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Playing with Words

or

The Real Fun of Language

David Bond

(undergoing revision of layout)

Contents

1 Learning a language does not have to be a Victorian parlour game

Two games to be recommended - No word ever means the same as another

kiss and baiser

 

explore the differences

a word to sum up your country

wheesky to make you smile

the world of meaning table has for an Italian

television: used in different ways in different languages

"What's on television?" and "What's on the television?"

languages are expressions of culture and history

do not ignore so-called old-fashioned words

Chrisoula's steed

a new language is a new window on the world

English for special purposes

learning jargon in another language is understanding difference

learning a language is an act of love

declining memory alone cannot explain different experiences in learning different languages

being born again into a language

not loving a place and so not learning its language well

the necessity to embrace both language and culture

the need for both intellectual and emotional commitment

the limitations of dictionaries

ways of minimising the limitations; but dictionaries are inexact and often misleading

monolingual dictionaries preferable

the misguided practice of making vocabulary lists

the illusion of using dictionaries to establish more exact meanings

the importance of using dictionaries in the right way

don't open the dictionary before you have tried to mime the 'unknown' word

learning what the Greek "skeparni" is by using it, not by looking it up in the dictionary!

escaping from the world of equivalents into the certain world linking words to realities

constantly rehearse words, phrases, sentences, passages, learn them by heart

practise thus the rhythm and natural flow of a language

savour a word in its context before you open that dictionary

you finally open the dictionary not to achieve exactness but to judge the dictionary

frequent failure of dictionaries to provide adequate translations for words in their common contexts

acharnement

la raison sociale

a dictionary can be  right and wrong at the same time

frimousse

the pleasure of hunting for the origin and history of words

bezpecne

words that may mean more to one in a foreign languagge than they do in one's own

awareness of difference, emotional commitment, passions of the chase = the fun of language-learning

ser & estar

Greek laokratia and democracy

words as fathers to new thoughts

 

 

I am not the most gamesome person in the world. I am more the lean and hungry type that tosses and turns in my bed of a night. If anything led me to retire myself as a language-teacher, it was the seemingly irresistible spread of the belief, amongst those who taught languages, that learning to be fun had to involve an almost incessant playing of games. I'm all for learning being fun - who is not - but I have never really believed that this necessitated turning the classroom into a twenty-first century version of the Victorian parlour and I have never been very convinced of the efficacy of this approach. Nevertheless, to show that I am no grouch, I should like to recommend a game or two to all students of language.

The first game would most usefully be played amongst students of different nationalities. The students would compile together a list of words in English or in whatever language they were learning and then each make separate lists of what they felt were the equivalent words in their own languages. The game is then to explore word by word all the differences in meaning, tone, usage, etymology and history that the various words display. Well, all right, it's not exactly the most fun, fun, fun game that was ever invented (I did warn you that I wasn't gamesome) but its results can be fascinating. The point of the game is to make clear one of the most crucial truths about language. No word ever means the same as another; there is no such thing as a synonym. No two words in one language mean the same and no word in one language is ever an exact translation of another. These are truisms but how often they are forgotten! Yet the implications for every aspect of language-learning are vast and need constantly to be kept in mind.

Let me play the game, for a moment, as a form of patience. I don't suppose anybody is going to want to play it with me anyway. Take the English word kiss and the French equivalent baiser. I know I have chosen a notorious example (as of course will many students) but it makes the point none the less. For at least two centuries now, the French word baiser (literally to kiss) has had, as a verb, a quite different signification involving a more intimate stage of physical intimacy. Say "embrasser", more decent, as Flaubert put it, some time last century, in his Dictionnaire des idées reçues. But how can embrasser mean the same as kiss. Look at the etymology of the word, which contains the element bras (meaning arm) and clearly related to the English word embrace, developed of course from the French. So embrasser means both kiss and embrace according to context. Baiser is still used as a substantive, to mean kiss or in compounds like baise-main (which is untranslatable in English except by a circumlocution. And so one goes on. This has only brought us to the threshold of the most interesting questions. Do the French and English kiss in the same circumstances and in the same manner? Does a kiss have the same cultural signification? One could have literally hours of fun savouring the distinctions in depth.

