Aren’t words really brilliant?
They can tell you things. They can make you laugh. They can make you cry. They can make you angry. They can make you jealous. They can make you excited. They can bore you. They can make you feel loved. They can make you feel hated. They can make you feel anything – everything!
Even apart from their meanings, I like the sound of them, on their own and together. Some make your mouth tingle when you say them aloud. Some just look good.
I defy anybody to read these lines from Keats’ Ode to Autumn aloud and not find themselves salivating. Just make sure you give each word, each sound, its full value, following the punctuation exactly.
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Keats’ work is crammed full of such examples.
Or try reading – aloud, always aloud – the opening speech of Under Milk Wood by Welsh poet and playwright Dylan Thomas. Sentences like “the sloe-black, slow, black, crow-black fishing boat-bobbing sea” or “The boys are dreaming wicked, of the bucking ranches of the night and the jolly-rogered sea. And the anthracite statues of the horses sleep in the fields and the cows in the byres and the dogs in the wet-nosed yards” are just a joy to feel rolling round your mouth.
Browse through the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins and even if, like me, you are completely non- (even anti-) religious, you cannot but be moved by, for example, Heaven Haven – A Nun Takes the Veil. Read it slowly and you’ll see what I mean.
I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
And a few lilies blow.
And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.
Or try God’s Grandeur or Spring and Fall (To a Young Child) – perfect blends of sound and rhythm. Hopkins actually invented something he called “Sprung Rhythm” and it really adds an additional layer of meaning to his writing. Spring and Fall is a perfect example.
Hopkins wasn’t above inventing the right word for his purposes. One such was the verb “twindle.” In Inversnaid (another example of Sprung Rhythm) he writes:
A windpuff-bonnet of fawn-froth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, fell-frowning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.
Not just a beautiful image but beautiful sounds too.
Let’s look at some other languages which do incredible things with words. Welsh changes the beginning of some words depending on the sound that comes before them. It’s called Front Mutation. Take the word “cariad” (“darling”), change it to “my darling” and it becomes “fy nghariad.” The Welsh word for “bridge” is “pont”, but change it to “the bridge” and it becomes “y bont.” Wales, of course, is Cymru in Welsh, but if you want to say “Welcome to Wales,” you say “Croeso i Gymru.”
And Welsh has two extra vowels – w (pronounced “oo”) and y (pronounced “uh”) – as well as that difficult for non-native Welsh speakers double L sound, found, for instance, in Llandudno – or in Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, probably the longest name in any language on Earth.
There are some languages which have sounds not found anywhere else. Xhosa, a South African language, although written using the Roman alphabet, replaces the sounds of five letters of the alphabet with clicks in writing. It’s impossible to describe; listen to Miriam Makeba singing The Click Song on YouTube and you will be amazed!
German often merges a number of words together to make one. For example, a television set is “ein Fernsehgerät” – a far seeing device. Brilliant!
In Latin you can miss loads of words out of a sentence and it still makes sense. The historian Tacitus, writing about the Emperor Galba, said “omnium consensu capax imperii, nisi imperasset” – “The general opinion was that he would have been capable of ruling the empire, if he hadn’t actually ruled it.” Six words in Latin to say what needs twenty in English!
Chinese can sound like singing. Listen to a Chinese speaker saying “hello”. It’s Ni Hao but the “a” is pitched lower than the “o”. Keep “ni” at the same pitch as the “a”. It’s like three notes, two the same and the third rising.
That’s because Chinese has what are called “tones” and changing the tone (pitch) of a sound can alter the meaning completely. I remember very clearly from my Sunday School days (early fifties?) a speaker who had been a missionary to China telling a self-deprecating story about the first time he tried to say “our Father who art in Heaven” in Chinese and everybody fell about laughing because what he actually said was “My trousers are in the field”!
I hope it’s true but I suspect it’s apocryphal.
Then there’s Indonesian and a few related languages which form the plural of a noun by repeating it. Anak means “child,” for example, and “children” is anak-anak.
And talking of plurals, pre-Classical (i.e. prior to 400 BC) Greek not only had a plural form for nouns and verbs (as most languages do) but also a dual form: singular = one, dual = two of whatever, plural = more than two. Or, to put it another way, singular = “I go”, dual = “you two” or “he and she” or “both of them go”, plural = “more than two of us go.”
Words and languages are endlessly fascinating!