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No. 1064:

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: Konstantinopelitanischerdudelsachspfeifenmachersgesellschaft. 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 into writing.

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 words.

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 limited.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

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 writing.

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 Ogg's book.