but I do believe that there is a subconscious effect.  What I mean is that the connotation of an intense movement resulting in disturbance becomes imprinted on the mind of German speakers such that when they hear the r-sch/s pattern, 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.  

To give another example, the English word secret is derived from the Latin secretus, meaning “hidden,” and is relatively isolated in the English dictionary (meaning there aren’t a lot of other words around it based on the same formulation).  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 the Latin word secern, which means something like “to sift apart” or “to separate.”

The German word for secret is das Geheimnis, which clearly contains the word –heim, meaning “home.”  In German, therefore, a secret is something that has the sense of being kept within the home, not exposed to the outside world.  There is a poetry to that image that I find striking and which is simply missing from English.  A secret is just a secret; an orphan.

Here lies the trouble with the English, in my opinion.  Due to the large number of borrowed words, it gives the impression that words are simply arbitrary placeholders assigned to various objects in the world at random.  While it is obvious that much beautiful literature has been created in English, this is a dull, prosaic view of language.  A language is a living thing and develops organically over time, with clear connections to its forebears and related branches of its family tree.  Words mean things and are not assigned randomly; in fact they are not really assigned at all.  They develop organically, through usage and consensus, which creates a level of meaning, a well of subtle poetry.