Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Wordly Makehood

I’m going off-plan this week with Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue, a history of the English language for the casual reader. I think I may have read the book before, but it may just remind me of things I’ve read in other books about the English language, including the scholarly history that Bryson cites fairly often. I know I read the chapter on pronunciation at some point  many years ago, because I found some notes in the margin in my handwriting. At one place, Bryson says that the “ar” pronunciation of the spelling “er” that still shows up in several words in England (Berkeley = “Barkley,” clerk = “clark,” Derby = “Darby,” and so on) survives in America only in the word “heart,” with a spelling change from somewhere in history that perhaps hints at the unintuitive pronunciation. But my margin note points out a second “er” word that Americans pronounce with an “ar.”

One fascinating tidbit that I don’t remember seeing before has to do with English speakers’ penchant for synonyms. Our language has often been praised as especially expressive and nuanced because of its many synonyms: “free,” “release,” “loose,” and “liberate” for instance. Bryson says that English is the only language that has a thesaurus or whose speakers have even recognized the need for such a thing. I knew we obtained many of our synonyms from the influence of various invaders of England over the centuries: Angles and Saxons, Danish Vikings, and Normans. What I didn’t know is that the early Angle-Saxon language showed an interest in synonyms before other languages made their contributions. The same Scandinavian people that added hundreds of words to English had virtually no impact on French when they invaded Normandy. A couple centuries later, when the Normans in turn invaded England, again they set their mark on the language of the island by importing thousands of French words. The English just love words so much, they welcome their conquerors by assimilating their language.

In the chapter entitled “Where Words Come From,” Bryson goes over five main processes that result in new words. In addition to adoption, he offers wholesale creation, gradual shift of definition, and error as sources of neologisms. But his fifth mechanism, addition and subtraction, got me thinking. Why is “forgiveness” the only word that combines a verb with the suffix “-ness”? Why indeed? Why is the suffix “-red” so rare when it seems so useful in words like “hatred”? Why do so many nouns from Anglo-Saxon roots have Latinate – and only Latinate – adjectival forms (“mouth” and “oral,” for instance, or “sun” and “solar”)?

So I’ve been thinking of new words I could use to talk about reading. Let’s begin with “bookly.” Why should I say I have a literary blog? First, if we have “night” and “nightly” and “mother” and “motherly,” why not “book” and “bookly”? Second, the blog itself isn’t literary, in the sense of being an expert in or aficionado of books. A bookly blog. I like it.

I searched a long time for new uses of the suffixes “-red” and “-ness.” The first hardly urges its utility when “-fulness” does its job so well. But it sounds so good in “hatred,” maybe because it works so interestingly with the “t” before it. So how about “excitred”? If a book is exciting, what quality does it have? Not excitement; the reader has excitement, not the book. So we need a new word. “The excitred of the book kept me up reading until the wee hours.” To go with it, I suggest “boreness.” Again, although a noun form already exists, “boredom,” that’s not the quality a book has if the book is boring; that’s the quality or the experience of the reader. “Boreness” also doubles the number of words made by adding the suffix “-ness” to a verb. I feel so productive.

A prolix book is lengthy, probably to a fault. But doesn’t “prolix” sound sophisticated enough to suggest that the extra verbiage has an elegance or highfalutin academic air? What if the book uses only the most common words and still has far too many of them. Well then, the book is wordsome. What if the author tries to raise the level of writing by adding more elevated vocabulary and more complex sentence structures? I propose that to do so is to densen the writing. What if the resulting prose is so dense I can’t understand it? If an object that fills me with wonder is wonderful, perhaps we could call such a book puzzleful or wilderful or stumpful.

My post has become stumpful, I fear, and definitely risks a wordsome boreness by this point. But I can’t stop without answering the puzzleful challenge of the first paragraph. The word spelled with an “er” but pronounced in America with an “ar” is “sergeant.”

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