Monday, October 10, 2011

Of This and That

"This goes here like that … and that's that" a doppish British accent on the television announced enigmatically - the concluding line of dialogue which marked the plating of a delicious looking dessert on a midday cooking program. Unsurprisingly, though the sentence was really quite basic it doesn't really sound too odd to English speaker's ears, despite the fact that ... well, the same word is used three times in rapid succession.

So why do we not generally care about the careless oddity above? Any other sentence using the same word three times would in to a native speaker's ears sound clumsy and simple, consider: I went to the shop and went in and went to the vegetables compared with I walked to the shop and went in and found the vegetables, we'd think the person were an infant - or drunk.

Generally, and especially in English as part of a received kind of snobbery from our forebears, we try to avoid repetition as we mature as speakers and gain a stronger command of the language. Yet with some particular terms, we tend simply to let this unspoken rule slide. This and it's associate that are two such examples, and in actuality, the usage of them is a success story which began over a thousand years ago, and is a remarkable example of the vitality and sticking-power of two of our most used words.

'This' and 'that' actually stem from much farther back than our closest linguistic ancestor Old English. As with many other languages today, Old English was a tapestry made up of many fragments borrowed and imported from other sources. Curiously, and also like many modern languages today, Old English assigned 'gender' to words, making them either masculine, feminine or neuter. Thus, both this (m. þés, f. þeos, n. þis) and that (m. se, f. sēo, n. þæt)* had three words each, which you could use depending on the gender of whatever it was you were describing. Thankfully for learners of English today, gender is essentially non-existent - and as anyone who has attempted German, French or perhaps (god forbid!) the devilishly tricky Polish will tell you, this is a good thing. Essentially, because we still hear traces of it when one speaks of their car, or their new speedboat, as in "She's a beauty isn't she" or "He'll go forty knots on a good wind". These are linguistic relics of our past, and are hardwired into us even though we don't generally realise we're using them. Despite this usage however, the gender has no real meaning or impact, we use him and her in these senses more to give the sentence texture.

Regardless, the import of these two words was powerful enough to have them slot comfortably into our top thirty most used words. It's estimated that that is the eighth most used word in our vocabulary, and that this sits at about twentieth, (incidentally, and to save you searching, the three most used words overall in English are currently: the, of, and and. Imaginitive, I know).

To trace the words back and find where the import occurred one needn't dig too hard. You can see obvious similarities in the modern German dies and das (this and that, pronounced: dees and duss), and also - given the Old English versions - in the Icelandic þetta and það (pronounced roughly: thetta and thath). The Swedish den (also: denna) and det (also: detta) gave up the þ ("th") in favour of a 'd', yet are still closely related to their Icelandic counterparts, and knowing all this, perhaps one might even see the connection in English with the Old Norse þessi and þat, which is in fact where the import of the words to English seem to have originated after the conquests of the Vikings between 700 and 1100AD.

These two words weren't the only two which English absorbed of course, but they are debatably two of the most successful. We use them in a range of situations, as pronouns (is this the right train? or can you show that to him?), adjectives (this one is the best, or I wanted to take that car home), adverbs (it was this big or there was that much to do) and of course for conjunctions (it is said that this is something we enjoy), and as in the last example, we even slot the two words next to each other quite often, especially in spoken language (I was thinking this; that we go there tomorrow).

The English language is rich with history and contains a deep and often untapped reservoir of words. Despite our supposed vocabulary of around 60,000 words, we only really use around 20,000 in everyday situations (see above), and with an active vocabulary that size it's surprising that the same words come up again and again. Yet within English there isn't really a good alternative to 'this' or 'that', we use them repeatedly, without reserve, and they cover such large territory that we couldn't communicate as effectively without them.

That's something that this writer finds rather interesting.


* Note that the masculine and feminine forms of the Old English that: se and sēo are more closely related to Celtic than the word we ended up using today. Presumably, the neuter version þæt was the most used form in the end as genders began to fade out of usage, and thus þæt became our current word for that.

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