Monday, January 17, 2011

Except After C

Our civilization is built on words, with which we have in turn built languages. Words and language set humans apart from all other creatures.

English is, I've read and heard many times, one of the most complex of languages and the most difficult for foreigners to learn because it is the most flexible. It has, as do all languages, rules...but these rules tend to have so many exceptions as to be nearly incomprehensible. One, which every child learns in elementary school, is "i before e, except after c, or when sounded as a as in neighbor and weigh." Fine, except when as sounded as i as in height or as e as in weird.

My own life, as a writer, is built on my fascination with words. I was an English major in college, yet am ashamed at how little I know of the rules that govern its construction and usage--verbs and predicate nominatives and dangling participles and conjunctive clauses. On reflection, I sincerely wonder how I ever managed to get a degree in English. Yet I am fascinated nonetheless.

One of the many things I find fascinating is definitive prefixes (if there is such a term) "dis-" and "un-" and "in-" and "non-", each of which, attached to the beginning of a word, indicates the exact opposite of the word to which it is attached. To be disrespectful is to be not respectful; to be dishonest is to be not honest; to be uncommon is to be not common; to be indecent is to be not decent; to be nonsensical is to not make sense. All, again, good solid rules until you come across words like "inflammable," which means exactly the same as "flammable."

And, of course, frequently definitive prefixes are not definitive at all but simply part of a word. There is no "aster" to be negated in "disaster," no "ception" to be reversed in "inception," no "guent" to be denied in "unguent," no "chalant" in "nonchalant."

One of the problems with American English is that it is a hodgepodge of words borrowed from or based in many other languages: French, Latin, German, Spanish. We've borrowed or taken from just about every other language on earth. It's little wonder that we get confused. Words themselves are fluid and their roots are often lost. The word "disease" indicates it means "not ease," which is exactly what it meant in Old French: desaise--lack of ease. However, today the word has taken on a much more serious connotation.

The pronunciation of words also change over time, sometimes to the point where the original meaning of the word itself is lost. A prime example--and one I rush to at every opportunity--is the word "president." To hear the word pronounced "prez-eh-dent" totally obscures it's true meaning: one who presides.

To this day I am constantly confused by whether/when to use "lay" or "lie," "further" or "farther." Commas, colons, and semicolons remain largely a mystery. I am perhaps too fond of em-dashes--, though I often use them when I should be using ellipses..., and vice-versa. I operate on the simple and often wrong principle that my mind knows more than I do and, when confronted with a choice, will come up with the right one.

The rule of thumb that has worked well for me in all my writing is "go with what sounds right." I am deeply indebted to my computer's spell-checker, though I still am frequently driven to distraction by trying to look up a word I do not know how to spell. The thesaurus sometimes helps, but not always. Still, I manage to bumble through with my admiration for words undiminished.

In short, I love language: just don't bother me with the details.

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1 comment:

Janet said...

Details, details, I feel so much better now about my own trips and falls when it comes to proper grammar. Thank you, Dorien.