On The Importance Of The Lengths Of Words

One of the odd tricks that one learns when one is increasing one’s vocabulary in any language is that the length of words is an important clue to the complexity of its meaning. Words that are short are fundamental and if they have a lot of meanings (just think of words like love and set in English, for example), their meanings are usually very basic and fundamental. The longer a word, the less fundamental it is, and the more it is dependent on other contexts that help to define it more precisely. Among my favorite words of this kind in English is the word antidisestablishmentarian, which is a lengthy word to describe someone who is or was against the dis-establishment of the Anglican Church in England. In order to understand the meaning of this word you have to understand something about the context of established religion in England and in other areas, but once you do the word itself is largely unambiguous in its meaning. Other languages feature even longer words, such as Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, a Welsh town that, translated into English, means St. Mary’s Church in the Hollow of the White Hazel near a Rapid Whirlpool and the Church of St. Tysilio near the Red Cave. Since this word is ridiculously long, and intentionally so, it obviously depends on context, and the context is that the village of Llanfairpwllgwyngyll was combined with the nearby hamlet of Llantysilio Gogogoch, and the area in between the two settlements, one chwyrn drobyll, a rapid whirlpool, that was between them. All of the parts of the word make sense, to the extent that the Welsh language can be said to make sense, they just have to be broken up into their three constituent parts, which provide a discussion of three areas combined into one with a long name for novelty effect.

In a way, it is unsurprising that the longer the word is, the more clear the word is. A Welsh town name with 58 letters in English (and 50 in Welsh) can only mean one very specific thing, once one discusses all the elements of the word. No other town is going to be quite the same town as that one, while a great many places may be Llanfair, or St. Mary’s Church, and a great many more may be churches, llan. The longer a word is, the more context has been added to that word, which allows for our understanding of that word to be vastly more specific than it would otherwise be. When a word is short, it serves as a word that is so basic, and one that provides so much context while receiving so little, that its meanings may be very multi-faceted, depending on who is using the word, and what sense they are using it in. When we say a word like church, for example, what do we mean by it. Do we mean the church as the ekklesia, the called out group of brethren? Do we mean the building that they meet in? Do we mean the organization that contains some portion of the believers of God? Are we using church to refer to the formal religious services that take place in such and such a place at such and such a time with such and such a liturgical style? The word itself can be defined any number of ways and used in any number of different senses, all of which require interpretation. It is this need to explain and to interpret that leads to such a multiplying of words, as our attempts to begin with only a few are usually not clear enough to fully suit our purposes.

And it is likely for this reason too that to become well-educated usually requires the learning of large amounts of large words with very specific meanings so that one may intelligently talk to other people who are similarly well-educated. Even when the words are not necessarily large, can one talk about classical education without wrestling with expressions like the Trivium and the Quadrivium, which together make up the seven liberal arts: the trivium meaning the basic liberal arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric which form the basis of verbal education, and the quadrivium referring to the four advanced arts of mathematical education, namely arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. It should be noted that trivium and quadrivium, being Latin terms adopted into English, are specialist words whose meanings are not easily accessible in English, and therefore have a rather exact meaning because of that lack of accessibility. On the other hand, the seven arts these two words describe are basic and fundamental words, and it might come as a surprise to many that music is to be considered mathematical in nature, as relating to numbers in time (namely frequencies), more evidence that the more basic and fundamental a word, the more careful we must be to understand the context in which it is being used, so that we may better understand what is being communicated to us.

We might say, then, that the length of words and their accessibility to the speaker and listener relate in an inverse way to how confidently we can grasp that we understand the sense of what is being spoken of. We tend to learn small words first, short phrases, about things that are close to us. But just as certainly we use these small words to discuss and describe basic and fundamental aspects of our being that are not always easy to understand. In many ways this ambiguity is intentional. The fact that short and simple words are easy to use means that they are close at hand to all who tend to use them, some of whom use them for straightforward and concrete means, some for abstractions and analogies to those concrete things, some people to ironic or contrary meanings, and so on. It is the inaccessibility of words due to their length or due to the massive amount of smaller words and segments or to the foreignness of them that allows for more exact meanings. It is sufficiently difficult to explain these words to others to convey what it is they mean that people do not think to use such words as the proper means of expressing contrary senses to that which most people do not know the first thing about. For something to be corrupted or twisted, whether in a witty or profane way, requires that one have a sense of the straightness of the term, and all too often in language, we do not know enough about the words in the first place to twist and play with them.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s