Simple words and compound words
Just as the words of English are arranged in units to express more complex and detailed ideas called compound words, so are the individual simple words made up of smaller elements of meaning that can be combined to express other equally specific thoughts, feelings and meanings. Sentences are sometimes comprised of single words such as ‘Stop’, a word so rife with meaning that it says all that needs to be said. The message on a street sign ‘STOPLIGHT AHEAD’ is made up of three words, two compounded, a brief and forthright message that says it all. The message can be made even more specific by adding ’30 FEET’. The only ambiguous word could be ‘feet’ but context makes the meaning clear. Plain Anglo Saxon English is forthright whether written or spoken. The roots alone make the meanings clear so that one word can constitute a complete sentence and express a complete thought. ‘Stop’, ‘Enough’, ‘Think’, ‘Beloved’, say it all. However, the sense or meaning that we intend does not just happen spontaneously; we have to know the coding system.
Simple sentences and compound sentences-
If one pleases to say more, or if there is more that wants or needs saying, one can always add a comma and say, for example, “Stop, let us talk.” When the written message needs more to be said, we have punctuation to place the ideas in an understandable order. We have commas, semicolons and colons to construct simple sentences (ideas), compound, and compound, complex ideas. Or, it is quite possible to arrange a more complex message with a string of simple sentences into a more complete thought, a paragraph. This is the basic format for carrying on a written conversation. When one wants to speak the thoughts or talk about them, we have the spoken word. The spoken word is also punctuated. Oral punctuation is achieved with musical techniques and with word order. The meaning of what we say is not just in the words even if we speak but one word. If I say ‘stop’ I can imply a world of additional messages with the way that I say it. It can be a command, a cry for help, a tease, a punctuation, an invitation. That old saw, “It is not what you say but how you say it.”, is axiomatic in English. Both sense and sound are needed to carry the intended message.
Language is music
I submit that speaking is singing, it is making music with our organs of speech. At one time we did not separate music from speaking and the sound systems of music were used, among other things, as mnemonic devices. We can still sing, even without words, and convey ideas and feelings with sounds, rhythms, beats, and stresses. When we do speak the words in English, the spoken word is punctuated with these same musical techniques. We need rhythm, upbeat, downbeat, lilt, cadence, stresses, pitch, tone, phrasing. The techniques of pauses, stresses and shortening, lengthening, or muting vowel sounds can carry volumes of meaning. Sometimes the music indicates that we intend the opposite meaning of what we have just said. For example, “Oh, that be baaaad.” (as in good or amusing) or “Oh, you are goood!” (as in effective but ethically questionable). There is a phenomenon in the English language which is referred to by scholars, and philologists of varied ilk, as The Great Vowel Shift. Depending upon who you read, the ‘shift’ has occurred from one to three times and has transpired over varied periods of a few hundred to several hundred years. We have recorded sound for less than two centuries. I submit that the Great Vowel Shift is mythic, as in ‘It never was and always is’. We shift vowels continuously, adding them, disappearing them, lengthening, shortening, even creating new ones and eliminating old ones. English has more gears to shift than an eighteen-wheeler with a Maserati engine and the vowels in English have an equally bizzare cross-bred purpose.
In this work I am utilizing italic type font as an alternative form of punctuation that is intended to place emphasis or stress on particular word ideas. This is a common convention in modern ad writing which sets words apart and indicates an alternative usage. As I read the text aloud to hear what I’m saying, I hear the coherence or incoherence, more clearly. There is a striking dissonance when thought is off-beat. The thought might be a single word, a simple sentence, or a series of words expressing a more complex idea. Wrong words or disjointed ideas can sometimes hide in print but they clank like a broken bell when spoken. The sounds that we make and the sounds that we don’t make (silences, pauses, breathers) all have significance in language composition just as they do in music composition.
Music and speech training have traditionally been part of education as sounds, including the sound of silence and are essential to both written and spoken language. When we still honored our bardic tradition there was no division between the sounds of speech and those of music. The different uses of language each have their own music. A preacher, a priest, a politician, salesman, comedian, weatherman, newsman, defense attorney or prosecutor, each has his own music, his own rhythm. You can hear the music even when the words are muted. Reading aloud and speaking aloud are essential to learning how to use language effectively just as doing is essential to learning how to do. Part of effectiveness is being able to decode the intents and motives of the speaker or writer. Most children that I have known seem to be born with an instinct for hearing the rhythm of language including the sotto voce. Unfortunately, many of us seem to lose it rather than refine and polish that instinct into a skill.
Rhythm is a pervasive force of nature. Rhythm means ‘measured motion’ [French, Latin, Greek]. Rhythm is as indispensible and as little appreciated as gravity until we are in conflict with it. A case in point is our heart beat. Let’s not forget that there are many people who speak and read sign language. The absence of audible sound does not diminish the rhythm of language; rather, it makes the rhythm visible and just as stirring. The image of the word aloud is not just about audible sound. The element of oud, in the words loud, cloud, and proud, represents something that ‘stands out’ in the odyllic sense. It expresses a peak of the rhythmic wavelength, like inhalation does to exhalation.
The rhythm of the spoken word differs considerably dependent upon the language being spoken and the dialect, who is speaking, what is being said, and what the occasion is. The proscecutor, ideally, does not use the same music at work that he uses when reading a bedtime story to a child. The weatherman or politician likely would change tone of voice and rhythm of speech to make a marriage proposal. The preacher would lighten up when entertaining guests at dinner, we hope.
In reading this aloud I realized that some of the worst altercations and misunderstandings that I have witnessed have resulted from someone taking the wrong tone with another person. It is a difficult skill to master and it is infinitely more so when one is not consciously aware of the need to change their way of speaking or writing to suit different circumstances. Suitable rhythm is an indispensible part of communication. A rhythm that is inappropriate can change the entire meaning of a sentence and can turn a few simple words into fighting words. A friendly remark can become an inappropriately suggestive comment depending on the music. Music stirs us deeply and we often do not realize what it is that is unsettling us so. It might just be the sound track on the film we are watching or the mood music at a grocery store. However, it might just be that we were put into a mood by someone’s tone of a voice or by a conversation that we were in or that we overheard. I have been that voice which, like the Wicked Witch at the birthday party, befouls the mood and leaves a cackling curse in the air. Becoming conscious of this feature of language is essential to avoiding the pitfalls of getting the music wrong.