Baiser and kiss are, I admit, a bit of a cheat. Take the word table. This is surely unambiguous. A table is a table is a table in anybody's language and in any language. Mensa, mensa, mensam and all that. Now I do remember once playing a game (perhaps I am more gamesome than I care to admit) which involved each person (and we were all different nationalities) thinking of one word that for them summed up their own country or their own culture when they were far from home. It was intended to represent the thing, if you like, that each person most looked forward to on their return. I - I am a little ashamed to say - came up with privacy which is true enough but a bit anally retentive. My Italian friend, Saverio, had no doubts. His word, pronounced with dramatic emphasis and not the slightest hesitation, was table.

Another anecdote. A Venezuelan friend of mine was a great taker of photographs. Two or three gathered together and, snap, it was watch the birdie! To encourage his subjects to smile, however, Jesús (for such was the gentleman's name) used to ask them, in English, to say whisky, which in his own pronunciation, wheesky, had the desired effect of stretching the lips into a suitable rictus. I always used to be much amused - not gamesome? I am a veritable wag - by the thought of the glum photographs that would result if groups of English people stood around saying "whisky".

I felt rather the same about Saverio's table. The thought of an Englishman, or even an Englishwoman, far from home, murmuring "table" to him or herself in a tone of wistful longing in the small wee hours of the morning was totally ludicrous. Yet I knew exactly what Saverio meant and the mot, for him, was as juste as a mot can be. Table has implications for an Italian, and in Italian, that it does not have for the English or in English. It speaks of aspects of family life and of good fellowship, of mealtimes both as rituals and as celebrations, of a whole world of food-preparation and kitchen conversation and of all sorts of other things that only an Italian could justly describe. The word for Saverio conjured up a whole universe beyond the simple four-legged piece of furniture and beyond, for that matter, mere plaisirs de bouche.

Modern words it is common to suppose are more readily interchanged between languages. They belong, particularly those related to science and technology, business or politics, to a sort of internationalese. Take the word television. We use the noun in English in different ways. It describes the physical equipment ("Put it on top of the television"); it describes the technology ("Television has changed our lives"); it can refer to the programming ("English television is the best in the world") and it can have a meaning, hard to describe, that is all, or some, of the foregoing at the same time ("What's on television?"). In other languages, the seemingly identical or near-identical word may be used in some of these ways but not in others. Or it may be used in all of these ways but not as frequently or consistently. For instance the word émission in French (roughly equivalent to the English word programme) is used more widely than its English equivalent and will often overlap with the sense, or one of the senses, of the English television. The word poste is used in French to refer to the physical equipment more often than is the English word set. The English word set, unlike the French word poste, is rarely used on its own of the television but nearly always in the compound television-set, which, in its turn, has rather an old-fashioned sound to it. What is more we never use the word set, as the French do the word poste, to refer to a telephone (which we always call the telephone) or a computer set-up (for which we have the word workstation but only in a business context). On the subject of telephones, there is also the French word appareil......

The game, as you see, can be almost endless fun. I haven't even touched here on questions of grammatical usage - the prepositions or articles that are (or are not) used with the word. Here again the English word television is a priceless specimen. "What's on television?" and "What's on the television?" can mean entirely different things, but in some contexts they appear to mean the same thing. But do they? Something is going on in our minds when we sneak that extra little word in (or choose to leave it out) although it would be difficult to say what.

