Daily Archives: June 9, 2015

Words are strange

I love language. All languages. All words and dialects. The study of language entertains and intrigues me. Words. What are they? Utterances that embody objects that sometimes change, sometimes die out. These utterances were eventually written down, lines and pictures strung together to give form to those utterances. On rock, vellum, papyrus, wood*. Scribes created lists that tell us what our long-ago ancestors bought, sold, traded. Those who knew how to create and translate such things were magical. Then came those who compiled more than lists; they put those lines and curves of utterances to work telling stories. They created books.

Words. Lists. Stories. Books. Magical things. Spells cast and generations of humanity enthralled by these simple lines and curves joined together to make words that call up those utterances once only spoken. It wasn’t so long ago that this magic was reserved for the wealthy, for those with leisure time to learn how these strung-together symbols made words into stories, into histories.

All this got me to thinking, about the ever-present alien looking down on Earth, trying to figure out what we are doing, staring at lines and symbols**, in print and on screen. I imagine it wondering, “What is so intriguing about those squiggles that so many will stare at them for hours?” And that led into me thinking about how easy, how thrilling it is to lose oneself in a story, but also how odd. Sitting in one place (or not) staring at words that make a story that creates a whole world inside our heads–how does that even happen? What is the science behind it? Or is it, as our ancestors must have believed, truly magic?

Why does H O U S E mean the edifice one lives in? Where did that word come from? Not house, itself. I know it is from the Proto-Germanic word, husan. Before that, it might have been Goth. But what about before that? How did words come to mean things? Who grunted the first sounds that would become house?

And I am intrigued all over again, a circle I never tire of spinning round and around. Maybe I’m weird, but I have a feeling many of you reading this get it completely.

*Did you know that runes are mostly slanted versions of the Roman alphabet? Why slanted? Because they were being carved into wood, and the grain of wood made getting it consistently legible with straight, horizontal lines a bit precarious.

**Because not all languages on Earth have a writing system, so maybe aliens don’t either. There are some 7,105 living languages, and only 3,570 have a developed writing system.


Filed under Grammar