In our factory system of assembly line education we have fragmented some subjects almost beyond repair. There are available repair manuals if we have at least learned to read. Unfortunately, reading is one of those subjects that has often been fragmented to the point of nonsense. For openers, reading is a dynamic process as indicated by the meaning of the word: [ A.S. ræd counsel] ing indicates a dynamic process. What we read does not have only one meaning or interpretation. Everything can be read on many levels: there are at least three levels of meaning physical, mental and spiritual. The physical consists of the ink on the page, the writing on a wall, the engraving on wood or stone, the braille or pictographs or runes, the formulas or musical notes or numbers. The mental level is what all these words, letters and symbols make you think of. The spiritual level is all of the associations that these things have when they are used as part of spiritual development. The mental ‘skylarking’ that we often find ourselves doing while reading is part of the process of reading. There is a time for it and a use for it. It is a kind of informed day dreaming.
Correct pronunciation, whatever that is-
Our subject here is English, the Vulgate. This is the language of the people. The people speak varied dialects and accents. We also speak the many specialty variants of businesses, professions, and social organizations. The pronunciation of individual words, and of words-in-context, change depending on the rhythm of the instant speech pattern. An example of this is the word ‘instant’ that I just used. In this context it means the speech pattern that you are speaking at the particular moment. When you are speaking with family and friends, the ‘instant speech’ is the pattern you all speak when together. At the business meeting, the ‘instant speech’ is the pattern that you are speaking with them. There is nothing phony or wrong-headed about speaking differently in different venues. In different groups the subject will be different. What is talked about at church, at home, at the dinner table, in bed, at the conference table, or on the basketball court is never going to be the same thing. Therefore, the language is not going to be the same. The manners and protocol will change. The rhythm, beat, melody and word choice will change. That is as it should be. That is appropriate.
What is right and appropriate is whatever fits in the ‘instant case’. However, I might say, “I will get to that subject in an instant.” That is the same word stressed differently and, in this instance, means ‘in a very short period of time’. Note: The Runic image for ‘instant’ would be a standing-stone marker. The in is an intensifier, stan is the rune of the ‘standing stone’, ‘t ‘ is tyr the rune of stability of law. This gives us a referrent image for the word ‘instant’. Knowing that standing stones were also used to track the ‘tides of the day’, that is ‘to mark time’, we have a broader sense of the word elements. We need mental images of what we are saying in order to find the right words and to grasp their sense. This change of venue for individual word usage is a reflection of that change in language that we make from one social circumstance to another. We get the sense of the music and of what is appropriate.
In doing so, we get the rhythm right for the circumstances of our speech and for the people with whom we are speaking. For particulars we consult different dictionaries, always remembering that the dictionaries are guides to meanings, to usages, and to pronunciation(s); but, they are not lawbooks. They don’t determine which regional speech pattern or which dialect of English is correct. They don’t list all definitions and all pronunciations, sometimes they list only the most frequently used ones and sometimes they note the received pronunciation or the currently fashionable one. There will be different pronunciations, and sometimes spellings, for: British English, Australian, Canadian, American, Common Usage, etc. Don’t count on the internet to have it all or to be the final authority.
Pronunciations that are important to note are those that alter the meaning of the words and the way in which the words are used. Sometimes those different pronunciations are foreign words which are spelled the same as the English but mean something quite different. Real comes to mind, as in El Camino Real, Spanish for ‘The King’s Highway’. Tout is one of several words that change common meaning and pronunciation from British to American. Important to note are those which are specialty words or those whose pronunciation changes according to their grammatical function, such as verb tense or part of speech. Use is an example. The ‘s’ sound changes to a ‘z’ sound depending on whether it is a verb or a noun. This is a variation in consonantal sound. Read is pronounced like red when the word is in the past tense. This change of vowel sound is also part of the music of our language. It makes a lot of sense when you hear it in the context of rhythm, beat and melody. More about that later.
What words really mean and how we know-
There are many good books and articles that explain the processes of writing and speaking, in varied formats and styles for the different purposes so I won’t go into that subject at length. I mention it because the same structure of language composition is also present within the individual words. About this, much less has been written even though it is essential to knowing the subtle and not so subtle shades of meaning in our words. There are books about the prefix-root-suffix constructs for those English words that have Greek and Latin origins. There are exhaustive thesauri, vocabularies, and dictionaries that catalogue words in different ways. There are dictionaries of common usage, college, technical, business, childrens’, medical, legal, etymological, abridged and unabridged, American, Latin, English, slang, music, poetry, Scrabble, and Shakespeare dictionaries as well as exhaustive specialty dictionaries for most anything imaginable. These give the different ways that the words are defined  as well as the customs and fashions of usage. Sometimes a word will have several definitions as well as specialty definitions. I also have a sports dictionary and two different Visual Dictionaries. We use them all and none are duplicates. Authorities often disagree on most of what is in these books. They differ on the origin of words, how words are defined, and how they are pronounced, the right answer often coming down to ‘matters of opinion’ and what works, what best conveys the meaning that you intend. In short, the idea of a Standard English with fixed meanings and set pronunciations is largely myth and I pray that it stays that way. English is a live language and will stay that way while remaining one language if we grasp the ways that it lives and grows. We live it and we grow it. There are set patterns that are established so that English can grow in a regulated manner while still remaining flexible.
English is sense and sound, meaning and music
The structures of language that are within individual words are like musical chords; they are the sounds and the combinations of sounds that have intrinsic meaning, they are the sense elements. Those elements are expressions of our thoughts and feelings and much of that sense is conveyed by musical expression. There is no way that we could write the music of our language on a musical scale as it would be too complex. Furthermore, each of us sings our language in a different style. No one speaks exactly the same way any more than anyone sings exactly like someone else does. The rhythms, tones, and beats of our speech carry much of our message and the specific words that we use convey the rest. The different sense elements of our language make it possible to speak and write our meanings with some precision. We are always adding more words, often from different languages, to increase our treasure of sense elements. Greater variations in sounds are necessary for us to speak the feelings and meanings within these words.