Before the reader concludes that I am entirely and irremediably frivolous, let me try and extrapolate what seem to me to be serious implications of all this. Clearly language, a language (and the words and expressions of which it is composed) are expressions of culture and history. Teachers who invite their students to ignore certain words or certain uses of a word on the grounds that they are old-fashioned of never used nowadays are guilty of serious error. I remember once doing precisely this with comical results. The word steed had come up in some piece of English that a class was looking at and I simply dismissed it in those or similar terms. One of my students in the class was, as it happened, also my girlfriend at the time. Chrisoula (for that was her name) was the proud owner of an extremely battered but solid old bicycle. In the week that followed the class where the word steed had reared its noble head, a dozen or so people on different occasions must have referred to that wretched antique as her "trusty steed". I lost the girl, sad to say, shortly afterwards but the salutary lesson has remained with me. Whenever I am inclined to dismiss a word or phrase as archaic, I just murmur to myself "Chrisoulas bicycle".

 

In one way the difference between languages and the difference between words, precisely because it reflects that difference between cultures and histories, is extremely good news and, without wishing to sound too much like Billy Graham, it is that good news that one often needs to emphasise to the language-learner. A language, I used to tell students in my more pompous moments, is a window on the world. And when you learn a new language, you are able to see the world through different eyes. Every language learned is a new window on the world. Pompous but true and, unless students of language are able to appreciate it, they miss out on what, to me, is the real fun of learning a language.

When English for special purposes (if that is the name by which it is still known) became a popular vogue at some point in the 1970s I was sceptical. It may be a sort of snobbery but I find something distasteful in the notion of learning a language merely so as to be able to converse in an appropriate jargon with business colleagues or competitors or whatever. At the same time, I understand entirely why there is a demand and I quite appreciate that that demand must, in some way or another, be supplied. If I were teaching business English, I would be inclined to spend a lot of time emphasising the way that even learning jargon in another tongue should be seen, not as a process of translating but precisely as a process of understanding difference. Just as languages as a whole reflect different cultures so the different languages of business reflect different business cultures and practices. In business, as in any other area of life, a language can provide a new window, a different perspective. The business-person learning a language can, as it were, benchmark language-use in the language learned (compare, contrast and evaluate best practice) just as he or she would benchmark other aspects of another's or another nation's business.

At the risk of sounding even more like Billy Graham, I would assert that learning a language is an act of love. Some may sneer at such a formulation but I am as certain of it as I am that I live and breathe. I wish sometimes language-teachers and language-schools would be more honest with students and, when they know that students will not benefit from their attentions, or will benefit so little as makes no difference, that they would simply tell them so. For there are such students and anyone who has spent any length of time teaching languages knows it. It is not that they are incapable, physically or mentally, of learning the language (whatever language is in question), for no one is that. Nor is it a question of age. Although the phenomenon is, I think, inconceivable in children, I have encountered it in relatively young adults. The students in question are, in my view, the victims of a species of phobia. Without going into it further here, I would only add that it is almost invariably accompanied - whether consciously or unconsciously - by a dislike, bordering on aversion, for the language concerned.

At different times in my life I have spent roughly equivalent periods of time in two parts of the world - both European countries as it happens - where I have, naturally enough, assayed to learn the language. The difference in the result on the two occasions could hardly have been greater. Different languages can be more difficult relative to the particular learner, but the two were, on balance, pretty equivalent from my point of view. I was certainly older on the second occasion (twenty years of difference) and I do not deny that this is a factor. The principal problem as regards language-learning as one gets older is one's memory which unquestionably deteriorates That difference alone, however, is insufficient to explain the extent of the difference between the two experiences and I have, since that time - I am only in my forties - continued to learn, or improve, languages without too inordinate an effort.

On both occasions I had found myself in the countries in question for somewhat eccentric reasons and, to some extent, under adverse circumstances. It was love - plain, ordinary, common-or-garden love for a woman - that had taken me to country A, a love that was sadly doomed, from the moment I arrived there, to disappointment. I stayed on with dogged determination, desperately short of money at first and doing all sorts of odd jobs to earn a living, and I learned the language. I learned it, for the time I was there, pretty well. My relationship with the country might reasonably be described as love-hate, perhaps partly - who knows - on account of my disappointment in the girl, yet love (in both cases) was certainly present in the business.

