Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Le Mot Juste 3

This post links to RAnn's Sunday Snippets

A couple of days ago I couldn't think of a word, you know how it is. I described it to my wife, she drew a blank too. I looked at a couple of online Thesauruses, no luck. After 30 minutes it popped into my head; it was something like enervating or disinterested. That sort of word.

Then at dinner tonight we were discussing the flu going around. A daughter was drawing a blank on the word she wanted. She was saying the flu "passes on, it's easy to get sick." Oh yeah- flu is contagious.

New topic: English isn't all that English anymore, not since the 11th century when Guillaume le B√Ętard, William the Conqueror, became King of England, and brought all that Latinate Norman French with him. About 45% of modern English is French-sourced: words such as impartial, attorney, celestial, venison, verity and velocity; but not words such as fair, lawyer, heavenly, deer, truth, and speed. And yes, words such as disinterested and contagious are also French-Latin.

So I have a little two-part hypothesis:

1. When an Anglophone can't remember a word, it's most likely to be a Latinate word like velocity, not a West Germanic word like speed.

2. The Anglophone will try to describe that forgotten word using mostly West Germanic words.

Considering that almost nobody speaks English with any awareness of where any word might have come from a thousand or more years ago, isn't it remarkable that this fundamental split in the language still exists subconsciously after so long? Is it merely syllable count? I doubt it. This must get at some inherent difference in how Romance and Germanic languages work at the most primal level. And do German speakers therefore think differently than we do, not having a French-soaked vocabulary and grammar? And likewise the French- what do they miss from not having West Germanic nuts and bolts in their tongue? Does English confer benefits on the speaker's brain from being dual-sourced? And when Germans or Frenchmen forget words and try to describe them- are there any patterns to the words sometimes forgotten or always remembered?

As we say in English: I. Don't. Know. But I do wonder.

2 comments:

Barb Schoeneberger said...

A very interesting post. I am laughing because what you wrote about going to the Germanic source when we can't think of a word is true for me. For some reason I could not remember the simple word, "exit" when telling my husband where we had to get off the highway when we were traveling. This went on for several years. Instead I called it the "get off". I thought I might be going senile, but now I have no trouble remembering "exit". Who knows why this is?

I also must say that some words from other languages are more suited to say what we mean than an English word or phrase. Yiddish words frequently come to mind such as "mensch". It would take a whole paragraph to describe in English what that one word means. Languages are fun.

Christian LeBlanc said...

Yiddish of course being "Judisch" German.