Today, a concern about words. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this series
about the machines that make our civilization run,
and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Have you ever thought about
the word, word? To explain language,
we invariably talk about words. But how on earth
can we use the very thing we're explaining in the
explanation! A terrible slipperiness bedevils the
study of language.
The problem begins with the vast gulf between
speech and writing. Breaking speech into words
doesn't become really useful until we write it
down. A linguist friend chides my attempts to
pronounce French. "John," he says, "you have to
understand that there are no words in spoken French
-- only phrases." The subtle point is, the way we
cast speech into words is pretty arbitrary.
When Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee at King
Arthur's Court uttered a bogus magic spell, he used
a long German word:
It means an "organization of bagpipe makers from
Constantinople." Should we regard that as six words
or just one?
The Egyptians, who invented the first hieroglyphic
writing, credited their invention to the
ibis-headed god, Toth. They picture him writing
with a reed pen. The Hindu god Brahma supposedly
based letters on the shape of the seams in a human
skull. By the time the Old Testament took form, we
took writing for granted. The Bible no longer
treated it as a gift from God.
But the old hieroglyphic languages had mystic
meanings that lay far from human speech. Pictures
aren't the same as words. Early writing conveyed a
sense of things quite apart from speech. Only when
we developed alphabetic systems did we become
stenographers, trying to reduce speech directly
To do that, we identified words as the least parts
of speech with stand-alone meanings. The problem
is, that doesn't work consistently. For example:
The word linger means to tarry. The
preposition on means many things. If
we say "The melody lingers on," we call out a small
additional meaning. A person lingers, but a melody
or an odor attaches itself to us. It lingers on.
So: Is lingers on one word or two?
Signing for the deaf is a form of expression
remarkable for the way it blends words into
continuous action. If you've ever watched a dancer
incorporate signing, you've seen, dramatically, how
artificial it is to break speech into separate
And a great trap opens before us. The linearity of
written language can cloud our minds to the
multidimensionality of human thought. Many of us
have a hard time thinking without making recourse
to words. Hamlet, asked what he read, replied,
hopelessly, "Words, words, words." Imagination is
far too complex to be hogtied to anything so
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Miller, G.A., The Science of Words. New
York: Scientific American Library, 1991.
Ogg, O., The 26 Letters. New York: The
Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1961, 1948.
For more on verbal vs. spatial thought, see Episode
1058. For more on the
invention of the alphabet, see Episode 1065. See also the
Encyclopaedia Britannica article on
My thanks to Jeffery Scoggins of The Detering Book
Gallery in Houston for singling out the Miller
source for me and to Pat Bozeman, Special
Collections, UH Libraries, for directing me to
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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