As a result - and here again we return to the notion of a language as a window on the world and of each new language as another window through which one sees the world - the experience of being in the country marked me for life. Strange to say, since I used my second name while there, I was almost literally born again into the language. More mundanely, I was prepared for it to become part of me and therefore it has affected (quite profoundly) the way I talk, the way I eat, the way I think; in short, it has added a dimension to me as a person. I have been back to the country in question a couple of times since - but not now for over twenty years - and I still speak the language with reasonable facility. In some ways I speak it with more ease than I do other languages of which I have a far greater passive knowledge and in which I have a far greater vocabulary.

In the case of country B, I was on the run - both to get away from England and to get away from a disagreeable personal situation. My life there was, in material terms, easier than it had been in country A, since I had a job and somewhere to live. Nevertheless I remained - for the whole period of my stay there - in a state of some bewilderment. Why was I there? Although, as I have said, I had negative reasons, I could not, for the life of me, muster a single positive one. This, I hasten to add, was not the fault of the country itself in any way; it was I who had the problem.

Nor would it be true to say that the country had no interest for me. Intellectual curiosity was still alive, though all passion was dead. And my stay there was not without its menus plaisirs, come to that. Country B boasted excellent beer, extremely pretty young women and a native variant of billiards that - ungamesome though I am - I miss to this day. Yet, for all this, in the state of mind I was in, I could not love the place and, as a result, learning the language was a hopeless uphill struggle. Despite a sincere effort - less impassioned certainly than had been the case in country A but no less genuine - I got next to nowhere with it and, most curiously of all, having left the place, within months if not weeks, I had forgotten what little I had ever known.

The point I am trying to make here is a practical one. A just apprehension of the cultural significance of a language, and an active willingness to embrace both language and culture, is not a luxury for the language-learner but a necessity. What I have had the temerity to call love (and feel free, by all means, to find a more bloodless, scientific term if that is more to your taste) is truly at the heart of the matter. Learning a language does not require an anabaptist ritual or a till-death-do-us-part plighting of troth but, for adults, who, unlike children, measure their affections (and not always over-generously), there is a question of conscious choice involved. The adult language-learner has to want to learn a language and this simple fact is more often respected in theory than its is in practice. It involves both intellectual and emotional commitment. Nobody can pour a language into somebody else's brain via some sort of funnel attached to the top of their head and every time a student is given the impression that language-learning is simply a matter of hard work and technique, practice and parlour-games, he or she is being grievously misled.

 

Finally let me turn from a broad perspective on language-learning to a matter that is of a most downright, practical nature - that of dictionaries and their use. You will recall that the starting-point of this entire discussion was a very simple observation that no single word ever means the same as another. In an absolute sense, of course, this condemns dictionaries from the outset since, in a sense, the whole raison d'être of lexicography would seem to be based on an entirely opposite contention. Lexicographers, I warrant, are by and large an honest bunch of rogues and would be the first to admit the limitations of their science.

There are, what is more, several devices by which they very properly seek to minimise, or circumvent, those limitations. First of all, they provide several alternative definitions for each word defined, thus hoping to cover, one way or another, a large degree of its meaning. Then, in a good dictionary, they provide examples of a word's usage that further helps to define it. In an ideal world, the dictionary is also conducted on what the OED calls historical principles and will therefore give the etymology and history of the word as best it can. Despite these efforts, a dictionary, whether monolingual, bilingual or multilingual, must always, by definition indeed, be an inexact and often misleading work of reference. Perhaps what is really needed is something more in the nature of an encyclopaedia of language that devotes whole essays to the words it catalogues, carefully explaining their history and origin and discussing the nuances of meaning they express. In this sense, lexicography has to some extent gone backwards since the days of Samuel Johnson, who was unafraid to express himself at length upon the words he defines. One might, for the same reason, prefer the chattier style of Larousse to the more scientific manner of the OED.

