Sunday, January 15, 2006

Words, words, words

I’m reading John Keay’s ‘India – A History’. In the millennium before the birth of Christ, the Aryan tribes, probably nomads who had entered India through Afghanistan, were expanding from the Punjab area eastwards towards the higher and middle reaches of the Ganges. They took two routes; the Uttarapatha (Northern Route), and the Daksinapatha (Southern Route – from where ‘Deccan’ comes from). And I just wonder – if Sanskrit is the base for all European languages - does our word ‘path’, which has wide meanings from a track through to the choices you make in directing your life, come all the way from this early derivation. And Raj, meaning ‘rule’, is this the basis for ‘regal’ and ‘royal’? I just want to know!

I find language fascinating. I was reading Trollope the other day, and he used ‘sore’ in the American meaning of ‘annoyed’ or ‘angry’ – a form not used in Britain today, where it is used to describe the pain from a grazed leg or a burn. And many American words were used in Dickens and other Victorian writers; the word ‘gotten' is in Dickens and is used in America, but not in Britain, although we still use ‘forgotten’. I think I had a tendency to think that Americans were making these words up – perhaps based on the NASA fetish for long descriptions; ‘solid waste disposal unit’ for ‘toilet’, for example. But in fact they have retained many words in older usages which we in Britain have moved away from.

I have no problem at all with the English language adapting as the world changes; it has ever been thus. English started from a dialect of a small village on the west coast of Holland, adapted and incorporated Latin as the Romans invaded, and French when the Normans invaded. And all this on a base language which presumably included input from the Viking, Norse, and Danish invasions. And from the Raj, words from the Indian sub-continent were incorporated – sofa, cha, pukka etc. So no problems with new words like ‘movie’; it’s a living language which is what makes it work so well (although in Britain, we still tend ‘to go to the pictures’). And it has so many alternative words for similar situations, that you can choose the nuance of what you are trying to say. So we have cows, but eat beef, have pigs but eat pork – not so in French, where you eat the animal itself. It’s probably in adjectives where this shows best – so from different language sources we can use cold or frigid in different situations, with the latter almost automatically having a feeling of describing somebody’s [female: lack of] sexual enthusiasm (and cooler, or cool-box, and fridge, I suppose,).

But I find some changes strangely annoying, and I’m not sure why these particular ones annoy so much. Increasingly, in Britain, we are using ‘train station’ instead of ‘railway station’ – even on the BBC and in The Times. Why does this annoy me – is it because it just sounds a less elegant phrase, or is it that the station is the entry to an entire railway and not just a train, or is it that I grew up with one and resent the other? I don’t know – but it does annoy me.

And the one that really annoys me, is the word ‘alternate’. I used to buy DVD Monthly and they always called alternative endings to DVDs, alternate endings. Now, in Britain alternate means that you have two things, A and B, that you use alternately; A then B then A then B then A etc. Alternative is different; there may be two or more alternatives, and they may all be used as you think fit. But, going back to the magazine, I noticed that when DVDs have alternative endings, they call them alternate endings, and I’ve subsequently noticed that this seems to be the American word for alternatives. But these two are completely different words, and to confuse them just causes… confusion. So that one really annoys.

But the rest don’t. Generally, language is fascinating, and no doubt if I get up another head of steam on this one, I’ll post again. Oh, and schedule is pronounced ‘Shed-yule’ and not ‘Sked-yule’ as a number of Brits and all Americans seem to think (the only thing is, I don’t know how this was pronounced in Victorian times, because Dickens and Trollope didn’t leave sound recordings – so it could have been either of us who changed the pronunciation).


At 4:16 pm, Blogger Suze said...

I totally agree with you, are we becoming a rather lazy nation?

Personally, I am annoyed by the expression "pacific", when they mean "specific".


Post a Comment

<< Home