On Wednesday evening, while I was in Birmingham, I got to enjoy dinner with friends Celeste, Lauren, and Stephen. We sat outside, and Lauren and Stephen brought Scrabble and a dictionary. Playing the game sparked some thoughts about this book I’ve been reading. We had some interesting conversation that night and I’ve had interesting conversations in my mind since then.
Here are some highlights from Bryson’s book, The Mother Tongue, and from our conversations… things you may not know or else take for granted about our mother tongue.
1. Origins of language:
Bryson traces the history of language and remarks about the mysterious evidence that shows that languages far-spread geographically are more closely related than once thought. There are too-similar for coincidence similarities among languages— cognates between French, English, Hittite. Bryson uses a theory to explain these unlikely similarities.
Basically, there is this concept of a language called “Indo-European.” It’s a hypothetical pre-historic language. We have no scrap of evidence to prove its existence. Everything we know about Indo-European comes from suppositions based on strands of uncanny similarities between modern languages. From wherever speakers of this language originally inhabited, the theory goes, they gradually spread across Europe and Asia beginning around the time of 3500-2500 BCE. The language gradually split into what we call Celtic, Germanic, Greek, Slavonic, Latin, etc… So, the Scottish Highlander and the Sri Lankan speak languages that trace to a common origin.
[Side note: Genesis 11:1-9. Just as many see God as the initiating force behind the Big Bang Theory in an attempt to reconcile biblical Creation and scientific theories of evolution… perhaps God could be seen as the mysterious motivating force behind the gradual spread of the Indo-European speakers in an attempt to reconcile this theory of the evolution and spread of pre-historic languages and cultures to the biblical story of Tower of Babel. Just a thought… Back to Bryson.]
2. Pronunciation and Spelling
Imagine an English language learner’s confusion when he or she learns that “shoe, sugar, passion, ambitious, ocean, and champagne” all contain the same “sh” sound.
Spelling is particularly tricky in our language of fluid rules. The spellings of “ache,” “aisle,” “bread,” “eight,” and “enough” make no sense, but are just secund naychur to us.
3. Conversation from the Scrabble game
Authorities on language:
While we were playing Scrabble, Stephen said he sees the Oxford English Dictionary as the semi-official guardian or governor or gold-standard of English. It is surely the most extensive of records of our language. The creation of the original O.E.D. was overseen by James Augustus Henry Murray, a bank clerk and self-taught philologist. He got his 11 children and lots of other amateur philologists to help him sift through and alphabetize every English word ever used since the year 1150. The task took over 4 decades.
The 1989 version contained 615,000 entries, but it still isn’t exhaustive. Even with the great effort, Bryson claims that it only hints at the total number of English words. There are 1.4 million identified insects. Their names do not all appear in the dictionary.
Bryson says that it’s nearly impossible to come up with an accurate number for how many words are in the average educated English speaker’s vocabulary. Experts say anywhere from 2,000 to 150,000. Those with broad vocabularies ought to succeed in Scrabble, but that’s an interesting thing about the game. We all agreed that you can basically “cheat” the game by just memorizing a lot of words but not knowing the meanings. In Scrabble, if you think that “za” is a word, you can play it. If someone chooses to challenge the play and looks up “za” in the dictionary, they would find that it is a real word and lose points. But your original play could be based on just a hunch or a vague memory of the word… you just got lucky. So can we count “za” as a word we know? And is it really fair that we get points for memorizing words that exist without really knowing the words? How big is your vocabulary?
4. Other tidbits from Bryson
Bryson ends the book pointing out some of the idiosyncrasies of English, with chapters on naming, swearing, and wordplay. There is a place called Versailles, KY. That’s “vur-sales”. OUr word “tidbits” used to be “titbits” in England, but Americans, who are particularly sensitive to swear words, changed the spelling and pronunciation. And when it comes to wordplay, the options for English are endless. Puns, tongue-twisters, anagrams, riddles, palindromes, rebuses, crossword puzzles, Scrabble, spelling-bees, Boggle, Mad Gab… and the list goes on. Oh the joys of our language.
One last fun fact from the book that I texted to my Scrabble-playing friends when I read it this morning: The highest reported Scrabble score ever was 3,881 points. This game included the word “psychoanalyzing” which was worth 1,539 points by itself. And we though Celeste’s 40-some point play was good…
I guess Bryson’s book interested me because I like words. I tend to have no shortage of them. I’m verbose to a fault. (Longest blog post yet?) I like the craft of writing. I like looking for the right word. I like finding the right word. I like the rules of grammar. I like using rhetorical strategies to increase the effectiveness of my writing (thanks Dr. Brammer). I like to think about the impact of words on our reality. Language makes real the phenomena of our world. My Liberian friend has a hard time distinguishing between shades of colors. In his vocabulary, there is no teal and no turquoise and no sea-foam and no aqua. There is green and there is blue. Those differences in color are not real to him, because he doesn’t have words to make the differences real. Once we put words to a phenomenon, we reify its existence. With words, we create our world.
After all, or rather, before all, God spoke the world into existence. Words are powerful. They may be crass and deceitful and empty or sweet and wise and rich. Choose today to speak in words taught by the spirit1. In the name of the One who made the deaf to hear and the mute to speak2, speak with boldness3; speak truthfully4; speak to please God5; and speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves6. Choose today to marvel in the gift of creation, the gift of words.
1. 1 Corinthians 2: 13
2. Mark 7:37
3. Acts 4:29
4. Ephesians 4:25
5. 1 Thessalonians 2:4
6. Proverbs 31:8