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Basic English Grammar – More About Words and How They Grew From Letters
What are words? They are meaningful arrangements of letters. What are letters? They are the symbols of sounds that, when put together or left alone, have meaning that can be associated with a life experience with a person, place, thing, or idea. An alphabet is a compilation of the recognized and accepted letters and their corresponding sounds with which the words of a language are constructed. Compare the following four alphabets from the thousands that exist. Notice the similarities in the formation of many of the letters. The symbol H looks identical in English, Russian, and Greek; but the sound differs. In English, H /aitch/ is usually aspirated with a rapid exhalation. In Greek, H is pronounced as the long English vowel E /ee/. The Russian sound for H is equivalent to the English N /en/. Conversely, some similar sounds have strikingly different symbols. The /ess/ sound in English is S; in Greek, it is Σ; and in Russian, it is C.
English: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
Greek: Α Β Γ Δ Ε Ζ Η Θ I Κ Λ Μ Ν Ξ Ο Π Ρ Σ Τ Υ Φ Χ Ψ Ω
These are comparisons of relatively similar alphabets; imagine the greater difficulties to be encountered with alphabets that are starkly different from the mother tongue of the person whose fatherland is different from that of the language to be learned.
Language is the effective application of these sounds and symbols in an effort to communicate them accurately to another person or animal so that a predictable response can be elicited. Every society has its language, but the principles and objectives are the same: Get the message clear. How simple communication would be if all cultures had one language based on a logical system of sounds and symbols. Imagine three billion people all understanding one another as I imagine dogs, whales, mice, fleas, ants, worms, and cockroaches do all over the world.
Transport an American-bred cockroach to Germany in a picnic basket aboard a DC 767 and allow it (him or her?) to mingle with its foreign cousins. What would be the result? Would there be a language barrier? Does a Russian Wolfhound (Borzoi) communicate any differently with his litter mates in Minsk than he would with his litter mates in Hoboken? Do earthworms in Singapore react any differently than those dug up in Boise, Idaho?
One problem with English is that it has borrowed words from so many other languages that it is most difficult to master it as a second language. There is no purity in the vocabulary base. There is no predictability upon which to base logical rules that would universally apply to similar roots within the language resulting in a more easily recognizable pattern. The English word for DOG originates with Middle English dogge while the word HOUND is remotely related to the German hund. The Spanish word for dog, perro, in no way resembles the English word but refers to the same animal. Etymology is another story. It would take an epic work to treat this aspect of language.
The construction of words is a twofold process. First, a sound is made. Then, some group of symbols from an established database is selected to represent that sound in written form in case the recipient of the intended message is not present to receive it when it is ready to be sent. The database for English consists of the consonants, vowels, diphthongs and some triphthongs. Each language has its own database of symbols and dictionary of current vocabulary as well as rules of grammar and usage. Gestures and nonverbal communication are also unique to differing cultures though some have acquired a universal flavor. Most nationalities recognize the significance of shooting the bird, a closed fist with the middle finger erect with an upward thrust added for emphasis. For those cultures that do not associate the generally accepted meaning with that gesture, interesting reactions result ranging from indifference to dismay.
Speech is meaningful sound made for a purpose. The following expressions represent sounds. They are meaningful. They have a purpose. They elicit predictable reactions. They surely communicate. They may even be considered to be words of a specifically unique nature.
Oooohhh! [surprise] Oooohhh! I like that!
Aaahhhh! [delight] Aaahhhh! I like that, too.
Ow! [pain] Ow! That hurt!
Whee! [excitement] Whee! This is fun!
Whhhaaaahhh! [demand for attention] Whhhaaaahhh! You said I could use the car tonight.
Words are recognizable units. We see them on paper and they create an image. We hear them and they create the same image but through a different path.
The eye sees the word and the mind sees this picture (or something similar).
The ear hears the word and the mind also sees something similar.
But, this picture will not appear in the mind of anyone who has not experienced the word or its meaning. That’s the way it goes for the other 499, 999 words as well. Instead, the only picture that will appear is this:
Nothing is there. That’s the point.
When children learn new words, they have some kind of reference to lean on, like a picture or the real thing. They hear the word TRUCK and associate the sound /truk/ with the object itself. (The word and its correct spelling don’t come till later.) They can differentiate between the sounds /bus/ and /truk/ by visualizing the objects they represent. The constant reappearances of the objects reinforces the association between the objects and the sounds that are equated with them. They have conveniently different shapes, sizes, and colors to help the child make distinctions among similar objects. Children have no idea that these are common, concrete nouns and couldn’t care less.