For the learner of a foreign language, a monolingual dictionary (such as The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary) is doubtless preferable. It avoids the necessity (always dangerous) of having to think of one language in terms of another. As a teacher, I inveighed more frequently than I care to remember against the iniquitous practice, now rarely employed by the pedagogues but still often dear to the student, of compiling vocabulary lists that linked a column of words in the language to be learned with a corresponding column of words in the student's native language. This practice is always disastrous and leads to what I call the blank half of the page syndrome.

This occurs when students search their minds for a word (or phrase) in the language they are learning. They are certain the word or phrase is one they have encountered and that it exactly fits the required context. They positively remember having carefully entered the word (or phrase) in their notebook. They scan their memory and they picture the notebook. They can see in their minds eye the very page on which the word (or phrase) appears. Unfortunately as they picture it, they realise with dismay that all they see is one column of words - the words (or phrases), as they wrote them, in their own language. The half of the page which should have contained the equivalent column of words in the language to be learnt, which did indeed contain them and which, on paper, still does, is completely blank.

The reason for this is childishly simple. The brain is naturally indolent, where indolence is effectively a synonym for efficiency. If one tells ones brain, as the students in question compiling their lists of equivalents have done, that this or that word (or phrase) in one language (already well-known) means the same as this or that word (or phrase) in another (to be learnt), the brain quite properly takes the shortest route and retains (expending the least resource) the familiar words and phrases. The equivalents, redundant if identical in sense, are simply blanked out.

Like most givers of good advice, I am not necessarily good as following my own. In practice, I frequently make use of a bilingual dictionary when learning a language, from a combination of laziness, convenience and curiosity. The element of curiosity is, psychologically speaking, of enormous weight. I cannot count the times that students, put on the defensive by some sally of mine, have pleaded that they just wanted to make it more exact. Arrant nonsense! A dictionary never yet made anything more exact. As we have seen, it is not in the nature of a dictionary to do so. What the students have succumbed to (and I succumb along with them more than a little) is simple, vulgar curiosity.

Simple? Vulgar? Well, not entirely. What, I wonder, does the dictionary say the word means, might well express the thought. And it is not such a bad thought at that. We should be careful always of denigrating or of thoughtlessly repressing such instinctive reactions. Much can indeed be learned by the language-minded student from a bilingual dictionary, from seeing, that is to say, the equivalents given for a word in his or her own language. What matters most in dictionary-use - and here is the real nub of the matter - is not so much what dictionary one uses but how one uses it.

The English expression "look up a word" is an excellent one, with its implications of consultation (as one might consult a doctor or an encyclopaedia) and is, as far as I know, unique. Most languages tend (at least in their most normal usage) to refer merely to looking for words. At the opposite extreme, in Greek, the expression most commonly used is to "open" the dictionary, a curious metonymy that sees this seemingly trivial part of the process as being the essential one. There is, however, in the Greek expression, an important seed of truth that can usefully complement that expressed by the more thorough-going English one.

Consider for a moment the possibility that, when using a dictionary, the most crucial moment is indeed that at which you first decide to open it. Here I can recommend a number of useful games - how frolicsome I have now become - that the language-learner (and language-teacher) might care to try. The cardinal rule is never to rush to open a dictionary upon encountering a word you do not, or think you do not, know. To do this is simply to insult your own intelligence. Instead (and it works surprisingly often and is almost always like a small miracle when it does) try to mime to yourself the meaning of the word or phrase encountered. Sometimes (although in practice more rarely than you might suppose) this will be impossible, often it will be tricky (no pain, no gain) but it will invariably be instructive.

