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28.5.02

"English is an eclectic language which tends to borrow words from other languages instead of constructing words for new concepts from older words with derivation or word composition. People often say that English has a rich vocabulary as if it were something to be proud of. The richness of the vocabulary results basically from word borrowing and implies that words for related concepts are typically not related to each other in any obvious, regular manner."

One of the side points of this article (which I have chosen to sieze upon) is the author's assessment of how new words are formed in a language. English, as he points out, is more than willing to grab a new word from somewhere, a word that has no obvious relationship to any other words already in the language. His native Finnish has, like many languages (sometimes in a conscious attempt to avoid Anglicization of their vocabularies), taken the other route -- constructing a new word out of old native roots.

"Economy" is a good example here. English simply took a French-by-way-of-Greek word and Anglicized it. Finnish could have done the same, resulting in something like "ekonnomii." But instead, it developed the word "talous" from the Finnish base "talo," meaning "house." Of course, the English word has nearly the same basic etymology -- "economy" comes from "oikos," which means "house" in Greek. The difference is that, for the vast majority of English-speakers, the word "economy" does not suggest anything about houses in its structure.

Jukka Korpela (the author) sees this as a plus for Finnish. It makes learning the language easier, as you don't have such a large quantity of words to memorize, since so many have obvious derivations (he's a bit bitter in general about how hard it is to learn English). In that sense, he has a point. But I sometimes get frustrated when language doesn't go far enough the other way -- words are too stuck into their etymologies.

When you're speaking philosophically, you often run into problems where the language you have to work with doesn't have a set of terms that correspond to the concepts you see as fundamental in the world. I ran into this problem here a while ago, discussing the meaning of evil. I found myself twisting the words good, evil, right, and wrong to fit concepts that aren't clearly designated in English. This leads to confusion, and to people disagreeing with you, because for others the terms cover different semantic territory. The problem only gets worse when the word has an obvious etymological connection to other meanings that you're trying to exclude. In Finnish the economy is something house-related, whereas English has more freedom to take the concept to different places. Having clear etymologies in some ways solidifies the semantic relationships -- the worldview -- underlying the language. Which makes it that much harder to propose ideas that don't fit the language. The ways you have to jerk words around into new patterns becomes that much more obvious, because the old pattern is written there in the structure of the words.

Philosophers need a language free of etymology.

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