The Resplendent Magic Of Language

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for January 16, 2020, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            Words! Words! Words! I have just recently finished my second book, Open Prairies, though it won’t come out until later in 2020, as my daughter, the book designer, has it in her hands now. All but one chapter of my first book, It Must Be the Noodles, is written in prose, while this second one, Open Prairies is a collection of my poems. The most exciting activity under the sun for me is working with words to generate paragraphs of prose or stanzas of poetry, an excitement that probably began in my childhood, when I read one of the only three books my parents owned, a dictionary, from cover to cover many times. To even want to do that, you’d have to see words as at least somewhat magical.

            In fact, they were considered magical in ancient Greece, when each army had not only spear-throwers and arrow-shooters, but also word-shouters at the enemy. The word-shouters would shout invectives at the other army, believing that invective (insulting or abusive language) had the magical power to kill. They believed you could literally kill with words, so the first order of business in any battle was invective, hoping huge numbers of enemies would be killed by it.

            Invective evolved into satire over the years, and lost its power to kill physically, though some satire today can zap you pretty hard emotionally, but unfortunately, it’s one of the easiest ways to create humor. I tend to use self-deprecatory humor, satirizing myself rather than others, because I do not like to hurt other people, and, while they cannot kill, words always have the power to help or hurt.

            It is exciting to know that the English language contains over one million words, but somewhat sad to note that the average person uses only about a thousand of those million words in speaking or writing. Everyone usually understands more than a thousand words, knowing the meaning of up to maybe 10,000 words. In contrast, William Shakespeare, according to scholars who study such things, used between 16,000 and 25,000 different words in his works. Shakespeare’s usage is even more remarkable when you consider that there were fewer than a million words in the English vocabulary at that point in history. Probably the biggest difference between professional writers and the average person is size of vocabulary, along with the ability to put words together in smooth-flowing sentences.

            Believe it or not, there were no English dictionaries before 1604, so even in Shakespeare’s lifetime (he died in 1616), the language was still in a state of flux. I would guess that some of Shakespeare’s “functional shifts” were reflecting that state of flux. Shakespeare wrote, “That monsters it,” using “monster” as a verb rather than a noun (which is what a functional shift is); however, grammar and usage were still in a stage of flux. The first English grammar book came out in 1596, when the Bard was 32 years old. Since usage determines grammar, not the other way around, great writers like Milton and Shakespeare helped determine the rules of grammar.

            “Anglo-Saxon” is a synonym for “Old English,” a term which acknowledges only the “English” (“Anglisc”) part of the language, ignoring the “Saxon” part, which cues us that it’s a Germanic language. Today, Icelandic is the modern language which most closely resembles Old English/ Anglo-Saxon. While we are able to read Middle English (Chaucer) somewhat, it is almost impossible for us to read Old English. Unless you’re from Iceland.

            A large percentage of modern English words are derived from Greek, Latin, and French, and are usually multi-syllabic. I find in my writing that the most powerful words in English are the Anglo-Saxon/Old English words, — simple, one-syllable words. For example, “audacious” came into our language from Latin, whereas “bold” is originally Anglo-Saxon/Old English. In writing poetry, “bold” usually packs a greater punch than “audacious,” though if the poem is about genteel ladies in flowing silk, “audacious” might go and flow with the other word choices. The writer must be tuned in to the music of his poem.

            There is so much to know and to learn and to do in this splendid creative art known as writing. I write English prose and poetry every day of my life, and I cannot imagine being deprived of that joy even one day of my life.


Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and author of the book, It Must Be the Noodles.

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