How we make our music heard
To make our music (language) heard, we have to speak it aloud so that we hear our own voice. That voice comes across in the written word as well as the spoken word. We have to hear how we sound before we can expect others to hear us. We also have to know what we mean by what we say if we expect someone else to hear our meaning. The only other choices we have are to say nothing or to parrot what other people say and basically allow them to speak for us. This would entail allowing others to ask the questions for us. The one who formulates the questions is the one who defines the issues. This is the one who decides who and what are important. The one who defines the issues is the one who is in control. The one who is in control is the one who decides what we talk about, what we think, what matters we consider, and what decisions we ultimately make. It is possible to hijack public opinion or the appearance of public opinion: in either case our music would not be heard.
The way we make ouselves heard is by first listening to ourselves. I’m amazed at how quiet I became when I first realized that I didn’t understand a substantial part of what I said. My epiphany came when my sophomore English teacher, Mrs. Malone, asked me what a particular word meant. I had used the word. I gave a dictionary definition. She asked me what that meant. I did not know. This was also my epiphany about questions. All questions are not asked; there are explicit and implicit questions. Some questions are asked to elicit answers and others are asked to stimulate thought. Some questions are enduring no matter how many times they are addressed or answered. Some questions are rhetorical devices and are asked for effect. Some questions are red herrings. The purpose of a red herring is to get a tracking dog off of the trail. It works the same way in language, spoken or written. Questions that are intended to distract are not real questions. Example: Are you sure you pronounced that word correctly? Mrs. Malone posed a real question, one that was mine to ask, to answer, and to listen to.
We make our music heard by listening to our own words, by knowing what we mean when we speak, and by not allowing our message to be derailed or misdirected. The two most common ways of being misdirected are by having what you mean distorted and by allowing yourself to be confused or angered. Interestingly, a way to avoid either pitfall is to keep control of the music of your words. The choice of words and the way they are used drives the music. The rhythm, beat, tone, and pitch are all dependent on word choice. Sometimes it is the meaning of the words and sometimes it is the sound of the words that change the mood of the music. Some words are inflammatory. Some words have growling or hissing sounds. Some word combinations sound confrontational or challenging and some sound conflicted and full of self doubt. When listeners are distressed or frustrated, they stop listening. They neither read the writing nor hear the speaking.
How we make the content of our music understood
In our English language the most clear, forthright, unequivocal and direct speech, whether written, spoken or sung, is the native Anglo Saxon tongue. The only downside to this language is that we do not have a map to territory relationship. We do not have a referrent mental image of the word to the basic concept. Instead, we use the words as though they were the concept, as though the words had concrete and defined images. We use these words and are certain that each of us has the same mental image (idea) of what is represented. Examples: God, devil, good, evil, love, like, hate, black, white, right, wrong, it, thing. The list goes on. We use so many words as though words represented concrete realities, sometimes as though the word were the thing itself. We frequently presume that anyone who is one of us understands things the same way that we do
One of my friends, a person who asks good questions, asked, “If we don’t understand what we are saying, how have we managed to communicate with one another?” I have been watching more closely and listening more intently to find out how we do it. For one thing, we use a lot of indefinite or nonspecific words and phrases like it, thing, you know, the matter, what, that, they say, them, we, others, they all, and so forth. If a word or phrase becomes confrontational or downright objectionable, we edit it out or say that it was not intended the way that it sounded. Sometimes the ‘misunderstanding’ leads to some great conversation and learning. Other times we find that we did ‘understand’ all too well. Then we decide whether to remain in that company, sever the relationships, or just place some distance there for a time. The content of our music says a lot about who and what we are and those judgements can get very complicated. What makes judgements so complicated is that we and our music are living, growing things. We change our music and our music changes us. This is why dictators burn books and censor the media. This is why a democracy requires an educated populace.
Language is a powerful thing. We form our reality with it.
How we make the sound of our music understood
Making the content of our music understood is a complicated process but nowhere near as much so as making the sound understood. There are as many sounds as there are living creatures. We all make our own kind of music. The sounds of our music change with mood, gender, species, language, regional accent, dialect and intentions. If we limit the subject to human beings who speak some dialect of the English language, we still have exponential quantities and series of sounds. To further complicate matters, not all sounds are audible and we don’t hear all sounds with our ears. All individuals do not make the same sounds and not all of us make our sounds in the same way. Not all languages are composed of the same sounds so English speakers with other native language backgrounds will make a different music. Also, many of us have been exposed to several regional dialects of English and will make different sounds dependent upon when we were exposed to those different accents.
None of us make exactly the same sounds just as none of us see or hear exactly the same way. There are dialects of English that have sounds not present in other dialects. Some sounds will be present in one part of a word and silent in another part, ‘r’ and ‘t’ for example. Not only do English speakers not make the same sounds, the same alphabetic symbols do not consistently represent the same sound. We have more sounds than we have symbols. Anyone who has been taught phonetically and has been told that any word is “spelled just like it sounds” has to know something is amiss. There must be more to this phonetic code than twenty-six sound-symbols which can be vocally smudged together to form the sounds of words. Even when one has been introduced to rhyming patterns and phonemes the system is missing something that brings coherence. There are a great many people who have not had this kind of thorough and systematic grounding in their native language, English. I am one of them.
I attended eleven schools in twelve years. While I had a few excellent teachers, the subject of English was always fragmented to the point of incoherence. Later, in college, some of my teachers were quite perplexed by the level of college illiteracy. A couple spoke out quite rudely and critically. One was kindly perplexed and suggested that reading more and reading more broadly might bring up the levels of literacy. Another suggested that less television might be the answer. That was over thirty years ago and the problem has worsened. Many people graduate from high school and college unable to competently read, speak, and think in English.
Twenty years ago I was a literacy tutor and tutor trainer. We reviewed many systems for teaching English literacy. They were all fragmented and incomplete. I have read broadly in search of a worthwhile system. One of the overarching problems of teaching adults is that they do not have much time. The other, and greater problem, is that there is no concise, coherent and ordered system. We have sort of patched ideas together and repeated our errors. We really need to go back to the drawing board and look at our language for what it is. We need to ask some hard questions.
The most difficult part of any job is that of finding the questions and not being afraid of them.