Another anecdote. At one time in my life I had the dubious honour of working on building-sites on the island of Crete. A tough job for a lad (for I was then a lad) not built for that kind of thing in a country where, in those days at least, there were precious few labour-saving devices to help out, but, fortified each morning by a breakfast of raki and tripe soup, I made a fist of it. Every day on the building-sites, I used a tool that in Greek is known as a σκεπαρνι (skeparni). Naturally I knew what a skeparni was. I had frequently held one in my hands and made use of it for all the various uses this excellent and versatile tool is good for. Yet human nature being human nature, I could not resist the temptation to have a glance in my English-Greek dictionary. Perhaps, in those days, I even told myself it was to make it more exact.

Let me describe a skeparni to you. It is in most respects a relatively lightweight hammer. At the non-striker's end, however, it has a flat solid tail (where a claw-hammer has its claw) which can be used for levering and extracting nails and so forth. The tail, as well as being flat, is also sharp, which allows it to be used additionally for splitting bricks and planks of wood. There, in all its glory, you have the skeparni and why it is not in more general use around the world, I will never know.

According to my dictionary a skeparni was an adze. Now, I was vaguely familiar with the English word. I associated it with the Elizabethan carpentry that shaped the beams in English houses of that period and even had a sort of picture in my mind of what an adze looked like. It was a picture, I may say, that did not entirely correspond with the rather clearer image I had of a skeparni. The dictionary had of course made nothing more exact. It had not helped, and of course couldn't have helped, in the slightest possible way.

Such moments as these should properly be ones of real pleasure and self-satisfaction for the language-learner. You have an absolute certainty that you know a word in the new language which belongs solely, as far as you are concerned, to that language. You have escaped from the world of equivalence and are nose to nose, as surely and as really as the skeparni in your hand, with the truth about language and its relationship to the world (and worlds) it describes. This ability to define language (without equivalence) in terms of what we see and hear and touch and feel is greater than we are usually prepared to credit. It still makes me smile to think of times when students, absolutely convinced of their ignorance of a word but persuaded by me to attempt a mime, would, at first maladroitly, then more confidently, outline some object or event or action that, nine times out of ten, depicted the intended meaning with more accuracy than any dictionary could have done.

Another game. Tease yourself with words before you open a dictionary. (I will not say it is better than sex, but it has some of the characteristics.) Run the words on your tongue, turn them over in your mind, become acquainted, become intimate. Know your words in an (almost) biblical sense and you will have little need of a dictionary for a bible. I would go further still and recommend to students the pedagogically undervalued practice of learning by heart, If anyone has ever wondered how so many people came to understand, write and even speak Latin so well (though a dead language) in the Medieval and Renascence period, they need look no further than rote-learning for at least a partial explanation.

The consignment to short-term memory (for the adult it is not likely to be anything else) of phrases, sentences, whole passages, read or heard, is a remarkably effective way of experiencing and practising an element of language that is often completely neglected in conventional teaching. By this I mean the rhythm and natural flow of a language, its melody and its mannerisms, which are quite as significant a part of any language as its grammar or its pronunciation. This is not an aspect of language that can successfully be taught, either in the classroom or even in the soporific tedium of a language laboratory, but they can be learned by a process of constant monologue by language-learners themselves.

So there is a whole gamut of (more or less) entertaining aspects of foreplay to be considered before ever a student deigns to open their dictionary. It is a teasing game that can last almost as long as the student desires or can endure the tantalisation. Visualise the word, familiarise yourself with it, memorise it in its context and chant it like some holy mantra. Turn it this way and that and, only when you have explored every angle and experimented with every arcane position, open that dictionary.

There are two important effects of this teasing game. One is to securely lodge the word (or phrase) in the memory, thus precluding the blank half of the page syndrome. The other is to fundamentally alter one's relationship with the dictionary. One no longer looks to it to make anything exact, but rather, quite straightforwardly, to satisfy ones curiosity or to extend one's understanding of a word one already knows. Instead of turning to the dictionary in expectation of some sort of revelation, one turns to it expecting confirmation (on it's part) and recognition (on one's own). Instead of putting one's own judgement in the dock (with dictionary as judge), it is increasingly the dictionary itself one evaluates critically, using ones own judgement and understanding as the guide.