Real life experiences involve interpersonal relations between people and their environment, which includes not only persons but animals, things, elements of nature and a universe of abstract ideas with an equally large number of terms to describe them.
Many years ago, I assigned a seventh grade class a language arts project to create new languages as individual as themselves. Each student invented his own system with which to create new words, sentence structure, and even new grammar. The results were as different as the students were unique. The experience was educational for them and enlightening for me. Not only did they come to realize just how difficult it is to create language and utilize it in a society that is comprised of diversity rather than similarity but also they acquired an appreciation for the language they already had. Never did English seem easier than in comparison to their creations.
Since this is a lesson in English, let’s concentrate just on the English letters. Put them together to form recognizable units that have specific meaning. There is a method to the madness of the selection process. The easiest way is to utilize what has already been accepted. Use forms of words that already make sense to the masses that need them. Words consist of sounds and symbols that represent them.
Sounds and Alphabetic Symbols
The smallest linguistic unit of sound is the phoneme, and its corresponding written equivalent is the grapheme. The smallest unit of change is the morpheme. [The addition of the morphemes -ish and -ly to the morpheme girl form the new word girlishly.] Without going into the science of linguistics, combine vowels, consonants, and diphthongs to form words. Arrange the words in such a way that they make basic sense. Apply the rules of grammar and common sense. You have communication that works. With words as the bricks, you are the architect who designs and constructs buildings from huts to mansions or even castles. The analogy stretches the concept a bit, but look at the hut as a simple sentence and the castle as a verbose compound-complex structure. Consider, then, that a composition is a town and a novel represents New York.
What are vowels and consonants? Vowels are sounds that emanate from an open mouth with lips apart. (Yes! The mouth can be open with the lips closed. Try filling the mouth with air and keep the lips closed. See?) Consonants are those other letters that must be used with vowels to make words.
A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y when it sounds like /ee/
The sounds range the full gamut from the wide open AHH to the tiny aperture through which the omnipresent /oo/ (as in GOO) so often appears.
B, C, D, F, G, H, J, K, L, M, N, P, Q, R, S, T, V, W, X, Y, and Z.
These are two-vowel combinations that are sounded as if they were single vowels.
ai – pair
ou – out
ae – antennae
oa – oar
oi – poison
ui – puissant
eo – yeoman
oe – amoeba
eu – feud
ei – feign
au – sauce
ie – fiend
ue – questionl
uu – vacuum
These are three-vowel combinations that are sounded as if they were single vowels.
Consonant sounds are made by constricting or obstructing the path of air from the lungs to its exit from the nose or mouth (or both). They are called consonants because they must be sounded with one or more vowels in order to exist as part of a word. The word consonant itself means to be sounded together with something else. That something else is a vowel. Naturally, some sounds that can be construed as words (since they communicate meaning) can be constructed from only consonants. PSSSST! comes to mind along with Hmmmm. It can be argued that these are not really words but prime examples of onomatopoeia. I won’t argue.
What happens when just random letter combinations are thrown together without regard to etymology? Sometimes nothing happens. Sometimes meaning becomes attached to them.
Here are some combinations that do have meaning:
AA: Alcoholics anonymous;
American Airlines; Associate of Arts
A-1: top notch; really good
Baa: the cry of sheep
D: Roman numeral for fifty (50); musical key; less than average, but passing, grade
Eeeek: expression of negative surprise
Gee: mild expletive; specific string
Grrrrr!: not so mild expletive of negative emotion
mmmmm: [with rising and falling tone] good
naahh: extended colloquial expression of negation
nth: highest innumerable degree
oooh: [similar to oh with longer /u/ sound] nice surprise
pp.: plural for pages
ssshhh!: be quiet
tsktsk: sounded expression that says little and means much, as, “For shame! Fie!”
vah-vah-vah-voom: explosive happiness
WaWa: like 7-11, all night mini-grocery store
ZZZZZZ: deep sleep
Here are some sounds that might have meaning:
Ppphhhffftt: sound of beer or soda can immediately after top is popped.
Tthhwackkk! also Tthhwurckkk!: Extracting foot from deep mud.
Aaaaiiieeee: hysterical scream of terror as last heard from one falling without a parachute.
