5 February 2013

Ratio and Oratio

According to Skeat, the Anglo-Saxon word word is derived from the Indo-Germanic root wer, “to speak”. It is cognate with the Dutch woord, the Icelandic orð, the Danish and Swedish ord, the German wort and the Meso-Gothic waurd. He compares it with the Lithuanian wardas, “a name” and the Latin verbum, “a word” – literally “a thing spoken”.

All these forms retain the original ur sound, which seems fitting, because “ur” is one of the most basic productions of the human voice. It is nice to think that “ur”, with its intensifying “w”, was one of the earliest terms agreed upon by those who named the animals.

Compare our word with the Greek λόγος (logos), which is defined in Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon as “(A) the word or outward form by which the inward thought is made known;” and, giving us a glimpse of the Hellenic mind, “(B) the inward thought or reason itself; so that λόγος comprehends both the Latin ratio and oratio.”

Among the definitions of ratio in Cassell’s Latin Dictionary is “the faculty of mind which calculates and plans, the reason”; the primary meaning is “a reckoning, an account, computation, calculation”. Oratio simply means “speaking, speech, language”, and we may infer that it proceeds both in concept and etymologically from ratio.

To the Greeks reason and speech were inseparable, which helps to illuminate the glories of their language and civilization. However, to the northern βαρβαροι (barbarians), who were probably so called because of their unintelligible utterances (“baa-baa-baa”), the ur came first.

Speech and reason are like the chicken and egg. In the evolution of the human brain each gave rise to the other. The more precise and logical (those Greeks again!) one’s mental language, the more precise and logical, the more reasoned will be one’s conduct. That is why precision in language matters. At our peril we fail to teach our children syntax and spelling; relativists fail to expose them to the glories of our own language, and with every failure of teaching a little of our civilization dies.

That’s quite enough polemic (πόλεμος, a battle). This post is about the word that underlies our classification of the world: without agreeing among us what a word means, there can be no communication, and before doing that we need a word for “word”.
     “There’s glory for you!”
     “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’,” Alice said.
     Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”
     “But ‘glory’ doesn't mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
     “When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
     “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
     “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
In its original Greek, St John’s gospel begins:

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ Λόγος, καὶ ὁ Λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν Θεόν, καὶ Θεός ἦν ὁ Λόγος.

In the Vulgate:

In principio erat Verbum et Verbum erat apud Deum et Deus erat Verbum.

In the King James translation:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

In the Chalcedonian creed, Christ is the very Λόγος itself, the essence of reason. Without wishing to offend, I would point out that this is an early, and very powerful, attempt to hijack language for religious or political ends. The technique has been used more recently and to great effect by disciples of the Frankfurt School. By making some words taboo, they try to make the thought taboo as well. This exchange between ratio and oratio was perfectly understood by George Orwell; his Newspeak (in Nineteen Eighty-four) predicts the rise of political correctness.

To resist the hijackers we first have know where a word comes from. Etymology is the study of the origins of words and how one word begets or influences another. For a writer it is both fascinating and fundamental. One of my favourite books (acquired second-hand and inscribed: “Margaret with bestest love from R. Xmastide : 1915”) is A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language by Walter Skeat. It is a treasure-trove of revelation and connection. We see the way words can subtly but innocently change their meaning over the years: the principle of Chinese Whispers is at work every time we communicate with our fellows.

Though our language is imprecise, it is the best we have. The more exact we can be with it the more clearly we will understand one another and the better we will get along. This is an old argument, but it bears repeating every day. It is too easy to become a Humpty Dumpty; etymology is one antidote, and to begin this occasional series of etymological reflections I thought it proper to start with the Word itself.

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