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Saturday, May 20, 2006

zia mohyeddin -- sounds of the heart

Zia Mohyeddin column - the news may 28/06
'Sounds of the heart'

I am sure it's known to many of you that the word 'admiral' has nothing to do with 'admire' or 'admiration'? as one of my students surmised -- but that it comes from the Arabic word 'amir-al-bahr', meaning 'commander (amir) of the (al) sea (bahr)', which was the title the Arabs created for the leader of their navy after he had conquered Spain and Sicily.

The phrase was adopted by the English (and the French as well) who apparently misunderstood the individual parts of the phrase and thought that the definite article 'al' meant 'sea'. They dropped the final word bahr because they didn't know it meant the sea and ended up with a rather eccentric official title, 'amiir-al', which literally meant 'commander of the'.

Lexicographers tell us that 'amiiral' was introduced to the English language around 1500 AD. The letter 'a' often stood for the Latin preposition 'ad' (e.g. 'admirable') so the 'a' changed to 'ad' and soon the title of the ruler of the Queen's Navy became 'admiral'.

Words have intrigued me for a long time. I am whole-heartedly in agreement with the old Chinese proverb that 'words are the sounds of the heart'. But, if, I were to be honest, I would say that I am interested in words largely for phonological reasons.

Wordsmiths, that is, people who live in a universe of words and are seriously obsessed by it, have often published lists of their most favoured words. The author, Williams Espy's list contained: 'gonorrhea', 'lullaby', 'meandering', 'mellifluous', 'murmuring', 'onomatopoeia', 'wisteria'... For me it was cornucopia. Roll these words round your tongue, they are sharp and silvery against the teeth; whisper them, speak them full- throatedly; these words delight your senses like a sip from a vintage Beaujolais.

In the last few decades there have been many competitions held in newspapers and Radio inviting people to send in their favourite English words. The results in the Sunday Times competition showed that 'parakeet', 'chrysalis', 'sycamore', 'antimacassar', 'chinchilla', and 'doppelganger' were among the top ten words. These words were obviously chosen for their sounds and not for their meaning.

It would seem that a word perceived to be beautiful has to have two or three syllables (this is not necessarily true of English words; in our language too, words of two or more syllables are, phonetically speaking, much more attractive: 'sansanhat', 'muzmahil'). There are, of course, other criteria: the vowel sounds varying from syllable to syllable, but this is the territory of my friend, Khalid Ahmed, and I do not wish to step into it.

Khalid Ahmed is a wordbuff, a wordaholic and a wordsmith; he is a polymath. He is a linguist and an etymologist and he can tell you, with great ease, how words can be pressed, squeezed and manipulated into all kinds of shapes when they travel from one country to another and from one culture to another. For years he has been showing us how an Amharic word finds its way through Slavic languages into Persian and how a Sanskirit word sneaks into Greek or vice versa. I wonder if he is as amused as I am that given the prominence of alcohol in British society, the word alcohol is not originally English, but another import from Arabia.

I must confess I don't know half as much as I would like to about the meaning of many words -- leave alone their origins -- despite my long-standing fascination with words and it depressed me no end when I took the vocabulary test devised by that distinguished Professor of linguistics, David Crystal.

Professor Crystal's method is simple. In order to estimate the size of your vocabulary, take a medium-sized dictionary, one between 1500 and 2000 pages. (Collins, Chambers or Oxford would do). Aim for a sample of pages. If the dictionary is 1500 pages pick only 30 pages, that is, 2% of the number of pages (forty if it has 2000 pages).

You then break the sample down into a series of selections from different parts of the dictionary. For a thirty page sample you have six choices of five pages each, or ten choices of three pages. A representative sample, he recommends, is to pick your pages beginning with CA, EX JA, OB, PL, SC, TO and UN.

You begin with the first full page, and go through all the words on each page of your sample. If you think you know a word or any of its meanings, put a tick against it. (It doesn't matter if you do not know the alternative meanings). For your active vocabulary, you only need to be certain that you can use the word often, occasionally or not at all. Do not ignore words which are clustered together just showing their endings as in nation-al-ize. You can also tick idioms and phrases such as call up and call the tune. Add up the ticks and jot the total down on a piece of paper. Then add up all the page totals and multiply by 50 -- and you will get (more or less) the size of your vocabulary.

I sat down with my Concise Oxford which has 1562 pages. I selected three sections of ten pages, and chose PL SC and UN. My vanity took a severe knocking as I totted up the figures. Of the 395 words spread over ten pages I only knew 165, not even fifty per cent. Gamely, I went on to the next section and my result was slightly worse, but I perked up when I got to the section beginning with the prefix 'UN'. Here I scored heavily (who wouldn't ?); the only words (in these ten pages) I did not know were; 'unaneled', 'uncial', 'unciform', 'uncinariasis', 'uncinate', 'unguiculate', 'unaxial'.

My vocabulary, judging by the Crystal test, would be a little over 34000 words. Pretty dismal, I thought, considering that most writers insert into their sentences the best part of half a million words. Never mind, I told myself. There are scrabble players who are familiar with thousands of words without knowing their meaning. But it was no consolation.

The Oxford English Dictionary had over 500,000 words in the edition which came out in 90's. Scholars and lexicographers are busy preparing a newer edition which will probably have 2 million entries. Even if I were to disregard a large number of entries from earlier periods in the history of the language, as well as names, places and acronyms, I will still be left with hundreds of thousands of words which I shall never know. Dictionaries are expanding by the hour. It is estimated that about 900 new words enter the language every year.

I am reminded of the Emily Dickinson poem:

A word is dead

It is said,

Some say.

I say it just

Begins to live

That day.


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