The Meaning and Value of Words

1843 ed. Charles Dickens, "A Christmas Carol"

When Charles Dickens wrote his classic A Christmas Carol (first published by Chapman & Hall on 17 December 1843 and, then, reprinted frequently until it became a much-loved classic that was made into various movie productions (now more than forty different versions) by numerous companies in a plethora of nations with great economic success and profit: from the first being filmed in 1901 under the title “Scrooge: Marley and His Ghost” to the second one released in 1908 version which starred Thomas Ricketts as Scrooge and was a short cinema under the title of “A Christmas Carol”), his readers understood the words he chose and the context in which they appeared. In time, however, there was some confusion over terms, phrases, and even words in the novella.  This confusion was the result of the linguistic changes in the world of languages as they became more “modern”: incorporating vulgar (common or street) words and expressions, colloquialisms, and jargon.

I do not see the modernization of language as a positive or good thing. The reason that I do not accept most modern idiomatic expressions, colloquialisms, jargon, and vulgar language is because they not only change but transmogrify, distortively, the writer’s/writers’ original intent. For example, in the First Stave, we find the salutation “Merry Christmas!”  Later in the Stave we read of “merry gentlemen”.  Today “merry” means “full of happiness” and “full of cheerfulness”, but in the days of Dickens, the word meant “causing happiness”.  This is more in keeping with older records, for the Old English (before 900 CE) the word “merry” was understood to mean “to be pleasant” and “to be agreeable”: in short, to be benevolent, to be charitable, to be kind.  It did not include the drunkenness nor the gaiety that appears in today’s misinterpretations and malinterpretations. The same is true in other literary works, especially those considered Holy or scriptural.

In modern-day bibles (actually since 1612), one reads of a man (who some allege married “Eve”) called “Adam.” (Genesis 2:7 and 5:1-5).  In the early scrolls, however, the telling of this account the word is “adamah” אדמה that is the feminine form of אדם translates as “ground” or “earth”.  Moreover, as philologists and linguists would teach in any valid class in interpretation in a reputable school of languages, it is actually a composite term, and not either a word nor a projector, for it is Edom-dam.  The word/name אדום (Edom) means “red”. Dam is the “red” blood, adamah is the “red” ground; linguistically it is a reference to the red soil, from which ancient mythologies created the “red” man [who tills the soil], with man being in the plural (mankind / mortal kind).  What is bitter in the current translations is the desperation of those who would create that which did not exist: a legend intertwining contemporary people with an “original” or “first” human being created by the gods (in the original scrolls, the most frequent word used to describe a supernatural being(s) was אֱלהִים (elohim) which is the plural of אֱל el or il (or god) and means gods / goddesses.

In the ancient Hebrew world, a person’s name was not simply an identifier but descriptive of one’s character. The word for “man” was never used. Instead it was the coloration which reflected the blood that flowed in the veins of the individual allowing him to work. “Eve” does not appear as a woman.  The word is Eva (Hebrew: חַוָּה, Ḥawwāh in Classical Hebrew, while in modern Israeli Hebrew it is “Khavah”, and in Arabic:حواء), who, according to the Apocrypha, was the second wife of Adam after Lilith, but linguistically the word must be translated and interpreted as “living one” or “source of life”, being related to ḥāyâ, “to live” coming ultimately from the Semitic root ḥyw but is far older, originating from the Hurrian hoddess “Kheba” dating from the Late Bronze Age (dating c. 3000 BCE in Greece and China, but c. 1900 in England, etc).

For tens of thousands of years, and probably longer than that, wars and murders have occurred among and between people over who had the right god or goddess (monotheistically or polytheistically), and what that deity or deities demanded, as seen in the cognates for elohim in the Ugaritic ʾlhm and the original Arabic ‎ إله‎; plural: آلهة ʾālihah(ʾilāh) for “god” (the feminine is ʾilāhah إلاهة “goddess”) centuries (if not longer) before “Allah” ( الله‎ that corresponds with the Aramaic form ʼĔlāhā ܐܠܗܐ and Biblical Aramaic, while repeats the ʼAlâhâ ܐܲܠܵܗܵܐ in Syriac) appears in any record as it is  the name of the monotheistic god of all of the Abrahamic religions as al-Lāh, literally “the God”. 

