My Three Addictions

Over the past week or so, I’ve talked at length about one of my addictions, music. I described how my daughter, Susan, helped slake it by buying me the most beautiful piano I had ever played. Now I want to talk about my other two obsessions, languages and writing.

My three compulsions are related: they all incorporate sound as a vital factor. The irony is that my hearing is failing. It was severely damaged by the artillery shelling during the fall of Saigon, and the older I get, the more it declines. I use hearing aids, without much success, but I always remove them when I’m listening to music or playing the piano because they distort the sound by increasing the volume of the higher frequencies where my hearing is most deficient. They make music sound tinny or screechy. I want it to sound balanced.

How and why sound is an essential ingredient in writing I’ll address when I get to it. But let me start today with my preoccupation with languages.

My favorite language is English because it is far and away the richest language I know of. According to the Dictionary web site, “The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries. Over half of these words are nouns, about a quarter adjectives, and about a seventh verbs; the rest is made up of exclamations, conjunctions, prepositions, suffixes, etc. And these figures don’t take account of entries with senses for different word classes (such as noun and adjective).

“This suggests that there are, at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words, excluding inflections, and words from technical and regional vocabulary not covered by the OED, or words not yet added to the published dictionary, of which perhaps 20 per cent are no longer in current use. If distinct senses were counted, the total would probably approach three quarters of a million.”

Number of words is only one aspect of the richness of the English language. Suffice it to say that syntax, grammar, and shades of meaning, among many other linguistic features, make English a magnificent tool for writers.

More tomorrow.

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