Until I spent some time with some bright children I had never appreciated the difficulty of formulating the right questions. Questions are before us all the time but they are hard to spot and hard to ask. Compounding the problem is the expectations that we adults have. We expect that adults should have the answers. We should know things. Knowledge makes us feel powerful and secure. Not-knowing is a weakness, a deficit. We also cherish the idea that we have dominion over the earth and, with that, we have the job of naming every living thing. Naming everything presumes knowledge of those things. If we don’t have the answers we give up some of our authority over our domain. We lose power.
To find the important questions we have to be willing to suspend our dominion and listen for them. Those questions will come right out of our mouths if we listen. They are often expressed as statements One of my young friends said, “Judith, you say…. and Gigi says…..” By placing the two thoughts parallel and lilting his voice upward, he posed several possible questions. Why do you each say it differently? Which of you is right? Is it all right to ask these things? Will you be upset if I say it differently than you do? What if I say it a different way from either of you? What if I like another sound better? There is an endless list of possible questions in that upward lilt of the child’s voice. A lot of possible questions are implicit in the music of the phrasing, which words are stressed, which lilt up or down. We seem to be born with an aptitude for inquiry. What happens?
So where is it written that there has to be a single right answer. What happpens if we take a statement of fact and make it a question. It so happens that questions are becoming facts too quickly these days. There is something about making statements that makes us feel secure. Questions can be unsettling. We are surrounded by tests. We study in order to take tests. We learn what the acceptable answers are. Have we forgotten just how much ancient wisdom is now laughed at and called “old wives’ tales”. Maybe if we outlaw question marks we will all become all-knowing. I don’t think so.
How do we recognize a question and what do we do with it
Some of the most powerful questions are not presented with question marks even though we have come to expect that relevent questions will be brought to our attention with some grammatical notation. Spoken questions are signaled with word order and an up beat at the end of the sentence or completed thought. A fact or opinion is signaled with a period and, if spoken instead of written, there is a down beat of varying intensity dependent on the speaker’s mood or strength of conviction. A question actually occurs whenever something within you says that there is reason for doubt, that there is more to be considered. We all have our own personal indicators. We all ken in our own way. KEN is the rune for this concept in English. It is the rune of intuition, of illumination and inner knowledge. In the Scots and English dialect it means knowledge. The word can as in, “Yes, I can” comes from this source. “Ken is the cognate of the Celtic word cen meaning powerful“.
I personally ken a question, or feel the need to question when I read or hear certain phrases, including the following: “Everyone says. The experts say. No one knows. It is just that way, there is no reason. It has no meaning, its just a sound we make. It’s nonsensical and meaningless. Etymology is unknown. Obsolete and archaic words. English comes predominantly from Latin and Greek. There are few of the original words of English in use, although those few are the most often used. Words have no meaning other than what we give them. Irish has only contributed about three words to the English language. That word entered the language at such and such a time. It came into English from Latin, Greek, Hindi, etc.”
Some of the most compelling questions are nestled in the above time-honored opinions which have become entangled in the nets of our grammar. Somehow when words are spoken nicely they have a charm that earns them currency. Samuel Johnson was spot-on when he said, “Be wary of words that you love too dearly.” Fortunately, our tribal language has also given us the words needed to disentangle the time honored opinions. Some of those words are who, what, when, where, why, how? Notice that the question words begin with wh-. That appears to indicate that the words that represent questions, sometimes explicit and sometimes implicit. some say it was a reversal of ‘hw’ for ease of pronunciation. The Druids, however, had a particular regard for questions and had intellectual duels with them. In that spirit though we still honor the above opinions because they prompt questions and that is the most valuable result any teacher or scholar could achieve, since a carved-in-granite answer is a tombstone for learning.
One way to use a question
A question that I recently found was within the statement that sound is seven separate words. What on earth did Dr. Burchfield mean by a word? At present, the same word is often listed many times in a dictionary with several separate meanings. Each listing may have several related meanings; but, the different listings are considered separate and distinct words. This convention may show us how to use a word; but, it does not provide a way to connect feelings or thought to the word. To connect our feelings or thoughts to the words we have to find what is in the words that causes their meanings to be related. What common denominator of meaning is there. Does ‘ound’ represent a sense element? If so, does it translate to other words like ‘bound’ ,’round’ and ‘mound’? Or is the element ‘oun’? Another compelling question is whether the sense element is visual, auditory, or tactile. Or, does the sense element show a translation of an ideographic written language code to an italic alphabetic code?
Pursuing a line of questioning
Let’s consider that the people who originally spoke English were members of many different tribes and spoke at least as many dialects as we currently do. That being the case they would make a lot of different sounds, some of which wouldn’t be understood by other tribes. An ideographic code would be a way to share basic concepts. These would represent observations that they have made about themselves and the world around them. Among these would be natural shapes, boundaries and configurations. There would be the forms that rocks, soil, water and other elements assume. There would be the forms of different plants and other growths. These would be the forms that animals and humans also make as an expression of their natures. The symbols could also be expressive of their tribal values and of their temperaments. All of the words that we use everyday can be categorized in several ways. We routinely categorize words as nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, conjunctions, etc. When a word changes function, we note that with a change of spelling, of pronunciation, or of vocal inflection. We also assign a place value to a word with a different function.
Not being able to connect with the thing that you are trying to say is hobbling, it is like walking blindfolded with your feet tied together. For the speaker, it is difficult. For the the listener it is not just difficult but impossible. I couldn’t find a more precise word, so I just gave you a mental image which is currently called an ‘ uh like ya know.’ All kidding aside, you notice the word like before the description of walking. The words like and as signal the presence of a simile. A simile is a comparison that gives you a mental image of the thing being said. I’m not ridiculing those who say, “like, you know.” While the expression is aggravating it expresses an appeal to see in your mind’s eye what the speaker is trying to show you with words.
This “you know” appeal has become a stock phrase in American English. It is symptomatic of the dearth of useful imagery. So much of what is available is based in popular entertainment and advertising. The intergenerational communication gap is down to a year or two. Classical references are often books, movies, songs, advertisements, (and people) who are less than twenty years old. The cultural markers of our time exist in a virtual reality. And, again, advertisements are part of our culture. Now, that is the illustration, the new rune as it were, that depicts the concept of lame. The stable spot in our universe is our language and that is being undermined by words coined from whimsy. To compound the indignity, whimsy is fashionable. There is hope. After all, France managed to survive Louis the Fourteenth. Let’s do something before we also get desperate enough for a “French Revolution”. I have noticed that dialogue is being supplanted by soundtracks full of nonspecific sound. Even the vulgarity of what dialogue there is, is frequently trite, redundant and lacking in memorable or meaningful imagery. To have vital, engaging language and sound, we need words that are grounded in reality, and in the images that abound in our world. We need to restore the element of meaning to our language.
