The joy of language

Language is a funny thing – it’s fluid, it appears to be constant but the use and meanings of words change.
When we arrived in the UK from South Africa, we quickly learnt to say ‘trousers’ and not ‘pants’. The meaning were quite different in the two countries. What I understand by the word ‘now’ is not what a British person understands and to confuse them (British) even more, say ‘just now’ or even ‘now now’. Then in South African English we have ‘ja-nee’ (adopted from the Afrikaans meaning ‘yes-no’ – what??? I hear you exclaim).

So often I come across the same word used by authors in the same sentence let alone the same paragraph. When I was doing my thesis, I was reliably informed by one of my supervisors not to use the identical word in one complete sentence unless you absolutely had to. It made sense in terms of reducing confusion but more significantly enriched my writing (if only I could do the same when I speak).

To be honest, I hate the writing process – I only do it because it disseminates the wonderful stories that I discover as an historian. But the one thing I do enjoy about the art of putting words on paper is the challenge of finding synonyms – words or phrases. So I was particularly excited when I came across this article on lost words. And reassuringly, I’m not the only one who likes words, so does Ayòbámi Adébáyò.

And, rightly or wrongly, I’m all for recouping those lost words and reinstating meanings of a by-gone era. Too many words have been high-jacked for political purposes which in a global world such as the one we operate in, is most restrictive. Not least because it removes variety and the element of learning. I recall once being asked to reprimand a student for plagiarism – the evidence? They had used the word fracas. Such a ‘big’ word used by a student from India in the UK automatically meant they’d cribbed from somwhere. The student was not reprimanded but the staff member was given a lesson in cultural nuances. So long as we keep insisting that authors write to meet ‘our’ language requirements publishers are not going to break down cultural barriers and truely embrace diversity.

(I can’t help but chuckle that the ‘readability’ sampler on this blog says ‘needs improvement’: no sub-headings, one-third of the sentences are too long and shock-horror! I’ve written in the passive voice).

Why not try some books written in a non-traditional English style? For starters, here at TSL we have:
Shaka are Dead
The Roots that gave birth to Magical Blossoms
Kenya Days, Moonlit Nights
Then there’s:
Room by Emma Donoghue
The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Haskek

first published 4 January 2018, updated 2024