Theology frequently plays a major role in the mistranslation and deliberate misinterpretation of language, especially that which has been recorded in some manner (usually written). Than can be seen in the word Allah (الله‎), which actually comes from Hubal (Arabic: هبل‎) who was regarded as the chief god of gods and whose idol was near the Kaaba in Mecca, being made of red agate, and shaped like a human, but with the right hand broken off and replaced with a golden hand (traditional with ancient Egyptian theology that recorded that gods wrote with golden hands). Hubal had the assistance of three goddesses, known as a trinity:  Allāt (Arabic: اللات‎) or Al-Lāt was a Pre-Islamic Arabian goddess who was the senior goddess of Mecca and is mentioned in the Qur’an (Sura 53:19), indicating that pre-Islamic Arabs considered her as one of the daughters of Allāh along with Manāt and al-‘Uzzá; her sisters were Al-‘Uzzá (Arabic: العزى‎) “The Mightiest One” or “The strong” and was of many Arabian fertility deities; and, Manāt (Arabic: مناة‎) who was the goddess of fate and destiny and a foreteller similar to the Holy Ghost. All of the goddesses, their father and relatives (especially Wadd (Arabic: واد‎) God of love and friendship whose symbol was that of a snake representing the phallus), were worshipped widely, which is why Muhammad made war on Mecca and Medina where their shrines stood in testimony to the polytheism of Arabia.

A true philologist must be dedicated to the language and not to an ontology, theology or philosophy stoked by the passion to prove that which cannot be proven or is incorrect. It is the misuse of language is what causes wars: verbal and assault weapons. This can be seen in the contemporary misuse of the word  جهاد‎  (jihad) that appears forty-one times in the Qur’an (Koran).  It is a noun (definitely not a verb as Islamic terrorists declare) that means “struggle” and is a reference to an inward battle (within the mind / soul) to obtain righteousness.  It is a religious (not military) duty: a service or action that is “striving in the way of God (al-jihad fi sabil Allah)“.  (Cf. William M. Watt, Islamic Conceptions of the Holy War in: Murphy, Thomas P. (1974), The Holy War. Ohio State University Press, p. 143.) Nowhere in the Qur’an / Koran is the term jihad used for fighting and combat in the name of Allah; qital is used to mean “fighting” and it becomes  كفاح kifāḥ  only in the modern world after World War II when Muslims, especially Palestinians, felt they were betrayed a second time (the first time being the unholy crusades) by western civilization and Christians and Jews who made up the majority of all western nations.

When the misuse / mistranslation / misinterpretation of words prove to be a problem is when the words are so grossly changed that with the passing of time no one understands nor even knows their original meaning.  This reality does not require thousands of years to pass, as we can see it within the past two hundred plus years, as when studying the Declaration of Independence of the Colonies, when Thomas Jefferson wrote, borrowing the expression

Philip Mazzei

from an Italian friend and neighbor, Philip [Filippo] Mazzei, that “all men are created equal” (as a rebuttal to the going political theory of the day: the Divine Right of Kings [Romans 13:1-7, used by Martin Luther to authorize the slaughter of peasants in revolt in his Wider die räuberischen und mörderischen Rotten der Bauern (1524-1526); 1 Peter 2:13-17 was used by the medieval papacy to justify a ruler as being  irreproachable), the latter which had Biblical precedence and support, while the former did not)–he was not referring to Black or other minority men (he had numerous slaves and called them “property”) but referred only to white men over the age of 25 who owned property.  (On Philip Mazzei, see: Philip Mazzei, The Virginia Gazette, 1774. Translated by a friend and neighbor, Thomas Jefferson (Cf.  http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=103_cong_bills&docid=f:hj175eh.pdf):

Tutti gli uomini sono per natura egualmente liberi e indipendenti. Quest’eguaglianza è necessaria per costituire un governo libero. Bisogna che ognuno sia uguale all’altro nel diritto naturale.

All men are by nature equally free and independent. Such equality is necessary in order to create a free government.
All men must be equal to each other in natural law

Black men did not become citizens until the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified February 3, 1870. Women did not have the franchise until the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified on August 18, 1920.