This in turn generates another enjoyable game - correcting the dictionary. It is remarkable how often even the best dictionary will turn out to be wrong or misleading or wholly inadequate. This is not as harsh a criticism as it sounds; it is simply a tribute to the unpredictable versatility of language (and the human beings who make use of it). Take the French word acharnement. This appears quite commonly in a context where, if pushed to translate the word into English, I would render it as sour grapes. By the same token, acharnement would be the obvious French translation of that English phrase at least in some of its occurrences. This I knew perfectly well and had felt no need even to put the English equivalent into words until, that is, out of curiosity, I opened my dictionary (French-English).

The dictionary in question was certainly not at a loss for words where acharnement was concerned. It gave: - rage, rabidness, fury, deprecation, fieriness, animosity, savageness (sic), obstinacy, inveteracy, persistence, tenacity, passion. Impressive, eh? All of which things, what is more, I have no doubt acharnement can and does mean in different contexts. None of which, however, it meant in this context; none of which expresses remotely the notion of sour grapes; none of which would have produced an adequate translation. Not of course that sour grapes would have been exact but that, as we have seen, is in the nature of language and translation. It is further complicated by the fact that both the French use of acharnement and the English use of sour grapes are often rather slipshod with respect to the basic or original sense of the word (in the former case) and the phrase (in the latter), but this too is in the nature of language, its usage and its development.

A similar story with the phrase la raison sociale. I knew it and I understood it but, as with skeparni, I could not for the life of me think of an English equivalent and in the end curiosity took me to the dictionary. The dictionary gave style of firm. Now it may be that there some English people to whom the phrase style of firm is familiar, but I have led a sheltered life and it certainly is not known to me. I could understand it all right but only because I knew the French. La raison sociale is the manner or style in which a firm chooses to describe itself - Snodgrass and Woodford, or Woodford and Snodgrass or Snodgrass Woodford Associates and so on. Obviously, in a context, I would have no difficulty in understanding style of firm to mean this (although house style, which admittedly has a slightly different meaning, might have been more easily comprehensible) but, of itself it meant nothing to me.

Sometimes a dictionary can be right and wrong at the same time. Take the word (French once more) frimousse. Again I had understood the word in its context and opened my dictionary - as one should - with a very good idea of what it would have to say. I was not on this occasion entirely prepared for its specificity. Frimousse, according to my dictionary was a colloquial word for the face of a young girl. The last part of the definition was admittedly placed in parentheses but was not otherwise qualified in any way. The joke on this occasion was, the context in which I had actually just read the word was (equally specifically) the description of a face of an old woman.

Factually therefore the dictionary was quite wrong, but, in another sense, it was quite right. The novelist whose work I was reading is rather a specialist in teasing out the youthfulness of her older characters and I had, as it happens, even said as much in a review I had written. In this case the subject was a woman-tramp feeding pigeons, transfigured (saint-like) in the moment that the birds alighted on her head, arms and shoulders. The novelist in question is a wordsmith of the highest order and frimousse was the perfect word to describe the woman's features. The dynamic tension between the factual wrongness and the symbolic rightness of the dictionary-definition, as well as giving me great pleasure, undoubtedly contributed towards my understanding of the word.

So much then for the Greek aspect of dictionary-use, the joys of opening the dictionary. When we turn to the English aspect - consultation of the dictionary - we are involved in matters that, while serious, are no less playful. Here the language-learner might best be compared (with all due deference - none in point of fact - to political correctness) to a butterfly-hunter or some similar collector of specimens. Words (the specimens) become the fascinating subjects for a life-time's study. The language-learner should never blanch at playing the amateur philologist, the hunter after meaning in the world of words. This is moreover an area of language where adults, so often considered the poor relation to children in language-learning terms, can bring to bear sophisticated skills and can derive a real advantage from their knowledge and experience.

