Thursday, 11 June 2009

Layers of Meaning: Contemplations on German, English, and Language as Metaphor

SOMETHING I ALWAYS FIND PLEASANT about the German language (beyond my own cultural ties to it and fondness for its grammar) is the picturesque quality of its words; because German nouns and verbs are generally compounds of various words in common independent usage in everyday German, it is particularly easy to think of German words as building blocks of sorts on one hand, and metaphors on the other. Often commented upon, after all, is the fact that words can say much about the sensibilities of any given culture as well as provide an entire (sometimes entirely new) worldview. As a very simple example, take the verb vorschlagen or to suggest. Schlagen means to hit or slap, vor means in front of. . . meaning that to suggest something in German is to literally slap something down in front of someone. Of course, whether this means that a suggestion in German was or is considered quite informal and perhaps even negligible is hard to say (the English meaning of the word suggest circa 1340 was far less positive at one time, insinuating an evil prompting, while the Latin combination of sub and gerere is merely to bring/carry [from] under), but the immediate image that the word evokes is interesting. A less charming but more dramatic example is the word for skull-- Totenkopf (tot and Kopf) or death head (if we go back in time and think about the word Kopf as coming from the same roots as the English word cup, we get an even more macabre image of a sort of hollow drinking vessel of death), and the examples, pleasant or tragic, continue. . .

This quality of German, the consistent transparency, so to speak, of the construction of words, is certainly an aspect of many other languages as well (Armenian being such a language that came up recently in my discussions), particularly those which have not yet been so inundated by loan words in the course of the past few centuries as to become almost completely structurally unrecognizable or even (in essence) incoherent, and as I reach farther back into time to get at the ultimate roots of words, there comes a point when I finally run into Sanskrit (or at least Latin or Greek), or when I find myself, in fact, reaching into a mysterious language void, but the conclusion still seems reasonable-- a language such as German, with its accessible compounds of words still-in-use, gives the immediate impression of concrete vividness.

English, on the other hand, as the above humble hint of an etymology of suggest confirms, is wrapped under layers of meaning: Germanic Old English, Latin by way of Old French, Greek, and countless other languages, to the point that defining a system by which meaning is constructed in English is not only extremely complex, but a task which would require learning several different languages to do correctly. Mark Twain's satirical jabs at German may have their weight at times, but all languages are constructions, and the rules of English seem to present far more cryptic "exceptions" unless one can come to a solid knowledge of Latin and Greek and the understanding of how various languages evolved or were blended to form what we now call English.

How much simpler it is to understand how to use whom, for instance, when the word is explained as a lingering remnant of a once-prominent case system. How much more interesting a word such as conjugal becomes when it is revealed that it has the connotation of two oxen being yoked together (conjugation, a word with a very different meaning in English, comes from the very same Latin roots). Indeed, a comparative study of language and linguistics can always be fascinating, yet I can think of no language that requires comparative study to get at the underlying structure and meaning of things to the extent that English seems to do. Whether this makes English particularly rich or merely perplexing and inconsistent is a good subject for debate considering the status of English in the world today, but either way, I think it is safe to conclude that the English language stripped of the details of its roots and origins seems to lose quite a bit of its meaning and vivacity.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Christina. A really interesting post...

Ian Hocking