Tuesday, June 30, 2009

LIFE IN KAROO COUNTRY… or, a sweet slip of the tongue

- Elizabeth Storey-Lawson -

Every Wednesday morning, kindest courtesy of Romy and William Mathews, Prince Albert’s most avid ‘wordsmiths’ gather at their café to do battle in a game or two of Scrabble. The exchanges are hilarious, heated, academic, intense, literary and etymological; but oh do we learn! Again and again, we continue to be impressed, befuddled, amazed and amused by the degree to which the English language has absorbed words from virtually every foreign tongue. And to further thicken the dimension of even a concise dictionary, science, technology, politicians and teenagers constantly add new ones.

The sources of new English words are themselves a wonderment. Computer programmers have contributed almost as many in the 20th century as Shakespeare did in the 16th (not as poetic, perhaps). In amongst the newly minted are the long-lived, supposedly moribund vocabularies of ancient Greek and Latin. All the Latinate derivatives continue to find a home in the “Mother Tongue”. Once English bested French as the lingua franca of the British Isles (a term of superb irony), it went on an insatiable shopping spree for its lexicon. Some words were swallowed whole, some modified modestly, a number butchered and battered into conformity with grammatical / spelling rules, and a few disguised beyond easy recognition.

Henry VIII, honouring his dead elder brother’s marriage commitment to Catherine of Aragon, the Princess Royal of Spain, included in her ‘bride price’ a large piece of land in south London. Like many of the sub-sections of that great city, it is known by its own special name, unusual to say the least. Fifteen century Londoners were likely illiterate and linguistically challenged so they quickly adapted Catherine’s royal title: La Infanta del Castille into Elephant and Castle to denote her proprietary rights.
Language historians struggle with sloppy handwriting, spilt ink and the delights of distinctive word authorship, e.g., Joyce, Lewis Carroll and Tolkein. Roald Dahl’s father celebrated his birth with such fervor that he was hoog in die takke when writing out his son’s Christian name and never noticed the missing ‘n’. Then there are the famous and infamous, literary or real, whose surnames (eponyms) become dictionary entries in good standing: villains such as Draco, Quisling and King Pyrrhus and those who have significantly improved our lives: Louis Braille, William Hoover and Candido Jacuzzi. A Scrabble favourite is the brilliant Georg Ohm whose name has the distinction of being a unit of electrical resistance when spelt left to right, and one of conductivity spelt backwards.

The English language is organic, dynamic, vibrant and almost unique in its willingness to morph. Words have the power to convey, clarify, confuse and confound; sympathize, soothe, succor and obfuscate. Over time they can reverse their original meaning or lie dormant for generations only to come back into common parlance. Add variation in syllabic stress, and/or tone and you are at risk of serious misunderstandings. Alaskan Inuits have but a dozen different words to describe “snow” – not 100 as is commonly ascribed – but South Africans have at least that number of pronunciations of the word Shame!

Each one of us has a personal core vocabulary, most of which was acquired by the age of 6 (not that we can use it then, rather that we have heard it and it has been imprinted in our minds). Slips of the tongue are unavoidable and usually highly amusing (Spoonerisms – misplaced letters) or juxtaposed (my four year old asking for a drink to thirst her quench). Our Scrabble devotees learn new and wonderful words every week but we are hard pressed to use them in ordinary conversation (just what more can you say about an saz .. a Middle Eastern stringed instrument .. other than I can’t play one). Like our “accents,” we take our ingrained vocabulary with us wherever we go and they are sure markers of our generation, gender, and geographical origin.
My newest granddaughter, Alessandra, was born in February and I recently went to Bermuda for her christening. Imagine my surprise at being greeted by the newly appointed minister of our Parish, Nicholas Dalton, born and raised in Graaff-Reinet. His arrival had been so recent that this was his first baptism. Alessandra was angelic and at the end of the ceremony, Rev. Dalton enthusiastically invited the entire congregation to join him in the Vestry to offer many KUDUs to her proud parents!
Mrs. Malaprop would have been delighted!

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