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The Goddamned English Language

27 April 201108:58AMlinguistics

So I was writing an essay the other day, and I ran across a of huge gigantic gaping hole in the capabilities of the english language. This is nothing new, since English is less of a language and more a mish-mash of vocabulary and syntax cribbed from all over the place which has managed to drag its deformed bulk into a usable form. Moreover, the construct I need is more than a little obscure and would probably be used seldom enough to drop out of usage even if it did exist.

I started off writing something along the lines of this:

Along with this contrast between hospitality and piety and savagery and godlessness, Homer gives a detailed description of...

And then I thought, 'Hold on just a second there. That looks like just a list of things... that's not what I was trying to say. How do I make it clear that I was, in fact, talking about the difference between honest, pious people and savage, godless people, and not, say, a dichotomy between the honest and the pious and another dichotomy between the savage and to godless, or even some strange four-way comparison, to be mapped on a cartesian plane?

I thought about this for a while and realised what I was missing was a way to clearly denote sets. In this case, I want hospitality and piety to be one set, and savagery and godlessness to be another, and the comparison I'm making is between those two sets, not the four individual items or any other permutation. My natural reaction as ingrained by twelve years of maths and a calculator with a very dodgy idea of order of operations was to use brackets. So my sentence would look like this:

_ blah blah blah contrast between (hospitality and piety) and (savagery and godlessness), blah blah blah._

Now, is it not abundantly clear what I'm talking about there? This is the construction that I want to use. It's simple. It uses symbols which are already in the language. It's recursive - you can nest them to make, say, a comparison between relationships:

The similarities between ((A and B) and (C and D)) and ((E and F) and (G and H));

which is to say, items A and B have a relationship with items C and D which is comparable to the relationship which exists between (E and F) and (G and H) - and it's apparently so straightforward that I didn't even realise that I'd done that last bit using my own notation until I read back over it.

Problem is, round brackets are already used, for parenthetical statements, which were named after them. I guess we could use another type of brackets - the square ones are nice - but they are just a little more difficult to use. The other option is using hyphens - the way I did in that last sentence - and in this one - to insert that type of statement, which works and is already kind of a way to make asides like that, except that, as I've just proven, the don't nest very well at all. Damn.

The alternative is using different conjunction to indicate set membership, maybe imported from another language. The example I came up with was 'et' from French, that being the only other language I'm familar with, and it would fit well with English since it's mostly French anyway. In this case, 'et' indicates set membership, and 'and' is acting as a comparative:

_ blah blah blah contrast between hospitality et piety and savagery et godlessness, blah blah blah._

Okay, good - this actually highlights the key problem here. The word 'and' has two meanings, both of them linking but linking different things. It can do what I call set membership, which is more like linking single words, to make a list, the same way you use commas - basically, it acts as a spacer or filler to separate list items. The other use is linking clauses or phrases, and is more of a causal relationship than just filler - this 'and' actually means something.

So maybe that's our final solution: stop using 'and' to link members of a list, but keep using it as a causal link. If you think about it, none of our other conjunctions have such a menial function- you can't use 'but', or 'so' to do anything other than to indicate not-relation or relation. Why not just let commas do all the work:

_ blah blah blah contrast between hospitality, piety and savagery, godlessness blah blah blah._

Makes sense, and instead of requiring a new word or a total reassignment of a punctuation mark, only needs a slight adjustment in what is considered the 'acceptable' way to join a list. Heck, we use commas most of the way already, up until the last item - why not just drop that one little 'and' and let the word serve a purely logical, boolean-esque function?

I'll tell you why not. Because this is English, and a construction like that just makes too much bloody sense for a language that skulks around in back alleys, clobbering other languages and rifling through their pockets for loose vocabulary.

But I can dream.

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