Marriage is the most heatedly discussed (and argued) word in many nations, especially in the USA when it initially provoked an evangelical storm over legalizing divorce and then remarriage, and finally in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century over the issue of same-sex marriages.  Few people understand its meaning, save from a Judeo-Christian background. Linguistics, however, separates prefixes, affixes, suffixes, and focuses on the true meaning of words, which usually lowers tensions and invites a more reasonable response. For example, with marriage, we find it to be a compound term and not a word; the critical issue is the suffix (-age) that comes from the Latin -aticum meaning “belonging to, related to,” and originally was a neutral adjective as seen in -atus,  prepositional phrase suffix of verbs of the first conjugation. Marry, however, from the Latin maritare, meant “to give away” or “to renounce parenthood” or “give up possession.”  To this day a father “gives away” the bride, which, before 1000 CE meant “a connection consisting of a thread or a number of threads for joining various solid parts of a design in needlepoint lace” and in the ancient world meant the individual who cooked (not prepared) the food. Gender had nothing to do with it (cf. Aeschylus, Myrmidons, fr. 135-136) as late as the fourteenth century CE (Aeschines, Adversus Timarchus, 142; cp. Plato, Symposium 178E-179; Plutarchm Erotikos, 751c; Philostratus, Epistles 5, 8; [Lucian] Amores, 54, and Lucia, Dialogues de Dioses 8.4; cf. Martial 11.44) until the 324 CE but few followed the law and many contemporaries declared it to be a forgery (see: Mommsen, Theodor (or Teodore) and Meyer, Pavlvs M. ed. (1905).  Theodosiani libri XVI : cum Constivtionibvs Sirmondianis et Leges novellae ad Theodosianvm pertinentes; consilio et avctoritate Academiae litterarvm regiae borvssicae [Berolini, apvd Weismannos]).

Andes Ice Cap with Quelccaya Ice Cap (NASA photo)

Of more critical importance to Latin Americans, especially those in South America (such as Perú, Brasil [the correct spelling], Argentina, and Chile), the phrase “ice cap” has become defined as “a mass of ice and snow that permanently covers a large area of land” and is associated with the Andes Mountains (although this “cap” is eroding rapidly and may disappear by 2030). Science has a different interpretation, and makes ice cap a compound noun, meaning “A dome-shaped body of ice and snow that covers a mountain peak or a large area and spreads out under its own weight. Ice caps have an area of less than 50,000 square km (19,500 square mi).” A more popular definition would be a “polar cap” (Arctic or Antarctic), but none of these elements are “permanent” (present participle of the Latin permanēre “to remain”) anymore because of global warming and climate change.  Even permanent, which meant “intended to exist or function for a long, indefinite period without regard to unforeseeable conditions: a permanent employee; the permanent headquarters of the United Nations,” has changed to “until a different situation occurs involving change.”

Since Mick Jagger (a rock-and-roll singer and band leader of the Rolling Stones), the word bird (originally it meant “any warm-blooded vertebrate of the class Aves, having a body covered with feathers, forelimbs modified into wings, scaly legs, a beak, and no teeth, and bearing young in a hard-shelled egg”) has invaded street English to mean (1) a small penis (see: http://www.allvoices.com/contributed-news/8159878-mick-jagger-bird-small-said-the-legendary-band-the-rolling-stones-guitarist-keith-richard), (2) a girl, a promiscuous girl, the middle finger, and even an aircraft (see: http://onlineslangdictionary.com/meaning-of/bird), (3)  youth (see: http://www.musicsonglyrics.com/M/mickjaggerlyrics/mickjaggerpartydolllyrics.htm) and more if one incorporates contemporary music lyrics into the lexicon of language. The problem with incorporating music of any period into a dictionary (now made popular by Oxford University Press–a for-profit organization without respect for purity of language) is that the meaning of words changes far more rapidly (the English Club is gracious when it writes that modern music uses “very informal language”–primarily “Slang [that] is a kind of language consisting of very informal words and phrases”; see: http://www.englishclub.com/ref/Slang/Music/index.htm) than most rappers change their underwear. To this end Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina” says nothing but indicates the need to drive fast. Daddy Yankee (Ramón Luis Ayala Rodriguez (born February 3, 1977, born in Puerto Rico) has no formal education (he was married at age 17, common in the Latino world), and whose English is paltry at best. His main challenge is to translate correctly, but as most Latinos and other non-native speakers do, uses an automatic electronic (usually Google) translator to form his words.  Errors abound using such devices, for example, in Spanish:

English text with Google and Freetranslation renditions (2011)

For these reasons, any quality school of Languages will have not only language courses, but courses in correct translation and interpretation, with the professional educators knowing and employing the differences that separate the two and assist the student to fully understand what is essential in being a translator, interpreter or a combination of the two in business, tourism, foreign diplomacy, and various forms of negotiations. What is essential is that the student understands that one cannot do a verbatim (word-for-word) translation any more than an idealized interpretation and be correct.

