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THE DNA OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE

by Jonathan Dunne

 

Chapter 0

 

The English alphabet contains 26 letters. Most of these letters on their own are not enough to form a word. Only a few vowels – a, I and o – can do that. The others need at least another letter. Words carry meaning. Put into a sentence, they communicate what we want to say. Adjectives are linked with nouns and preceded by an article: a beautiful day, the young man. Nouns or pronouns, which stand in for nouns, become the subject or object of verbs: We had a beautiful day. Verbs may be qualified by an adverb: The young man spoke slowly. Prepositions precede a noun: He was in the room. Conjunctions connect two sentences or parts thereof: The young man spoke slowly and quietly. He was in the room but I didn’t see him.

         By their connection and relation, to give the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of syntax, words convey meaning. They are at our disposal, and we use them sometimes cautiously, sometimes carelessly. We (and our listeners or readers) may set great or little or no store by them. Spoken, they are carried off by the wind and, like our past, seem irretrievable. On paper, they acquire permanence and become legally binding. Much of our tradition, however, is transmitted orally. We may remember and have been influenced by words long since forgotten by the person who spoke them. And if the light of an extinct star is now reaching the earth, perhaps the spoken word, like our past, is not altogether lost and resonates still in another part.

         Let us take a closer look at the act of speech and the letters used to represent the sounds we make when we articulate a word. We start with breath. From the moment we first scream as a baby, breath forms part of our vocabulary. What makes the scream so effective, however, is the addition of voice, which forms a vowel. A scream is represented Aaaah! or Ooooh! The letter that represents breath is the final h, perhaps the most important letter since it represents the basis of all speech, but silent in some languages and dropped colloquially.

         Breath on its own does not form a word, it requires a vowel. If breath is wind, vowels are water. Hold a vowel for long enough, and water will collect in your mouth. This combination of breath and a vowel, wind and water, is all around us. We talk about the air’s humidity, which becomes visible as mist, steam or rain. Bubbles of air form in water in a glass or kettle. The player of a wind instrument constantly has to release water through a valve. Plants to grow need wind and water, carbon dioxide from the air and hydrogen from the water, thus releasing oxygen from the water to replenish the earth’s atmosphere.

         As air passes through the windpipe and voice is added to it, vowels are produced in the mouth in the following order: u, o, a, e, i. The vowels u and o are back vowels, a is more or less central, e and i are front vowels; u and i are pronounced high in the mouth, o and e in the middle and a low. The vowels in this order form a u-shape, descending from u through o to a and ascending again through e to i at the front of the mouth.

         Since h or breath alone does not make a word and it requires a vowel, the first word to be produced in the mouth as we breathe out and vibrate our vocal cords is hu. Hu represents the sound produced as wind and water combine for the first time. You can’t get to a vowel sound without first breathing out, which makes hu the primal word. Search in the OED, and you will find that hu is Sanskrit for invoke the gods and the root-word for God. So the primal word, the first to form in the mouth as we breathe out and add voice, is the word from which God derives.

         After h and the vowels, there are the semi-vowels: j, y and w. These are halfway between vowels and consonants, j/y corresponding roughly to the vowel i and w to u.

         Then come the consonants. If h is breath and vowels are water, consonants are flesh. They are formed by obstructing breath with flesh – the lips or tongue – with or without the addition of voice. In the study of speech sounds known as phonetics, consonants are divided into 7 pairs:

 

b-p       d-t       f-v       g-k       l-r       m-n       s-z

 

These pairs are central to an understanding of how the English language works. Most of the consonants are voiced (you can test this by holding your throat as you pronounce them); only p, t, f, k and s are pronounced without voice and so voiceless.

         While b is paired with p and f with v, there is also a strong connection between b and v (and w). We see this in languages such as modern Greek (b is pronounced v), Spanish (v is pronounced b), Latin (v is pronounced w) and German (w is pronounced v). So, in addition to the pairs b-p and f-v, we can make a further connection: b-v-w. The combinations f-v and b-v-w enable me, through v, to connect f with b/w.

         Of the 26 letters in the alphabet (h, 5 vowels, 3 semi-vowels and 14 consonants), that leaves only 3. These are also consonants and are, in effect, redundant since they represent sounds already covered: c represents k or s (think of a word like cancer), q represents k, and x represents ks. This redundancy, however, brings one advantage since it enables me to connect c with either k or s (and so with g or z).

         So speech sounds are a combination of breath and water (vowels) and/or flesh (consonants). To pronounce a voiced consonant such as b, I must use all three: breath, voice and my lips. To pronounce a voiceless consonant such as p, I need only breath and flesh (my lips), without voice. Breath, water and flesh are the three elements that go to make up speech.

         Breath, water and flesh are also the three ingredients of creation. We read at the start of Genesis, ‘In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light;” and there was light.’

         A wind from God swept over the face of the waters. This enabled a word to come about, so that God said. Over the course of six days, related in chapter 1 of Genesis, God created the heavens and the earth through the word, by speaking (this is confirmed by the start of John’s Gospel).

         Later, in chapter 2 of Genesis, we read, ‘But a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground – then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.’ Here, in the creation of man, we see a combination of the three elements breath, water and the dust of the ground, namely flesh.

         So the act of speech mirrors the act of creation. In this book, I would like to suggest that as DNA carries genetic information, so language, in particular the English language, carries information about the origins and purpose of human life. This is a theory that will be presented less by rational, coherent argument than by the words themselves.

         Etymology is the science that traces the history of a word, its formation and development. According to the OED, the English word human derives from the Latin humanus, relating to homo, man. But human is also a combination of hu – the root-word for God – and man. Hu makes us human.

         In this book, I would like to suggest that words such as past and star, air and rain, mist and steam – even space and speak – are connected in a way that is far from random. Given that languages take centuries to evolve, such connections cannot be the work of a single man or woman living in a single generation. Like the rest of creation, where every part needs or feeds another, they reflect the design and presence of the supreme, immortal being we call God.

         The three elements of speech and creation are breath, water and flesh. These words have father in common. They are linked together – and with create and word – not randomly, but by a clear set of rules that revolves around the seven phonetic pairs.

         Over the course of six days, God created the heavens and the earth. For each day, we read in Genesis, ‘And God said.’ The English language confirms this: the world we inhabit is a combination of word and lord.

 

Read chapter 1

Read an extract from The Life of a Translator

 

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THE DNA OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE by Jonathan Dunne is available for purchase through PayPal at a cost of 12 euros including worldwide postage

ISBN 9789543840014

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