The mystery of the English language

New Delhi: Perhaps because it’s the only language I know properly I’m fascinated by the idiosynscrasies of English. Its pronunciation is often inexplicable, its spelling mystifying and the same word can have different meanings, including some that are the opposite of each other. How many other languages can boast of such a cornucopia of eccentricities?

For instance, we’re familiar with antonyms, words that are the opposite of each other. But what do you make of the following six where the word can be the opposite of itself, depending on how you use it? They’re sometimes called contronyms, although I haven’t found that term in the Oxford Dictionary.

The first is ‘dust’: it can mean ‘to add fine particles’ (like dusting a cake with castor sugar) or ‘to remove fine particles’ (which you have to do every day in Delhi). Then there’s ‘left’. It can mean both ‘remaining’ and ‘departed’. Or ‘off’. It can mean you’ve ‘activated’ something (as in ‘set off’) or ‘deactivated’ (as in ‘switch off’). There’s also ‘oversight’, meaning either ‘watchful care’ or ‘an inadvertent or careless error’. Yet another is ‘screen’, meaning both ‘to show’ and ‘to hide’. And, finally, ‘sanction’, which can either be ‘a penalty for disobeying the law’ or ‘official permission for action’.

Now isn’t that delightful ambiguity? It makes English a fascinating language for those who know it but exasperating for those struggling to learn it. And there are multiple such idiosyncrasies english speakers need to grapple with.

Another is what’s sometimes called ‘capitonyms’, although, again, I haven’t found that term in the dictionary. What it means is a word whose meaning changes when the first letter is in capitals. I know that sounds odd but you’ll soon realize it’s not. In fact, without being aware of it, you’ve probably been making this distinction for years.

Let me list eight examples and you’ll immediately get the point. Consider march/March? Can you spot how the meaning has changed? You’ll see it happening again with: polish/Polish, august/August, china/China, lent/Lent, fiat/Fiat and mark/Mark.

Actually, there was a further twist in some of the pair of words you’ve just read. In the case of two, the pronunciation changes when the first letter is in capitals. I’m referring to polish/Polish and august/August.

Let me now turn to something else. This won’t be new but I doubt if it’s something you’ve actually thought about. We use these words unthinkingly. Yet each time you’re converting a part of the human body into a verb or, to be more technical, you’re changing a noun into a verb. Could that be called ‘verbalising’? Yes, it can!

You can ‘head’ a company, ‘shoulder’ the blame when things go wrong and then ‘face’ the music. Of course, a good leader will ‘back’ his colleagues but if they don’t ‘toe’ the line or they ‘muscle’ their way into closed meetings you might resort to strong ‘arm’ tactics. The truth is few bosses can ‘stomach’ dissent. However, in the evening the same person, if he finds a pretty colleague trying to ‘thumb’ a ride, might give her a glad ‘eye’ and ‘mouth’ sweet pleasantries.

Now, if that’s put you off the English language let me offer some comfort. When you’re fed up with your auto-correct spell-checker changing what you’ve written into something quite different to what you intended, here’s a four sentence poem that could defeat the arrogant devil. “Eye halve a spelling chequer, it came with my pea sea, it plainly marques four my revue Miss steaks eye kin knot sea. Eye strike a key and type a word, and weight four it two say weather eye am wrong oar write, it shows me strait a weigh. As soon as a mist ache is maid, it nose bee fore two long, and eye can put the error rite, its rare lea ever wrong. Eye have run this poem threw it, I am shore your pleased two no, it’s letter perfect awl the weigh – My chequer tolled me sew.”


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