Fortunately, in French, there are no “cross comparisons” although Americans and others who study the French language attempt to find or “prove” such “cross-comparisons.” A mon avis, ‘comparaison entre (between) deux langues’ ou ‘similitudes entre deux langues’ suffit. Pas la peine de rajouter “croisées”. Mais ce n’est pas incorrect. En tout cas, sans trait d’union. While Spanish is attempting to end the use of accent marks, such is not the case in French, for the French know that accent marks enable both the reader and speaker to better learn and understand the language.

Sadly, those who are weak in language skills assume that interpretation and translation are correlative to the language itself. This is not true as to know a language requires the speaker / learner to also know the culture, customs, and so forth of the language itself (for that reason, there are numerous forms of French (dialects) as there are numerous forms of English, German (High {Hochdeutsch [High German] refers to the languages that were spoken inland in the more mountainous regions, especially in Hanover and had its biggest impact on Yiddish}, Middle {a more “modern” German and is used between the Main line and the Benrath line}, and Low {Low German (used all regions north of Benrath line) did not take part in the second vowel change in 7th and 8th century CE. The second vowel change affected especially German consonants (plosives and occlusives) p, t and k that were transformed to pf/f, ts/s and ch} and note the difference between Dutch and Deutsch), and so forth. Low German had its biggest impact on English, Flemish, Dutch and other lowland countries in the northern hemisphere}. Examples of the differences in German include: English do, Dutch doen, Low German doon : German tun; English mother, Dutch moeder, Low German Modder, Mudder : German Mutter; and, English bid, Dutch bieden, Low German bidden : German bitten, Bavarian pitten.

For years, now, foreign languages have been taught adequately. This is the result of numerous causes, but the most significant that language centers ignore are:

Language transfer, to which one-third of the deviant sentences from second language learners can be attributed.  There is a notable difference between those whose native tongue is Spanish and those whose native tongue is French when learning English is essential.  Spanish speakers learning English may say “Is raining” rather than “It is raining”, leaving out the subject of the sentence. French speakers learning English, however, do not usually make the same mistake. This is because sentence subjects can be left out in Spanish, but sentence subjects cannot be omitted in French (Cook, Vivian (2008). Second Language Learning and Language Teaching. London: Arnold, p. 13; attempting to use the French language and not knowing it produces some unique problems, as learned by Colgate that introduced a toothpaste in France called Cue, the name of a notorious pornographic magazine).

Intralingual interference being composed of:

  • overgeneralization associated with redundancy reduction
  • ignorance of rule restrictions
  • incomplete application of rules
  • semantic errors such as building false concepts/systems

Sociolinguistic situation: motivation (instrumental or integrative) and settings for language learning

Modality of exposure and production / reproduction of the language

Age being the chronological and intellectual age of the learner: whether or not the individual is motivated to learn and has accepted the necessity of studying: reading, writing, speaking, listening, interpreting, and so forth. Along with this factor is the student’s willingness and ability to stay awake during class (many students in poor nations work when not in class and arrive at class tired if not exhausted) and are not embarrassed to talk in class (many of the students with whom I have spoken about this problem have explained to me that their shyness was because of being ridiculed either by the teacher or other students for common errors or mispronunciation; the teacher must reassure the student(s) that errors are a part of human frailty and that all can learn from mistakes).

Foreign languages have been taught for countless years, but since the era of the world wars (1914 and after) language learning has declined remarkably, where most professors and the majority of students are barely knowledgable and not truly proficient but accepted as linguists. It is now imperative that foreign languages be taught accurately.  This will only happen when there are professional trained linguists and philologists: people who know how to accurately pronounce, read, write, and interpret words, as well as use them in their proper context.  To become proficient in the second language, the learner must be given opportunities to use it for communicative purposes (Doughty, Catherine; Williams, Jessica, eds (1998). Focus on Form in Classroom Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; and, Ellis, Rod (2002). “Does form-focused instruction affect the acquisition of implicit knowledge?” Studies in Second Language Acquisition 24 (2): 223–236).  Academic Deans must be involved in this opportunity and challenge language directors and chairs of language departments to coordinate efforts, hire qualified faculty, set learning languages near libraries, and require regular testing of students while offering tutorial services for those with a desire to master a language yet are deficient of the language nuances.

One comment to The Meaning and Value of Words

  • Sharon Treinen  says:

    Wow, what an education in reading this blog! Your knowledge and research cannot be matched! I would agree, interpretation and translation are where many disagreements occur and many “experts” are not consistent.

Leave a reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.