Hunh?: Informal expression of lack of understanding or perception
Un huh: Informal negative
Some have no meaning at all.
Assuming you have a good dictionary available, use it as a source for acquiring an immense vocabulary. Then, apply the rules and principles that follow to attain expertise in grammatical correctness and fluency in a language that defies control.
By the time children have learned to print the representations of the objects that they have learned to recognize, they may be able to determine the categories into which those words can be assigned. English has designated eight categories into which all words can be assigned depending on how the word is used in the sentence in which it is found. [What’s a sentence? Put a group of words together in such a way that specific meaning is conveyed. The result is a sentence.]
The foundation of language, both written and spoken, is based on words (and their denotations as well as connotations), symbols, and tone. All words in English have one of the eight functions described above. These functions are called parts of speech because they are parts of speech — segments of speech that, when put together meaningfully, create messages that are clarified by the symbols (punctuation) that accompany them and the tone, which, when added to the message, emphasizes attitudes, like anger, compassion, understanding, frustration or any of hundreds of others.
Words are combinations of letters to form meaningful representations of people, places, things, and ideas. That sounds easy enough.
Take the letters T, E, A, and M. Shuffle them up a bit. Four different words will appear.
Team: group of individuals forming a single unit
Meat: edible flesh
Tame: domestication of the partner above
Another example of a mixed bag of letters to form multiple words: S, T, A, R
These letters yield:
Star: twinkling phenomenon from light years away
Tars: putting that black, sticky, road stuff on
Arts: Activities that tend to imitate, alter, or counteract nature
Rats: nasty rodents
Tsar: nasty biped
But, there are problems when one combination of letters represents more than one person, place, thing, or idea. Here are three examples:
1. bat 2. run 3. set. You have seen them already.
The first one brings to mind two distinct meanings both of which are readily recognizable: (1) the stick used in baseball; and (2), the creepy little beast associated with witches and goblins.
The second example generally refers to moving faster than a rapid walk. But it also means to compete for an elected office. More than 100 meanings have been found for this word. The word point has been defined in over 1100 ways through 55 different senses or interpretations.
The third word has more than two hundred meanings. It is no wonder English is so difficult. These are only three of the more than half a million words that are currently available in the English language. What could make learning English easy? Nothing. A photographic memory would help. Memorizing the entire series of English dictionaries would help. Knowing how to codify all the words into the eight categories of word usage would also help. But none of this is easy. The changes in word meanings occur more rapidly than even the sharpest mind could contemplate or assimilate.
So many of the words in English also sound so much the same that just listening to them without strict attention could cause confusion or misunderstanding. Look at the following examples:
HMM: an expression of understanding, agreement, or mild delight.
HIM: the objective pronoun for any masculine, singular noun.
HYMN: a religious song
HUM: to elicit a sound from the throat past closed lips to and through the nose.
HEM: the bottom stitching of fabric folded along the edge.
HAM: pork products, for one.
REED: narrow stalk
READ: doing what you’re doing now; also, the past form of the same verb
There are hundreds of words that are spelled the same and sound the same but have different meanings:
LEFT: the past tense of leave
LEFT: the opposite of the right
RIGHT: the opposite of LEFT
SLIP: woman’s undergarment
SLIP: parking spot for a boat
BEAT: rhythmic pattern
BEAT: pound to a pulp
SHEET: line (like rope) on a boat
SHEET: covering for a mattress
SHEET: single piece of regular-sized paper like what you are now reading
Why does this happen? Surely, there are enough letter combinations to be able to provide for all the needs of the speakers of a language. With twenty-six letters, the possible combinations are virtually endless. Just using those twenty-six letters without repeating any, the possible number of combinations is 26 to the 26th power. That’s a lot of words considering that 26 to only the 8th power yields 5,429,503,678,976 possibilities (5 trillion, 429 billion, 503 million, 678 thousand, 976 words). That’s more than enough for one word for every living human being on earth and the few still circling it.
Where did English get all its words? Most came from existing words from other languages, living and dead. The largest group comes from Latin and Greek combinations that have been taken verbatim, so to speak, or from modifications of those words. Alias and alibi are examples of those taken directly from Latin while the word initial [from initialis] has assumed a truncated form. The etymology [from Greek, etymon + logos] of words is another mammoth work not to be addressed here since it has thousands of treatments elsewhere.
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