Words and Me

As a writer and a linguist (seven languages) all my life, I have developed an addiction to words, especially in English, the richest language I know.

The origin of modern English is Anglo-Saxon. It began as a group of Anglo-Frisian dialects spoken by the settlers (from what is now Germany) in England in the early Middle Ages. It replaced but was influenced by the Celtic languages that predominated previously. Over the centuries, invaders from Scandinavia and France further altered English as did the influence of the Renaissance which introduced Latin and Greek words that became embedded.

The result is the richest language ever known to man. According to the Oxford English Dictionary web site, “The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1989, 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.” I am heir, in short, to a wealth of words.

Adding to that abundance is my knowledge of languages other than English and the subtleties of meaning and underlying logic inherent in them. Particularly revealing was my study of Asian languages, Vietnamese and Chinese. The whole way of thinking that undergirds those tongues is markedly alien to western languages. They opened my mind to new ways of thinking about words and how to use them.

Of necessity, I learned to think in the languages I was working in. Early on, it became my habit to mentally express the same thought in each of the languages I knew. It became automatic. While I was thinking consciously about something else, a part of my brain was running through how to say the same thing in French, Italian, German, Spanish, Latin, Chinese, and Vietnamese. I became keenly aware of cognates, in German and English, in French, Spanish, and Italian, and in Chinese and Vietnamese. And all of my languages, even Vietnamese, were the origin of words in English.

More tomorrow.

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