Here I’m of course riffing off that old Sunday-school bromide, “How do I know? The Bible tells me so!” Well, it is true that the Bible tells us lots of just-so stories. Every college graduate will know that the so-called “inerrant Word of God” is plenty errant. Sportin’ Life in the Gershwins’ great American folk opera “Porgy and Bess” tells us in song that “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” One of his first pieces of evidence is, ahem, the Biblical assertion that Methuselah lived 900 years. Okay, the Bible is protein-rich in truths; they just don’t happen to be of the scientific or academic-historical kind. But this little blog is about how truth can be buried in language. Here are three examples...
When an American child tells us that her dad got mad at her, we translate the key adjective as “angry” and probably don’t see that the word mad in its standard English denotation means “insane.” Fortunately, the Latin poet Horace (d. 8 BCE) is credited with having said, “Anger is a short madness.” And so it is. How do we know? The language tells us so.
A second example comes from the French. Our word for a beloved animal who lives with us, usually indoors, and becomes a close family member is “pet.” It’s a term we simply memorize, one that probably comes from the verb to pet, which is what we do with our in-house dogs and cats, if not our parrots or toads. The French equivalent is animal de companie. That term, by contrast, clearly distinguishes those specialized creatures as ones who keep us, well, companie. How do we know? The language tells us so.
My third and final example comes from German. This one is a dozy. Its length alone will frighten off all but the most intrepid world-language learners. But if you take it syllable by syllable or meaning unit by meaning unit, it’s not nearly so scary. Here’s the word in question: Unabhaengigkeitserklaeruhng. This formidable piece of Teutonic concept formation means nothing less than a declaration of independence, bundled together as a single term. If you try to swallow it in one linguistic gulf, you’ll choke. The right way is to cut it into its components of meaning and take them one at a time, as follows: Un [not, un-] + ab [down from] + haengig [hanging] + keit [-ity] + s [‘s] + erklaerung [declaration, i.e., a statement that makes something klar, “clear”]. It may help you to know that the term abhaengig means “dependent,” literally hanging down from something else and thereby dependent on it. Given how German makes up most of its high-level abstract terms not from Latin or Greek words like us but by combining simple, everyday, concrete terms, Immanuel Kant (d.1804), the great German philosopher, called his mother tongue the best one to philosophize in, an idea repeated by the late Yale philosopher Professor Brand Blanshard (d. 1987) in his short book On Philosophical Style (c. 1954). Thus, to conclude, if we pay attention and are minded in this direction, the language really can tell us so, each one in its own way.