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Full text of "The Loom Of Language"

Introduction                          27
From a practical point of view, it is more important to be clear about
the difference between what is involved in learning to read, and what is
involved in learning to speak or to write a language. When engaged in
ordinary conversation or letter-writing the vocabulary of most people,
even highly educated people, is very small m comparison with the
vocabulary of a newspaper or of a novel. In his professional capacity
the journalist himself, or the novelist herself, uses many more words
than suffice for the needs of everyday life, and the vocabulary of one
author differs very much from that of another. If only for these
reasons, the vocabulary which suffices for fluent self-expression is much
smaller than the vocabulary needed for indiscriminate reading There
are many other reasons why this is so. One is the fact that ordinary
speech rings the changes on a large assortment of common synonyms
and common expressions which are for practical purposes interchange-
able Such equivocations arc innumerable. In everyday life, few of us
pay much attention to the different shades of meaning in such expres-
sions as he would like to3 he wants toy he prefeis to, he desires to, he
wishes toy he would rather
Another important distinction is connected with the use of idiom,
i e expressions of which the meaning cannot be inferred from the
usual significance of the individual words and a knowledge of the
grammatical rules for arranging them. How do you do? is an obvious
example of idiomatic speech; but everyday speech is saturated with
idioms which are not obvious as such. In Enghsh, the fact that a cat is
in the room can also be expressed by saying there is a cat in the room.
We could not infer this from the customary meaning of the word there
and the other words in the sentence, as given in a pocket dictionary.
From the standpoint of a person learning a foreign language, there is
a big difference between the two forms of statement We can translate
the first word for word into Dutch, German, Swedish, or Danish. The
expression there ts must be translated by idiomatic combinations which
do not literally, i e, in the usual sense of the separate words, mean the
same in any two of them In French we have to translate there is by
ily a, which literally means it There has In the same context, the German
would write es itf> liteially it is The Swede would say det firms* i e, it
is found. We could not me the German es ist, as we could still use
the Danish der ery if we had to translate there are no snakes in
Iceland, The English idiom there is would make way for es gibt, or
literally it gives.
To read a language with ease we therefore need to have a relatively
big battery of synonyms and idioms with which we can dispense in