Wednesday, 4 August 2010

The richest language in the world?

English must be the richest language in the world with so many words which are synonyms or near synonyms. This is because our language has been influenced by both the Teutonic languages of northern Europe and the Latin languages of the south - France in particular. Take the words ‘hungry' and ‘famished'. They mean the same thing, but ‘hungry' has a German base whereas ‘famished' comes from the French.

It must be this very richness that leads to a source of irritation for me, the use of the wrong word. In particular, I cringe when people say ‘raise' when they mean ‘rise' or (more commonly) when they say ‘lay' but mean ‘lie'. It is possible that the use of the verb ‘raise' instead of the noun ‘rise' stems from across the Atlantic. Yes, I know we English blame the Americans for all nasty things, but don't you Americans ask your boss for a raise when you want him to raise your pay? There are two correct ways to phrase the request: to ask the boss to raise one's pay, or to ask the boss for a rise in one's pay. Asking for a raise really grates on me, as does the use of ‘lay' instead of ‘lie'.

(The French have overcome this particular problem by introducing reflexive verbs - something I have actually remembered from school!. A reflexive verb is merely the original verb preceded by the word ‘se'. For example, to lay something down is, in French, ‘coucher' but to lie down is ‘se coucher', literally ‘to lay oneself down'.)

But something that really gets my goat is when the TV news reader announces, 'This report from so-and-so contains graphic images'. I'd love to see the report containing images that are not graphic!

When I get the heeby-jeebies about this I try to remember two things:

  1. I am not perfect. I don't know the difference between ‘may' and ‘might' or ‘shall' and ‘will', so I must not rant and rave at other people who are confused.
  2. Language, as I am sure Shakespeare would have said, is a tool for communication between people. The really important thing is not that we use the correct words, tenses, grammar etc but that we understand each other.
As I said, I am not perfect and I know I break the rules of grammar frequently, usually by starting a sentence with a conjunction.

Coincidentally, today's quote seems quite apposite: 'Devotees of grammatical studies have not been distinguished for any very remarkable felicities of expression.' This is by Amos Bronson Alcott, arguably less well-known than his daughter, Louisa M.

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