The meaning element is the thing that should prompt the mental image. I, for one, have a terrible time speaking when I can’t understand what I’m saying, when I can’t see it it my mind. In searching for the sense of our words, I first read about when, where, why English developed and who the people were who first spoke the language. In short, they were many tribes that found and invaded some beautiful green islands in an area that has very distinct seasons. Some were islanders and others seafaring invaders. Some were maritime peoples who sailed in the tempestuous North Atlantic. Others came overland. These are people with names like Gar meaning sword. The name Saxon came from the type of sword one group used used. Of course they weren’t all Saxons but almost all the tribes were vigorous warriors, at least while they were invading. Suffice it to say, they were all people who had to be aware of the energies and changing tempers of nature within humans as well as within all of nature. The myths and legends of their nature deities reflect the temperaments which they found within. The idea has been expressed that some of the deities were actually expressive of particular tribes. Like the Greek and Roman deities, some were actually historic peoples.
I won’t try to prove or establish the reality that someone or some people actually existed and I will not argue over who came first or who invented a word or an idea. To me it is enough to relate how people did strive to communicate with and get along with one another and with nature.
Elements of Meaning
Elements are composed of units containing from one to five symbols. Like the Arabic numbers which we adopted for our mathmatics, the letters of our alphabet have a place value which can change when the letters change their place. The place can be at the beginning, middle, or end of a word. Because our English language has received and fostered elements and entire words from so many diverse languages, the elements can have differing and sometimes opposite meanings. I will give the element and then present a few words that support my observation. I won’t cherrypick to find supporting arguments. To do so is not honest and it is counterproductive as some words come to mean the exact opposite through usage and that is also a proof of sorts. Any scholarly support or argument that I find will be included. Note: Sometimes the element is also a word. When the element is a prefix, there will be a dash after the element and when it is a suffix the dash the dash will be before it.
A, AN This is an abbreviation of the AS. an or ane meaning one. The article A is used before a consonant or a sounded ‘H’ e.g. a cat, a home. An is used before vowel sounds.  The distinction is not between consonants and vowels but rather between their sounds. It is a practical matter of pronunciation as it is almost impossible to sound two vowels together without running them together.
A is also a combining form in many English words. Sometimes it is a contraction of the Teutonic prefix ge- and sometimes of the AS. prefix on- . For example, the word about [AS. abutan, onbutan, embutan;] around or near to in time, in person, or in action.  A may be a prefix or a combining form and, in the middle of a word, combining two elements as in lackaday. An additional trait of a native ‘a’ is that it often has the sense of an intensifier. In words like awake, about, around, speakers often drop the initial ‘a’. This convention doesn’t usually change the sense of the word but it removes emphasis. This effect is due to dropping a syllable as, it is almost impossible to stress a syllable without an unstressed one beside it. The stressing of a sound or sounds is essential to meaning in the English language.
In some words a- may be a contraction of at, of, in, to,or an when prefacing a native English word as in the AS abidan. We know that bide has the sense of to rest, dwell, tarry, stay so we know that the ‘a’ in ‘abide’ is likely to mean ‘at, in, or to’.
Note that the prefix a- also enters English through words by way of Latin and Greek. These words are usually conspicuously non-native. The a- takes on different meaning; in Greek the a- is privative giving a negative sense as in amorphous (without shape) and in Latin the a-, ab-, abs- mean from, away as in ‘abstract’. In Latin the prefix will usually accompany a consonant as ad; meaning to, toward, as in address, adduct, adduce. An a- with a doubling of consonants after, is often an indicator of a non-native element. This is not always, for example, affright and afford. Please note that most rules and codes are indicators and codes, not law codes or natural laws, they are guides to how things are or should ideally be. The purpose in knowing whether a word is a native word or one of Greco-Latin or Arabic or Sanskrit is that is the way we find the meaning and remember it.
A- as a runic prefix
A represents AC. This rune represents the primal potential of coming-into-being. The very concrete meaning of AC is ‘Oak tree’, as it was the staple providing life-sustaining needs to these people. There is more on this in the Runic section. As a prefix, ‘ac’ can mean at, of, in, to, an. These are five of the possible meanings. Remember, we are talking the language of poetry here. The runic meaning may appear anywhere in a word.
These are a few examples of the native English use of the prefix ‘a’:
again [AS. on for an; ongegn, ongegan; back, in return, moreover, in addition]
agrin AS. a, on & grin
aghast AS. a gasten, gaestan; to terrify
aheight aloft, on high
aweigh (nautical) ‘Anchors aweigh’, an order to pull in the anchor and prepare to sail.
ail AS. eglian, eglan; trouble, pain; to be the cause of…
afore AS. onforan; on-at the front
alot AS. hlot; to assign by lot
The rune of AC can also be present in the forms of a, ac,ace,act, and can occur at any place in a word.
After a while (awhile) one comes to recognize the difference between words whose initial ‘a’ is an Anglo Saxon article or a preposition and those that are Latin, Greek or Arabic. In the case of Arabic, the initial ‘a’ is followed by ‘l’. The prefixed al- is the definite article the when the word is of Arabic origin; when al- is prefixed to an Anglo Saxon word, it generally stands for the word all as in alright, almost, although. The best way to discern which are Arabic is to use a dictionary with the etymology noted right after the word entry. Examples of the Arabic are algorithm, algebra. The native words are usually obvious because they contain a familiar English root word.
Where a word originates is speculation, informed speculation but speculation nevertheless. Until the Twentieth Century the spoken language could not be recorded so all we can really know is when a word first appeared in writing and where that text originated. Many words have multiple origins and some words and elements of words may have entered English from more than one source and at more than one time. Many of those sounds from languages that contribute to English have a parent language in common with the Anglo Saxon. Dictionaries are great sources but all sources do not agree. Man writes the books and man makes mistakes.
