English Words and Their Background

By George H. McKnight | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XIV
SOME FIGURES OF SYNTAX

The structure of a language, it has often been observed, expresses the character of its creators. Much has been heard recently of the British propensity to 'muddle through.' This national failing, because it has frequently been associated with eventual success, has come to be not only admitted with complacency, but even made the subject of boast. It is possibly not too fanciful to associate this quality with certain features of the English language. The flexibility of English, a quality to which it owes so much of its expressive power, has been gained at the cost of frequent deviation from the course of precision and logic. In other words, in the formation of the language felicitous results have frequently been reached by processes which might be called 'muddling through.'

Let us first consider the different functions that English words have been made to serve. One of the most striking features of the English language is the possibility of using a word without change of form as noun and as verb, as noun and as adjective, or as adjective and as verb. Thus the word book may be used as noun or as verb, the word white as noun or as adjective, the word sour as adjective, as noun, or as verb. In the Old English period, inflectional endings served not only to distinguish case and number and mood and tense, but also to distinguish from each other the inflected parts of speech, the noun, the verb, and the adjective. When in the Middle English period, the older definite inflectional endings were reduced to the indefinite ending -e, many of the old dis-

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