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My View: Foreign influences feed our mother tongue

By Robert Poczik

I have been thinking lately about one of our most important possessions — the English language. It is much misused and neglected these days. That is especially apparent in the abbreviated form of English that is used to communicate on electronic devices, where using the fewest keystrokes seems to be the goal. It is certainly not helped by the declining numbers of those who read books on a regular basis for learning and pleasure.

Books are, after all, the primary repositories and preservers of language, and the major source of learning. Historian Barbara Tuchman once wrote, "Books are humanity in print." We even have an expression for those who learned language primarily through reading — "book-learned." There are important figures in our history who greatly changed the world, and who were basically self-taught by reading books, including Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and Frederick Douglass.

The English language is particularly rich and varied because it has been open to foreign influence throughout its more than 1,000-year history. It has willingly co-opted words from other languages without worrying too much about the purity of the language. As glorious as it can be, we might also think of English as a pack rat language: Our populations and cultures are so diverse, and we readily collect new words and squirrel them away.

Robert Poczik

For centuries, the British Empire had colonies, ports and trading routes across the globe, and brought home many words that were incorporated into English. As a result of its long occupation of India, for example, we have many Hindi words in common use today: yoga, bazaar, khaki (in Hindi, meaning "dust"), bandanna, veranda, guru, thug, shampoo (meaning "rub"), and pajamas, just to name a few.

We are keenly aware today of the number of Hispanics entering and living in our country. We might not realize how much our vocabulary has been influenced and enriched by words that came from Spanish. Foods we readily recognize — taco, tortilla, quesadilla — but how about place names — California, Colorado, Las Vegas? The list goes on and on and includes ranch, canyon, tornado, mosquito, comrade, embargo, patio, plaza and silo.

Eskimos may have 50 different words for snow, but English has hundreds of words describing variations of feelings and emotions. These include being apathetic, astonished, alienated, accepted, amazed, amused, overwhelmed, overjoyed, repressed, irrepressible, uneasy, unfazed, frustrated, fulfilled, heartfelt, deep-seated, skin-deep, pent-up, as well as the old standbys happy and sad.

There is a deeper purpose to having at one's disposal a range of words and phrases. It can allow for distinctions that bring greater clarity and meaning, subtlety and nuance, to feelings and experiences. Some years ago, a woman shared with me how devastated she was by a divorce, and told me that she had driven by herself up into northern Maine. She said to me, "I felt such loneliness … no, not loneliness." I suggested, "solitude?" "Yes," she said, "that’s it, solitude."

For another person and situation, the right word might have been "isolation." The important thing is that the right word helped her better understand and express what she was feeling.

So language can help us become fuller human beings capable of grasping, reflecting on, and more clearly expressing a full range of thoughts and feelings. That doesn't mean using what are sometimes called "ten dollar" words — long words that are intended to make one seem well educated and superior. What is needed is the right word that best fits the situation and relationship. Often it is the simplest words that can bridge social distance and create shared understanding.

Stephen King, no slouch for effective writing that reaches huge audiences, once said that using long words when short ones would do "is like dressing a household pet in evening clothes." It embarrasses the pet and should embarrass its owner.  

Robert Poczik, of Williamsville, has a reverence for the English language.

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