Here dictionaries can be seen at their best and here too one could really wish for dictionaries that were more consultable, more like encyclopaedias. Here too one would always prefer a dictionary that gives historical usage and etymology (often lacking in dictionaries specifically designed for language-learners). For French, I would myself like a dictionary that distinguished whether words were of northern or southern origin; in a country as large as France where the indigenous languages of north and south were different, this would be of considerable interest and assistance. I remember, after watching, in a dubbed Czech version, the film The Marathon Man (with its celebrated scene of dental torture), I spent a happy hour with a hefty multi-volume historical dictionary of the language investigating the word bezpecne (meaning, more or less, safe or secure and a key word, as cinema-buffs will know, in that particular scene). The word is curious because it has a negative prefix (bez means without) to a word or linguistic unit pecne to which none of my Czech friends could assign a meaning. It required a good deal of searching and cross-referencing to resolve the matter to my own satisfaction.

One need not, however, be as obsessive as I am to derive very straightforward benefits from consultative dictionary-use. In the case of the French the words morve and pépie, for instance, I was well aware that they described diseases that afflicted poultry. I was equally certain that knowledge of the English equivalents would advance my knowledge not one jot (they are, as far as I can recall, glanders and roup respectively). Nevertheless the dictionary, by revealing to me other (slightly slangy) meanings or usages of the words, was extremely helpful. I rather doubt my mind, not prone to ruminate on sickly chickens, would have retained the words without this aid. As it is, the words morve and pépie have considerably more meaning to me, even if I still don't know what effects they have upon the poor wretched birds, than the English words glanders and roup which, if it were not for this essay, I would have forgotten again by now.

Awareness of difference, emotional commitment, the passions of the chase - these are for me the elements that constitute the fun of language-learning. These are the elements that ensure that the process is one of significant addition to ourselves, or genuine enrichment of our understanding and our experience. Without them, no amount of classroom jollity or hours of intensive study can make the experience anything but a chore and a disappointment and, in certain cases, even a total waste of time.

The distinctions of meaning that different languages can deploy (and into which we are inducted when we learn those languages) can be of a remarkable beauty and importance. The distinction, for instance, made in Spanish between the verbs ser and estar is for me of such a logical elegance that I have difficulty in understanding why it has not been adopted by all the other languages of the world. Broadly speaking, the distinction made is between something that is in permanence (soy hombre- I am a man) and that is only as a temporary state of affairs (estoy aquí- I am here). I was so charmed, philosophically, by this distinction when I first encountered it that I immediately sat down to invent a language that had (as far as I remember) twenty ways of expressing the verb to be in all the various possible gradations between the essential and the ephemeral.

Greece I first visited shortly after the country's liberation from the unpleasant military regime that held power there from 1967 to 1974. It was a time for slogans. "Out with the Americans", "Down with the junta", "No more military bases" and so on. Amongst them appeared a word that was new to me - λαοκρατια (laokratia). It was not difficult to understand; the word λαοσ (laos) is the normal Greek word for the people. yet, as we know, the Greeks, who proverbially have a word for everything, have already given us a word for government by the people in democracy. The distinction lay in the fact that the demos is the people as formally (tidily and conformably) constituted as an element of the state (hence the representative nature of most democracies) and the laos, the people in all their raw and sweaty, many-headed troublesome reality.

This is not the place to talk politics, but sometimes, I believe, the word may indeed be the father to the thought, perhaps even to the fact. As we learn via language from each others experience of the world, discovering things not known in our own philosophy, we contribute in a small way to extending the possibilities of human knowledge and understanding. Somewhere in this world of ours, spoken and yet to be spoken, are the words and the ideas to create new worlds and fashion new societies. We have only to go out and find them.

 

Copyright David Bond 1999

The Editor welcomes your comments or contributions to discussion of this article.

 

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