Regarding the practice of compounding and contracting words, it is important to consider both the sound /sense and the rhythm/ beat changes that result. The sounds of individual letters can be changed by abutting them to one another as, alright often sounds like ‘awright’, and the word ‘oft’ loses the ‘t’ sound when changed to ‘often’. This leads to mispellings and conflicted messages, unless there is a visual image of the idea being expressed. The ‘A’ has a different and more assertive sounding rhythm or beat – that is dependent upon what that particular ‘A’ stands for. Diminutives have both a place and a purpose and should not ever conflict with the intended sound and sense of language. Whether words are being compounded, contracted or abbreviated neither the sound nor the sense should ever be distorted. Confusion and distortion in the sounds and sense of language are as old as language itself as are the miscommunications that result.
-And why should I care about where a word comes from? What does it matter?
The main reason is that this is the only way to level the playing field (at ground level). This expression is a metaphor. It is just like a simile except that it doesn’t use the words like or as. This is another of those poetic elements of English that makes language so rich and allows us to physically identify with our words, to see them in our mind’s eye. This poetic imagery is in the alphabet, the words, the sentences and in all forms of discourse. It is the equivalent of the kennings of our tribal parent languages. They are substitutes for ideographs in that they give a mental picture that is more effective than pages of the compounded abstractions of text descriptions. A ‘level playing field’ enables more people to play the game and to do it well; it removes obstructions. I specified ‘at ground level’ because a recent tactic for ‘leveling the field’, in education and in business, has been to lower the standards or remove them.
Knowing where a word comes from is key to knowing the meaning of the word and knowing how to pronounce it. All English is made up of elements, each of which is from one to five letters long, each of which has a meaning, each of which has a function. Knowing the origin of a word is key to seeing and knowing the word, its probable meaning, how to pronounce it, and how to spell it. This ability to recognize the elements of words is like recognizing a face. A face is also made up of elements which we recognize on a multitude of levels. If you can scan a human face and recognize it, you can learn to scan text the same way. Reading and understanding text is key to becoming and staying educated and informed.
This is why we all should care about how we use words. Knowing the origin of a word and how it is constructed demonstrates the rules for playing the games of language. Being informed is essential in a democratic type of government where we must insist on being kept informed, we must know how to understand the information, and we must also recognize when we are being gas-lighted or otherwise misled. It is necessary to decode the language symbols and make the inherent messages available to everyone. Inherent messages are not just what the language says, but what it does not say and also what it implies. There are many occasions when both spoken and written language does not really say anything. Being able to decode language more effectively expedites communication both written and spoken.
It is considerably more difficult to succeed at a profession if one doesn’t know how to work within the word formation system of that language. The word-formation mirrors idea-formation. Memorization is not enough because language is always in motion and applications of a word will change as new ideas are formed. New ideas require new word usage; but, the words must observe the codes (rules) or others won’t be able to get the idea. It is possible to convey a new idea to ones’ peers with numbers, pictures, graphs and snippets of tech speech; but, that severely restricts communication. Imagine a doctor, lawyer, and a math professor who can’t communicate with patients, clients, and students. That is not difficult to imagine. Now consider that same communication block between citizens who are five or ten years apart in age. We have had generational language blocks at the sixty-year mark and that is interesting. However, at the rate we are losing words and adding bizzare alphabetic formations that lack referrent images, it is quite possible that many will to grow to adulthood with no functional native language. While doing literacy tutoring I did encounter non-readers who lacked a native language. I mean that some people do not have a spoken language at home. It takes more than strings of words to have ‘language’. Consider that: How does someone learn to read words and sentences that he hasn’t heard?
In the instant case, the subject we are talking about is the basic English language with which we communicate on a daily basis. Not knowing how word formation works, so that we can encode and decode language, limits our communication to those people who know our particular dialect or speech pattern. That can make ones universe very small, exclusive, and lonely. The lack of facility, of ease with language can close one out of new personal and business relationships and it can limit opportunities to learn even the mundame everyday skills and thrills. Equality of opportunity demands equal access to the codes of language formation. In the last three years I have been finding out just how restricted access to our native language is. For those who haven’t noticed it, tech support and customer service jobs are being outsourced to India and Southeast Asia. There are many other countries, former British colonies, who also speak English as a first or second language and do so more fluently than many Americans. Falling behind in math and sciences is terribly distressing; but, that can be remedied if one has sufficient reading skill to self-teach. Falling behind in our language skills is unthinkable. —and it does not have to be
Story: Thirty years ago I worked with a lady whom I still admire. We were medical assistants, front and back office. She was in her forties, beautiful, brilliant, charming, gracious, tactful, thoughtful. She was a wife, mother, and grandmother who had been laid off from a management position in a factory. She went to a trade school and became a medical assistant. After a year she had the ambition of becoming a registered nurse, as employment and to care for family. She had many skills including cooking, dressmaking and people management. I didn’t know she had started college until she told me that she had to drop out because she couldn’t handle the reading. I asked her if she would mind reading something for me. Notice, that she also had the grace of humility and could acknowledge ‘not-knowing’. When she read it became apparent that she had never been shown the Greco-Latin prefix-root-suffix constructs necessary for decoding medical terminology. Within a month she was able to cold-read medical reports, no prereading, practicing, hesitating, or stammering. She returned to school, graduated on time and was at the head of her class. She was the eldest and had children older than her classmates. Sometimes a single skill is all that is lacking. Many people are stymied by not knowing how to look at words. If words are not divided into sense units, they look like nonsense, as readable as a bag of alphabet pasta.
To be or not to be and how ‘to be’–
Regarding the subject of everyday language and different dialects of English, this is a good place to consider the verb ‘to be’, a subject that gets as contentious as it does vague. What do am, is, are, was, were, have been, and will have been have to do with being? Why do some people say “I be, you be, he be, her be, they be, we be.” This is a sore point for many people because so much is presumed about a person based on how they conjugate this one verb
The Runic Beorc, which stands for the English letter B, also stands for ‘new beginnings on a higher organic level’. This means ‘to be’ or ‘to exist’ as in “In the beginning there [be] was…” Beorc is also connected with the Ogham tree alphabet, the Hebrew ‘Beth’, and the Latin. In English, ‘b’ is spelled be and is both the verb ‘to be’ as well as a prefix ‘be-‘. The verb to be is a source of confusion and irritation. One of the irritants is the conjugation of the verb. What is it all about, this irregularity of am, is, was, were, have been, and how do they relate to ‘be’? The converse irritant is ‘Why can’t people learn the proper way to conjugate this verb instead of “I be, you be, we be, “etc.?’ I found an interesting answer in an entry for usages of the verb ‘to be’. “The verb ‘to be’ is unchanged in all its tenses in most of the provincial dialects. ‘I be very hungry,’ etc.” The text is in a compilation of word usages and variations in spoken and written English, circa 1850, “from Northumberland to Cornwall”, as the author defines the territories polled. While it was published in 1850, and reflects usages of that time and prior written usage, it indicates that “I be, you be” were once the speech standard among most of the English speakers. The “Dictionary of Archaic Words” gives five entries under usages for the verb ‘to be’, the above being number three. It goes on…
Be- (1) By (AS.) Occasionally time is understood “Be we part” By the time that we part. This preposition is common in early writers, and is still in use in the north country dialects.
