Subtlety, thy name is English

Russian is more poetic than English, German weightier, French more elevated, Spanish more sensual, Italian more mellifluous.

But when it comes to conveying subtle nuances of thought, no language I’m even cursorily familiar with comes anywhere near English. Partly, that proves that size really matters.

The size of vocabulary, that is. Put simply, English has more words than any other European language, three times as many as Russian, for example.

None of those words is just ballast, something a language can safely jettison only to become the better for it. They are all there for a reason, which is enabling the user to turn a concept this way and that, letting the appropriate facet, no matter how tiny, shine the brightest.

Every word has what linguists call its own ‘paradigm’, the whole cluster of its meanings. And no two words can possibly have exactly the same paradigm. That’s why no perfect synonyms can ever exist: even if two paradigms may overlap over a facet or two, others will always stick out.

Yet near-synonyms abound, and the more of them a language has, the finer tool it’ll be in the hands of a master stylist or a nuanced thinker alike. It’s in this area that English pulls way ahead of other languages, especially when it comes to expressing abstract concepts.

For example, my French friends, even those who are fluent English speakers, struggle to grasp the difference between ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’. Yet it’s vital.

The first word comes from an Old English word of some Germanic provenance, the latter began life in Latin. From there it migrated to most European languages, becoming liberté in French. Yet no equivalent of ‘freedom’ exists there, with liberté having to do both jobs. That means a nuance of thought goes missing in French. Yet it’s a useful nuance.

Yes, in some meanings the two words overlap. When Patrick Henry screamed, somewhat hysterically, “Give me liberty, or give me death!”, he could have said ‘freedom’ instead without changing the meaning much, if at some cost to the rhythm.

But compare the whole paradigms of the two words, and you’ll notice that in some usages ‘liberty’ just wouldn’t work. Think of ‘freedom of choice” or “freedom of conscience”, and you’ll see what I mean.

The profound difference between the two words is that ‘freedom’ is ontological and ‘liberty’ is existential. Freedom is an inseparable inner property of human nature, which can be assaulted and curtailed by outside sources, but neither extinguished nor, for that matter, granted by them.

Liberty, on the other hand, is an outer, not inner, condition. Thus a political prisoner may have his liberty taken away from him, but not his freedom. Conversely, cause-hounds who cheerfully join mob marches for whatever political fad is making hay at the moment have plenty of liberty, while showing a distinct lack of freedom.

Since ‘freedom’ has a wider paradigm than ‘liberty’, it can be not only ontological but also sometimes existential (as in the Patrick Henry example above). Yet ‘liberty’ is always existential only.

Another pair of words that often draws my attention is ‘self-respect’ and ‘self-esteem’. The problem is that the latter is increasingly used to mean the former, whereas in fact they are closer to being antonyms than synonyms.

Again, ‘self-respect’ is ontological and ‘self-esteem’ is existential. The former doesn’t have to be earned because every human being is entitled to it for being just that, human. Self-respect can only be asserted and protected, not claimed.

On the other hand, no automatic entitlement to self-esteem exists. No group, nor individual, can claim it as of right. Self-esteem has to reflect some achievement or a superlative character trait, and that’s where the word is perverted in modern psychobabble jargon.

Many people complaining about low self-esteem would be stunned and offended if told truthfully they don’t deserve it. The nuanced difference between self-esteem and self-respect is lost upon them.

Again, French isn’t quite so precise. The nearest equivalent of self-respect there is respect de soi, literally ‘respect of oneself’ (three words instead of one). And ‘self-esteem’ is usually translated as amour-propre, literally ‘self-love’. Neither expression is as exact as the corresponding English words.

Amour-propre first appeared in the 17th century, but was later popularised by Rousseau. He used it in a sense that fell somewhere between our ‘self-respect’ and ‘self-esteem’. It meant liking oneself because others do, a sort of outside-in feeling. Rousseau distinguished it from  amour de soi, which is strictly self-esteem in our meaning. Neither term had the ontological significance of ‘self-respect’.

It would be fascinating to establish how different languages reflect the national character and thought patterns of their users. For example, unlike the French, the English tend not to hide the light of their verbs behind the bushel of other words, many of them sheer parasites.

The English sentence revolves around the verb which propels it to the point much more directly and dynamically. Partly, this is made possible by the lexical richness of the language, where one precise word can do the job of several in French (or Russian). That enables an English writer to peel off the outer shell of extraneous verbiage, making his sentences shorter and punchier.

None of this is to suggest that other languages can’t accommodate precise, and concise, thought. They can and do, as anyone familiar with the works of Pascal or La Rochefoucauld will confirm. But French thinkers have to work harder at it. They get less free help from their language than we do.

A similar observation, by the way, applies to English and Russian verse. Russian is naturally conducive to poetic technique, English isn’t. Russian versification is helped along by its cavalier treatment of sentence structure and also by its morphological variety.

That enables a Russian poet to find interesting rhymes easily and also to shuffle words around painlessly to fit the chosen metre. Thus even poets of understated talent can churn out very good verse, which in English is a house inhabited only by great poets, such as Shakespeare, Donne or perhaps Keats.

In a way, a very small way, one could say that Russians write good verse because of their language while the English do so in spite of theirs. The French fall somewhere in between the two, but woe betide any outlander who says anything critical about any French poet.

As far as the French are concerned, all their poets only range from superb to sublime simply because they are French, with no area whatsoever existing underneath that gamut. But that observation takes us beyond comparative assessment of the two languages.

Language is a sure antidote to the poison of the lazy thought that all peoples are essentially the same. At a most basic level, they are: the same number of limbs, the same internal organs, the same physiological needs.

But start peeking into the areas that really matter, and only language gives you the key to unlock those doors. People who speak differently think differently, perhaps even feel differently.

Exactly how language correlates with thought and feeling has never been established, and probably never will be. We can’t even be sure of what came first, man, thought or language, although materialists, who deny that in the beginning was the Word, insist they know.

What is evident is that the two, words and thoughts, are so closely intertwined as to be inseparable. And, just as no two languages are exactly the same, neither are the pathways any two nations take to thought. Vive la différence! as they say in that smaller, but still lovely language.

3 thoughts on “Subtlety, thy name is English”

  1. In Russian there is a rather long row of synonyms meaning “svoboda” but having tiny connotations, such as “volya”, “volnost”, “privolye”, “razdolye”, “volnaya volyushka”, “prostor” (dlya tvorchestva), “neprinuzhdennost”, “privolnost”. This shows that prefixes and suffixes may serve as subtle modifiers of the meaning in Russian and may get you far enough.

  2. Why shoot, Shakespeare is said to have had the greatest vocabulary of any human that has ever lived. And he DOES include a lot of that vocabulary into his literary works.

    Alexander too incorporates words into his blog entries that even I have to look up the meaning of. And I think I have a very good vocabulary.

    “I blog therefore I am” says Alexander. Even if some of you cannot understand what I am saying?

  3. But there are occasions when even the English language borrows words from other languages because there is no exact English equivalent. Weltanschauung, Zeitgeist, and Schadenfreude are three German words that come to mind. The French terms savoir faire, laissez faire, detente, and ambiance are others.

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