We interrupt this program for an important announcement from our sponsor. Not really, but from time to time I like to divert into the fascinating (to me) world of words, especially since those are the tools of my trade.
Years ago I was in Hungary, the nation from which my grandparents immigrated. (I could have dangled a participle there, but chose not to – oops!) Possessing about 10 Hungarian words in my vocabulary, I commented to a new friend I’d been informed Hungarian is one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn. “Oh, it’s not very hard,” he replied. “All of my grandchildren speak it.” (Rim shot, please.) But in actuality, I can’t think of a harder language to learn than American English – unless you’re born in the United States and that’s all you’ve ever heard. Even then, someone from Maine speaking to someone in Louisiana might need a translator.
The problem is there are so many exceptions to the rules. There’s “i” before “e,” except after “c.” (Along with some other exceptions.) There are words spelled virtually the same, but pronounced totally differently – like rough, which rhymes with tough, but not with through, or cough, or bough. What's up with that?
And then there’s the suffix “dis.” In many instances, adding “dis” to a word makes it take on the opposite meaning. Like appear and disappear, or satisfaction and dissatisfaction. But sometimes if you remove the “dis” you end up with a word that doesn’t mean the opposite, or the letters remaining don’t even make up a word.
For instance, discombobulated means to be confused or bewildered. But we don’t describe clear thinkers as being “combobulated.” When we see someone poorly dressed or untidy, we might describe her as disheveled. But have you ever referred to a well-dressed individual as “heveled”?
We understand that a person that’s discouraged might be lacking in courage. We disassemble things that have been assembled, we disengage things that formerly were engaged (even though couples that were engaged to marry are not called "disengaged" when they call the whole thing off), and do a disservice when we fail to provide some type of needed service.
But although we dispense things like prescriptions, not handing them out does not mean to “pense” them. When we ease people’s concerns we say we dispel their fears, but if we cause people to feel afraid that doesn’t mean we “pel” them. And hunters may disembowel internal organs from animals they have killed, but putting organs into something or someone doesn’t mean to “embowel” them.
When we become disoriented, it may take time for us to “orient” ourselves to our environment (even if we're not in Asia), and if we encounter someone that’s become disheartened, we try to encourage or “hearten” them. But while dissension means to cause conflict or division, we don’t refer to reaching consensus or agreement as “sension.” When we tell a crowd of people to disperse, we don’t ask them to “perse” when we want them to assemble or come together, and we dismiss people when they are permitted to leave, but we don't "miss" them if we want them to stay. You could probably think of many other curious examples.
Sorry if this sounds like I’m “dissing” American English, but as a professional wordsmith I would urge you – the next time you encounter someone from another country wrestling to master our native tongue – to realize, it ain’t so simple as we think!
Our brand of English doesn’t make sense, sometimes even to us. But, returning to my usual subject material, that’s why I became so excited years ago when I was introduced to a contemporary translation of the Bible. The King James Version’s “begats” and “spakeths” and “whosoevers” and “quickens” and “thous” had me over a linguistic barrel. When I discovered God speaks modern, everyday language, it was one of the great “aha” experiences of my life.
When the young prophet Samuel said to God, “Speak, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10), he didn’t worry about the Lord talking to him in Elizabethan English. God spoke to him in words he could understand – and that made sense. And He speaks to us today in the same way.
And dis is all I have to say about dat.