(2) Been The past participle occurring in this form in Chaucer and Robert Gloucester
(3) ibid footnote
(4) A common prefix to verbs generally conveying an intensative power, becharme, bedare, befool, befogged
(5) A jewel, ring, or bracelet
In “Origins…”, the short etymological dictionary of Eric Partridge, he gives nine categories for the use of the prefix ‘be-‘:
-four of them are ‘intensives connoting’ about, around, over, on both or all sides, thoroughly, repeatedly or violently, overmuch, excessively;
-five is ‘causative’ (from adjectives or from nouns) as becalm or bedunce;
-six is ‘approximately or predominently causative’ with the connotation “to affect with, treat or provide with, cover with,” also “frequently funny, ironic or sarcastic e.g. bemusk, befrock, beplumed”;
-seven is ‘privative’ connoting removal or departure and deriving from either verbs or from nouns thus: bereave, beglide, behead;
-eight is ‘denominative’ (from nouns occasionally from adjectives) to name, call, style, as in belady, bewhore, belord, berogue; bestupid, befunny;
-nine is ‘transitive’ (from verbs) connoting a prepositional relationship between verb and object, the preposition being usually against, at, by, for, on, over, to, with (as in beshout) beshine (shine on or upon) besigh (sigh for or over) bemire (cover with mire) betide (happen to) becross (decorate with a cross, make the sign of a cross over).
The Oxford etymological dictionary weighs in with the verb ‘be’ as “The ‘substantive’ and ‘copulative’ verb expressing (i) simple existence, and (ii) existence in a defined state (whence its use with participles as an auxiliary of tense and voice).” It goes on to trace the way we conjugate the verb by noting the similarity in the sounds across many Indo-European languages. The prefix be- is described as a “weak variant of bi- BY, varying in cognate compounds with bi-.” The prefix be- is categorized pretty much as Partridge does so I won’t repeat the usages.
Suffice it to say: ‘Be’, the “substantive and copulative verb” which is also used as a prefix, has the job of uniting words and clauses and forming words and groups of words into those that are the equal of nouns. I believe we can fairly conclude that B, BE- or BEORC, in whatever alphabetic or ideographic (runic) configuration it appears, is still all about new beginnings. BE is we the people creating words that express our thoughts about relationships (using be as by) and states of being (using be as be). We are commenting on existence, both simple and defined states of existence.
This is functional English or, English the Vulgate and is a continuation of the process extant when we were writing Runes instead of alphabet. Among the compound words in this book is a section of words using BE as a prefix and sometimes as a root. While the dictionaries will indicate that some of these words are archaic or obsolete, that is ultimately our decision and not that of the dictionary, “The writer of a dictionary is a historian not a lawgiver.” “We can be guided by the historical record but we cannot be bound by it.” What this means to us is that we can use all of these great words which have fallen out of common usage. It also means that we are free to compose useful new words which follow this classic and eminently useful pattern.
Our ancestors speak:
Since the “Oxford…” text indicates that several I.E. languages use words with sounds that resemble those we currently use to conjugate the verb ‘to be’, it seems the right time to address the possible origins. Since the words are made of similar sounds they likely have similar ideas within them. I suggest evaluating them from a runic perspective to see what meaning is represented and whether it ‘rings true’ or ‘squares’ with the meaning that we see.
So what if it does? This is a powerful and important possibility. If the hypothetical Indo-European language is a precursor of many modern English words and if those same words can be identifiied with Runic symbols, then quite possibly English and I.E. have ideographic parentage. This would provide a strong visual image of what our forbears meant by the sounds and symbols which they produced.
I am A =AC M=MAN A=promising potential, powerful growth and continued unfailing support
M=’symbolic embodiment of the social order’. AM as a bindrune would probably come closest to the words ‘integrity’ and ‘intelligence’. Translated into contemporary word use “I am” would mean “I’m together and I think” not just “I exist”
I be could be analyzed two ways: Beorc and Beorc/Ehwaz. Beorc is rebirth.= I exist; Ehwaz is literally ‘a horse’, also symbolizes ‘brotherhood, sisterhood or close relationship with horse’ and signifies ‘movement is necessary for any task of life’. This sounds like what was called a ‘churl’ in that society. A churl is a loutish fellow, a sort of beast of burden whose job was strictly to labor. To me this sounds like a distinction is being made between classes of people based on degrees of social refinement, to just exist or to strive to function within the social order by accepting the customs and social mores of the group. My remarks come across as a biased value judgement with an American 21st Century perspective. ‘I be‘ could also be ‘existing on a simpler, more elemental level.’ Runically, ‘churl’ could be described as having inner wisdom and a fluid or tractable primal energy. This would make him like ‘the salt of the earth’, a countryman. A ‘serf’ is often seen as a slave. Runically, serf is Siegel Gyfu, ‘power of the sun, attainment of goals, one who gives, who is of service.’
