Friday, May 21, 2010

English vs. the World

Part of my curiosity about language stems from a book that I’m reading called “The Story of English” from the 80’s BBC series of the same name.

In it, it is postulated that English is uniquely capable of expressing such nuances because it is such a polyglot language—sometimes welcomingly and sometimes hesitantly or even actively resisted—developed from multiple sources and languages and is therefore so vocabulary rich that it is (arguably) unrivaled in its ability to say the same thing in multiple ways and as in my previous post, to say something different with the same words.

According to the book, the OED lists 500,000 words and there are almost a million technical and scientific specific words uncatalogued, with new words being developed every day. And this book dates from the 80’s. As science continues to expand the number is probably higher now.

In contrast, the estimates for German are 185,000 words, and for French, 100,000 including borrowings from English. The French have, of course, attempted to keep their language pure, but have been unable to stem the tide. The Japanese gleefully adopt English words (and Engrish words) to the chagrin of Japanese traditionalists. Or, like the Germans create polysyllabic, tongue twistery portmanteau words to cover new situations. You see, I can create the word ‘tongue-twistery’ for my sentence and know that I will not be considered illiterate by my readers. The verbing of nouns, the commonnizing of trade marks (band aid, Kleenex, etc.) are all marks of English. See my post on David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” for more on that trend.

Henry Higgins was perhaps exaggerating when he said in 'My Fair Lady' (words written by the American Alan Jay Lerner):
"The majesty and grandeur of the English language.... It's the greatest possession we have. The noblest thoughts that ever flowed through the hearts of men are contained in its extraordinary,
imaginative and musical mixtures of sounds."

Shakespeare alone created multiple and varied words without regard to convention.
"Shakespeare put the vernacular to work and showed those who came after what could be done with it. He filled the universe with words. Accommodation, assassination, dexterously, dislocate, indistinguishable, obscene, pedant, premeditated, reliance and submerged..."--The Story of English.

This is not my post about the book—I’ll do one when I finish the book, but my question remains. Am I, like Higgins nationalistic and selfishly attached to and proud of English because it is in all senses (though not absolutely) my mother tongue? Having dabbled now in three other languages, but hardly scratched their surface (a note for another day—how many cliché’s are in this piece and how many clichés as shown above come from Shakespeare, still resonating despite their overuse because they are fundamentally true and perfectly metaphoric). I want to know how other languages compare. What are their strengths? Their weaknesses.

In another life I would have liked to have been a linguist or a studier of semiotics like Umberto Eco. Etymology fascinates me.

Well, I have rambled on enough and run-on sentenced enough on this topic for today. I await your answers.

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