Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Words We Use

I've been noticing how a person's vocabulary may be expanded by reading, but it does not always impact our speech. Yesterday, for example, hubby was talking to his staff and used the word absconded.

Hubby: "You would have thought I said something in a foreign language for the reaction it got!"

I guess most people would say stolen, or made off with it, or some similar and more common phrase.

Me: "Tomorrow your assignment is to use the word akimbo in a sentence. Say, 'My wife stood there in the living room with her arms akimbo...' and see what they say."

Hubby: "They'll probably make something x-rated out of that one."

Me: "They'd better not, that's your wife they're talking about!"

Hubby: "Not you dear, akimbo.."

How often do you read words that would never pass your lips in a real conversation? Yet you know the words, they are comfortable to you, they just feel too foreign to speak. A friend of mine was reading with me on a beach a few years ago and she was puzzled by a phrase. "Her august presence..." She said, "What does the month of August have to do with someone's presence?" I explained the OTHER meaning of the word august and the pronunciation I knew it as with the emphasis on GUST vs AUG. This was a whole new concept to her and she is very well read.

As the years pass and fewer and fewer people read real literature with beautifully crafted language and uncommon phrases I wonder if the books that we avid readers treasure might just become impossible to decipher. In college I studied Chaucer in middle english. It was both enticing and exhausting, and in the first read, nearly impossible to understand. Soon words like akimbo, abscond, august, and other wonderful and lyrical words will be a part of our foggy past.

Here's a treat for you...A Knight's Tale from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in the Middle English. See if you can understand this "foreign" language:

859: Whilom, as olde stories tellen us,
860: Ther was a duc that highte theseus;
861: Of atthenes he was lord and governour,
862: And in his tyme swich a conquerour,
863: That gretter was ther noon under the sonne.
864: Ful many a riche contree hadde he wonne;
865: What with his wysdom and his chivalrie,
866: He conquered al the regne of femenye,
867: That whilom was ycleped scithia,
868: And weddede the queene ypolita,
869: And broghte hire hoom with hym in his contree
870: With muchel glorie and greet solempnytee,
871: And eek hir yonge suster emelye.
872: And thus with victorie and with melodye
873: Lete I this noble duc to atthenes ryde,
874: And al his hoost in armes hym bisyde.
875: And certes, if it nere to long to heere,
876: I wolde have toold yow fully the manere
877: How wonnen was the regne of femenye
878: By theseus and by his chivalrye;
879: And of the grete bataille for the nones
880: Bitwixen atthenes and amazones;

Modern English will be posted tomorrow.


Pat said...

My favorite part is the Prologue of the Canterbury Tales, and I can still quote it. I love the way the words sound when spoken.

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

I love words that mean exactly what you want them to--concisely--akimbo is excellent.