Wednesday, 24 September 2014

The richness of English

I think it was probably in 1966 that, greatly daring, the Old Bat - who was still the Young Bat in those days - and I booked a holiday in Austria.  Apart from a school trip to Switzerland (me) and an exchange with a German student (her) neither of us had ever set foot outside England let alone great Britain!  As an indication of how different things were back then, the whole package - travel and full board - cost a whole 20 guineas (or it might have been 21).

Perhaps I had better explain for the youngsters, a guinea was one pound and one shilling, equivalent today to £1.05.  It was really a posh way of dealing with money and was used in the fees of solicitors, doctors and banks.  In those days I was a young bank clerk and every six months the manager of the branch would look at each account and say things like, "Three guineas" or "Four and a half guineas".  The idea, I think, was not only to appear posh but also to squeeze an extra 5% out of people!  The term "guinea" has pretty well fallen out of use now - except the horse racing world where there are still races called the 1,000 Guineas Stakes and the 2,000 Guineas Stakes.

But to get back to Austria.  Our holiday was in the early days of package holidays and our package included a coach from London to Southend Airport, a flight across the North See to Ostend in Belgium (the first flight for both of us) and then an overnight coach journey to the village in the Austrian Tyrol not all that far from Innsbruck.  It was here that we came into contact with what we later learned were called "continental quilts".  Fortunately, in the fullness of time, that phrase was superseded by the French word, "duvet".

All this flashed through my mind during the few seconds it took (ha!) to change the duvet cover this morning.  It led, in that way that one thing so often leads to another, to me remembering a couple of letters that had been published in my daily newspaper not too long ago.  (It can't have been very long or I would have forgotten both of them.)  The first was continuing earlier correspondence putting the case for Latin to be studied, the writer pointing out the richness of that dead language which had, he said, 15 synonyms for the word "famous".  The second correspondent listed the English synonyms for the same word, all 21 of them.

English is a rich language, some claim the richest in the world.  I suppose this is partly because there have been so many other languages used in this country, albeit centuries ago: the Angles, Saxons, Danes, Jutes and Vikings all pushed into the extremities of Cornwall and Wales the earlier Celtic people.  Each invading tribe brought its own language, parts of which were absorbed into the lingua franca, which was itself superseded by French after the Norman invasion.  Consequently, we often find two words that mean exactly the same thing, one with a Teutonic or even Norse origin, the other of Latin origin via French.  But is also means that we have a whole dictionary of words of similar meanings, the differences often being slight nuances.  Of course, the difference between the end words can be considerable.  For example, there are numerous synonyms for the verb "to like", far too many for me to list here.

And this is where I switch to grumpy old git mode and moan about people who, perhaps not exactly misuse their language, but mangle it.  people who say, for instance, "I need a new pair of shoes", when what they really mean is, "I would like a new pair of shoes".  Or, "I hate broccoli"when they simply dislike the vegetable.

Our language is so full, so rich, that it is (almost) a tragedy that it is not used better.

3 comments:

Sarah said...

I can honestly say I hate celery, it's far more than a dislike - I can't bear the look, smell or taste of it. I can't eat a meal that contains it even if it's cooked, even if it's removed! I still know it's been there.

I do have a love for the English language though and struggle at times with it's misuse and the under use of so many beautiful words. Every now and then I try to use words that have gone out of fashion for whatever reason.

Today's word is: Mellifluous: sweet sounding, dulcet, soothing, euphonious.

(not necessarily your) Uncle Skip, said...

I love that we have the word "euphemism" for when we don't want to use one of those other words which so aptly describe whatever it is we are talking about.

...and just think.
We Americans have managed to even improve (HSWHTPFIHC) the language.

Brighton Pensioner said...

Sarah, you have just described my voice - according to an American lady I once sat next to at dinner across the pond. She said she could listen to it for ever!

And Skip, I plead whatever it is I need to plead NOT to respond to your second para. "To even improve" indeed!! Ha, whatever next?