He, she, and it is IS= ‘ the principle of static existance, of inertia and entropy’. IS is under the rulership of the Norn (fate), Vernandi, the present ‘that which is eternally becoming’. He, she, and it are all singular. This would mean that the solitary existance does not progress. In short, all life benefits from functioning within the vitality of groups. This interpretation of is, the present tense of the verb to be, elaborates on ‘be’ and also expresses an observation about mankind in a solitary state.
we, they are ARE = a bindrune, Ac/Rad/Ehwaz equals ‘promising potential, transformative energy, brotherhood’. This sounds like a description of living and working together and getting things done. Another possible decoding route is the rune UR. There are alternative pronounciations in the different English dialects, sometimes with two syllables. When we contract the words to we’re and they’re, we are likely likely saying UR which is the rune of collective human power. If we were to say, “They be” and “We be”, the fact of their existence would be stated but there would be no reference to the value and purpose of a cooperative relationship among these beings.
we, they were This looks another type of compound with the rune WYN (W) before the meaning element ‘ere’. Ere is the element in ‘here’ and ‘there’ which stands for a time/place relationship as in, ‘Ere we part, let’s be sure we are in agreement.’ ‘WYN’‘, in short, is ‘fellowship, shared aims, and general well-being’ . ‘Ere’, is like ‘before’ in that a sense of both place and time is suggested. This carries the sense that from one time and place to another both time and place change. Again, we could say “We be” or “They be” and all we would know is that all of us exist. ‘Were’, interpreted runically, establishes a human relationship within the time/place relationship. Were is past tense of the verb ‘to be’ and Urd is the Wyrd of the Past, the second of the Weird Sisters, the Norns (Fates) of the Northern Tradition.
Are these just more coincidences? Having mentioned UR the rune of ‘collective human power’, let’s look at some words that reference larger groups of people. Some Anglo Saxon words which we still use for towns and cities are burg, burgh, borough [AS. burh, burg. a fortified town, a fortified place; from beorgan, to protect] pp.211, 242 While this isn’t part of the verb ‘to be’ or an example of the prefix be-, this is another application of the rune, BEORC. Living with others is a very common and successful way of be-ing, sharing services, products, labor and safety by living in a town or city. We use the words berg, burg, and burgh to refer to towns and cities. The term ‘borough’ is often used to refer to a political division, a different way of working together and protecting oneself.
Burg, berg, burgh, and borough have much in common when decoded runically. The benefits seem to accrue as the town’s organization grows. B is for BEORC, signifying new beginnings on a higher organic level. U is UR primal power which in humans is a collective power to be used for the common good. R is RAD and represents transformation of spirit, energy and matter. G is GYFU gift. GH is EOH which represents continuity and endurance. Life within a community has the potential to be of a higher organic level, a gift of personal and mutual success with new beginnings and transformation with the collective power of a community. Borough contains the element ‘ough’ which expresses a contained and directed energy. This does not report on what collective human power is. This is our ancestors’ view of what our potential is when we live and work with one another cooperatively.
This cooperative benefit of community is the other end of the spectrum from I, the first person personal pronoun which, while an important and significant force, nevertheless represents entropy and stagnation. ‘I’ is to humanity as zero is to numeration. Both the word ‘I’ and the quantity ‘0’ (zero) have place value. The place where each serves affects the value. That value potential is sufficient justification for our linguistic custom of continuing to capitalize the letter when experts call the practice archaic, unnecessary or pretentious.
Being with others- What or who is an ‘oth’?
BOTH, BOTHER, BROTH, BROTHER, MOTHER, OTHER, OTHERS, ANOTHER, OTHERWISE, : So what is an ‘oth’ and why do it, he, she, and they show up at every party? Are they someone or something important? GOTHS, OSTROGOTHS, VISIGOTHS?
I have wondered about the ‘oth’ for years. About twenty years ago I started hearing of people being referred to as ‘the oth’, meaning anyone who seems strange to me or in someway makes me uncomfortable. It could be poor people, street people, immigrants, people of another color, etc.
Runically O is OS is the mouth from which comes the primal vibration of existence and TH is THORN, the rune of Thor which is ‘definitive action, protective against all things that threaten right orderliness’. This sounds like recognition of a significant force, equal and in opposition to our selves. This is also ‘another mouth’, which can be one more to feed or one more to express opinions, or both. Oth, it seems, is a significant force and an unknown quantity-
which is in sufficient quantity to warrant being covered in another chapter.
The significance of ‘odyllic’ realities is discussed under the topic of the rune of ODAL.
“Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary” p.1500 also [A.S. rædan, to discern, to advise, to read]
Webster’s p. 476, define “L. definire, to limit; de-, from and finire, to set a limit to, to bound, from finis, a boundary”
“Runic Astrology” p. 55 Nigel Pennick
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary p. 1210 “nice [OFr nice, niche, nisce simple, foolish, impudent, ignorant, from L. nescius,ignorant, not-knowing; ne, not, and scire to know]” (Deliberately stupid? -or, charmingly and disarmingly ignoring what could cause offense if one thought about it)
“Dictionary of Archaic Words” p. 930 Halliwell, James Orchard, “WHOUGH. How. (A.-S.) ”
“Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary” When there is a page number after the entry it will refer to Webster’s unless there is another source specifically noted.
Ibid, op. cit. p. 1
Ibid, op. cit. p.1
There is an excellent book that develops this subject in an enlightening and often amusing manner “The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense” by Suzette Haden Elgin. I heartilly recommend it.
gas-lighted refers to the film “Gaslight” from the 1930s, in which an elaborate murder scheme was hatched with layers of deception
“The Dictionary of Archaic Words” Halliwell, James Orchard, Published 1850 p.153
See the Poetic Eddas for the significance of rings and other ornaments and jewels as repositories of magical power. e.g. Ring of the Niebelung: JOH
“Origins…” Eric Partridge p. 824
Oxford…Etymology, Onions, et.al. p.81,82
Webster’s Unabridged p.1817, Substantive is from the Latin meaning ‘self-existent’ and, in grammar, refers to “any word or group of words used as an equivalent for a noun”
op. cit. p. 404, Copulative, like copulate, comes from the Latin copulare, to unite, couple, and in grammar means “involving or comprising connected words or clauses”.
“The writing of a dictionary, therefore, is not a task of setting up authoritative statements about the true meanings of words, but a task of recording, to the best of one’s ability, what various words have meant to authors in the distant or immediate past.”…”The writer of a dictionary is a historian not a lawgiver.” “We can be guided by the historical record but we cannot be bound by it.” “Language in Thought and Action” 2nd edition p.56 S. I. Hayakawa
Please activate the Breadcrumb-NavXT plug-in to use the section.
- Judith has written (and re-written) the pages below, initially for a book and now for this website. These files are still under revision, and should not be treated as stable documents.