Over the last few weeks, my wife and I and our friends the Fixes have been watching a course on the English language from the Teaching Company. I highly recommend this DVD series. The professor, Anne Curzan of the University of Michigan, explains her interesting material in a clear and entertaining manner, and we all look forward to the chance to watch the next couple of lessons. So far we’ve heard about prescriptive and descriptive rules, the history of dictionaries, how meanings change over time, word borrowings, the creation of new words, who decides what is and isn’t a word, and problems of pronunciation. Did you know that our era of American history is witness to the Northern Cities Vowel Shift?
Part of the fascination of this subject comes from its seeming familiarity. Anyone reading this blog post uses English every day, probably without having to think about it much. But then you learn that the word clue originally meant a ball of yarn, or that we tend to pronounce a ‘p’ before the last letter of dreamt, and you start to wonder how well you know the language after all. One mark of knowledge of a language is the number of words one knows. But it turns out that even something as conceptually simple as counting becomes quite tricky in practice. Do run and runs count as two words? How about ran? Running? Runny? Does the person who knows the meanings of run, down, and run-down know two words or three? But even if I can’t put a definitive number on the size of my vocabulary, one thing I know, thanks to Prof. Curzan, is that my active vocabulary is smaller than my passive vocabulary. In other words, I recognize and understand a lot more words than I use.
I ended up disappointed in The Mayor of Casterbridge, mostly because I couldn’t find anyone to root for. The narrative makes no judgments on actions, so what I would call right actions appear just as much the product of momentary whimsy as the evil or unwise actions. People fall in love, redirect their affections, become widowed, remarry, sell their spouses, run away from spouses, and let spouses think they’re dead with little drama. Sometimes these events occur with hardly a mention. In the middle of the book, Elizabeth-Jane falls for Daniel and suffers disappointment when, after giving her some promising attention, he marries Lucetta instead. But Lucetta dies, and a few pages later, Daniel and Elizabeth-Jane are friends again. Another quick time shift to a year later, and they’re married. No discussion, no apologies, no doubts about Daniel’s commitment.
But Hardy’s language has a rich poetic texture, and I reveled in the vocabulary as I finished MoC. Determined now to transfer some of my passive vocabulary into my active vocabulary, I paid special attention to words that I knew but had perhaps never used myself: words like maelstrom, abjure, and discomfiture. The next time I have anything to say about something related to Canada, I’m going to call it hyperborean. Rather than calling a circumstance promising, I’ll try next time to refer to it as propitious. Developing new vocabulary, though, isn’t just a matter of using unusual synonyms; some words stand for complex situations that I might not mention (or even notice!) without knowledge of the word. For instance, an invidious plan or statement or policy or action isn’t just really bad. It provokes displeasure, disapproval, or envy in others. Other candidates for my active vocabulary include inveterate, engender, dissipate, disquietude, and fillip. Okay, I didn’t know the last one at all, so it’s shooting straight to the majors without any time in the passive-vocabulary league. Watching the course was just the fillip I needed.
I can’t close this post on vocabulary from The Mayor of Casterbridge without pointing out two special words appearing closely together within one paragraph in chapter 20. At this point in the story, Elizabeth-Jane has a vocabulary project of her own: to quit using rural words in order to sound more educated. So she purposes to stop saying dumbledore for bumblebee and to say she has suffered from indigestion rather than that she was hag-rid. Now we know where J. K. Rowling got some of her vocabulary!