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Full text of "The Loom Of Language"

Syntax—The Traffic Rules of Language   151
use to in front of the verb) No general rule helps us to recognize
idiomatic uses of a helper verb in a foreign language^ if we know only
its chat act&uttc meaning, but we can avoid some pitfalls, if we are
dear about the vagaiies of helper verbs in our own language.
It would be easy to wntc a volume about the pathology (and theology)
of the veib to be (Some of its vagaries in current English come up for dis-
cussion in Chapter IX, p 384) its use as a copula linking a thing or
person to its attribute or class is an Aryan construction absent in many
other languages, cf the italics for the absent copula m the original of
the Lord ZA my Shepheid In a large class of English expressions we u&e
the verb to be where the equivalent in another closely related language
would be the word corresponding to have The fact that a verb which
also means to have or possess may overlap the territory of our verb to be
is not strange or unreasonable To say that something is red means that
it has or possesses the characteristic or attribute which we describe by that
adjective Thus the literal equivalent of to be right in French, German,
and in the Scandinavian languages is to have right. Similarly, the literal
equivalent of to be wrong is to have wrong The literal equivalent of to be
warm^ hot> or cold> either in Fiench or in Spanish, is to have wanr, hot., or
cold Be wd^ or ill., is another peculiarly English idiom, equivalent to the
German gesund sein^ or krank sein (be healthy or sick). The literal French is
equivalent to carry oneself well or ill (se porter bien> or se porter mal), in
Swedish, md val or ilia (may well or z//), in Norwegian ha det godt or
vaet e syk (have it well,, or be sick) The English be sorry is equivalent to the
Scandinavian do oneself bad (g<f>re Mg ond in Danish)
Though they look alike on paper> the most charactensuc meaning
of the helper verbs of two descendants of the same Teutonic root
is rarely the same The meaning of most of them has changed during
historic times The only safeguard agamst the pitfalls into which
this leads us is to recognize which are our most reliable helpers, and to
be quite clear about the various uses of the other English ones. The
two reliable ones are can and mi&t* Each has a well-defined territory,
which overlaps that of others
The verb may can mean two things Thus he may do this can mean
either (a) he is allowed to do this, or (b) it is possible that he will do this.
We use our English to have9 like its equivalents in other Indo-European
languages, to signify possession, and as a helper to indicate past time or
completed action (I have done this), but it can also do the same job as
must m / have to do this^ and replaces the compulsive function of must in
some expressions which involve past time (/ had to do this) It is not safe
to translate have (when it means must) by its dictionaiy equivalent m
another language The combination have had, has had* etc., can also
signify arranged or allowed (let) where the German uses derivatives of
riy as in he has had a house built.