Meaning of Words

Potato Found In Translation!

Power, the ability to do and act, is the first meaning given of a very long list in my Complete Wordfinder. ‘Do’ and ‘act’ are also very long. The shorter the list, the fewer meanings are given for the word. Since I am a linguist and know French and Spanish well, I am now learning German, partly for fun and partly because I have a German friend with whom we have translated each others books about our childhood experiences in our respective countries when we were children growing up in World War Two. In March we have both been invited to Leipzig for the publication of our two books put together as one. We shall be talking to readers and signing books and telling them something about our respective childhoods. I am studying German every day so that I can at least be able to say some things to the German audience, even if I find it hard to understand what they say to me.

I’ve bought one particularly interesting dictionary, German into English and English into German. It is very useful because it is also, in a small way, a thesaurus, which provides everyday phrases in both countries that reveal useful differences. Because it is much smaller than my other English thesaurus I presume that all the words that are in common usage by most people are in my German one. So it helps me to learn the more frequently used words and phrases.

What is particularly interesting is that in English we have many more phrases using the word ‘do’ than in Germany, where they have other alternatives to our ‘do’. For instance, The German for ‘do’ is ‘tun’. But we English use ‘do’ more often. Here is an example. In England we say “What are you doing?” In Germany they say “Was machst du”which translated literally is “What are you making?” If you are a translator changing German into English, you cannot write that down, you must write “What are you doing?”

In every country speaking the same language people love to give different meanings to words. But, surprisingly enough, there is a uniformity in all this that makes it easy for people to understand each other. Even a different emphasis on a syllable can change meaning.

When we first moved to South America my husband and I had recently gained a degree in Hispanic Studies. This meant that we could speak correct castillian Spanish and had good knowledge of South American history and literature. The Venezuelans were delighted because we could speak to them easily. But saying is not the same as listening. It took us several months to learn what they were saying to us including our getting used to a different accent, a number of new words and a different sense of humour. Not to mention all the cultural differences.

One of the Englishmen there had just become a father for the first time. He came running into a group of friends straight from the hospital. He shouted out “Soy papa! Soy papa!” All the Venezuelans burst into laughter. The rest did not. Why? The same word, papa, has two meanings. One has the stress on the first syllable and the other on the second. Our friend was shouting out with great excitement “I’m a potato! I’m a potato! The word for father is papa but the accent is on the second syllable, the other word, papa, meaning potato had its accent on the first syllable.

Translators beware!

How To Use Words

The Magic Three

American Indians invaded by white explorers said “White men talk with forked tongue” in order to deform the truth with the motive of forcing them to give up their freedom . We could say the same about some politicians. They openly call it ‘spin’ in the mistaken belief that most of us are fools and easily deceived. A comon device of oratory is to put together three consecutive words, either the same or closely related. Here are three good examples:

Education! Education!,Education!
The word education comes from the Latin word educare which means leading out what is whithin. It does not mean forcing ideas on to children. The task of teachers is to give enough information to enable children to work things out for themselves. Does this happen? Not very often. Good teachers are few and far between. It has always been so.Much of what children are taught is not what they either want or need. A good teacher realises that every child learns in their own time and in their own way. There is a dangerous movement creeping in trying to regulate education, medicine, psychotherapy and everything else that curtails our freedom and is a threat to new ideas.

Where does such a thing come from? The government of course who set up organisations such as quangos for this purpose. More of this later.

The politician Gordon Brown is one of those who constantly uses the thrice repeated word education in his broadcasts. He doesn’t take anyone in. People get bored and stop listening.

Location!Location! Location! is a different kettle of fish. Everyone knows what it means and knows it is true. If you take a back street shop to set up a business we know it will probably fail. The wrong people will walk past. I set up two new businesses in the heart of Cambridge selling secondhand books, posters and prints. This was 35 years ago before rents began to rise dramatically and there were plenty of people to buy the right kind of books and prints in such a place as Cambridge.

Many people I knew were astonished that I should take such a risk. Few people take chances when they want to start something new. There is no guarantee that they will be successful. This is why so few people make fortunes. There is always the threat of bankruptsy because we cannot know what will happen in the future. Most of those who take risks in business get close to losing everything at least once. It happened to me.

Friends, Romans and Countrymen lend me your ears: one of the best known quotes from Shakespeare’s play “Julius Caesar”. Brutus and his mates had just killed Julius Caesar because they thought he was a corrupt leader. Mark Anthony thought he was wrong. Brutus was a fair-minded man who believed he had done the right thing. Everything went well for Brutus until he made the fatal mistake of letting Mark Anthony be the last to speak to the mob. These first three words flattered the people. He gave the impression that they were his equals. Moreover he went on to give a melodramatic discription of Caesar’s death. In addition he read out Caesar’s will which contained gifts for the prople. Mark Anthony with his clever oratory turned the feeling of the people against Brutus and for himself without saying a single bad thing about Brutus. Such is the power of speech. All dictators have influenced the masses of the people by using the right kind of oratory. When crowds are in a very excitable state they cannot think straight and powerful emotions take over.

How To Use Words

The power of oratory

Babies learn to walk and talk remarkably quickly. They are born with this potential. However, they also need to hear people talking around them. They are curious about everything. Eric Fromm wrote one of the best books about how human beings work. He noticed that children up to the age of six are so active and productive that they create their own stimuli provided that those who look after them pay attention to all the things they enjoy doing and let them get on with it, providing they are not interfering with other people’s fun.

Fromm noticed that once they go to school where teachers tell them what to do, their spontaneity diminishes: they become more docile and passive. Of course this is inevitable. Children learn to adapt to the world outside home and to be taught to read and write. When we think about it we understand what a huge change children have to face. It can be a very traumatic experience. The Swiss psychoanalyst, Alice Miller, coined the phrase ‘poisonous pedagogy’. She meant that throughout the ages children have suffered greatly because they have had to be dependent on grown-ups for their early years. It has always been so easy for them to be exploited to suit the needs of their family relations and other adults who have some power over them.

Freude recognised that psychological damage suffered by children has a very profound effect throughout their lives. Sometimes the damage can be repaired and sometimes not. There are good reasons for this and the major one is that children want to love their parents and anyone who makes them happy. Such people are gods to children. Hence they tend to believe everything they are told. This is one of the major mistakes that make our lives so difficult. This is the source of an eternal search by many different people of all kinds to discover the meaning of life: what is true and what is not true. We all have to work that out for ourselves.

Since the rest of the animal kingdom who cannot speak with words they rely entirely on their instincts and emotions. All parents, apart from our species, have only to feed their offsprings and show them how to look for food as soon as they can walk or fly. Once they are independent they have no further need of their parents. Life is simple for them unless great changes occur in their environments, most due to the intervention of mankind.
‘Cognito ergo sum’ said the philosopher Descartes in the 17th century: I think therefore I am. As soon as we learn to speak we become aware of many things that other animals cannot know: such factors as working out what we do not understand through thinking in words. Very few of us remember anything about their early life, except through vague pictures and feelings. There comes a moment when we suddenly realise ‘This is me! I am different from everyone else. I am small now, but every year I have a birthday and grow bigger!’ I become aware of time and know I have been born and will one day die!’

The power of words is very great. I shall go on to discuss how words are used to influence other people.