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Words — and words

Language is the only reality I have

Words — and words

In my last column I mentioned that Sheridan’s character, Mrs Malaprop, who is fond of using grandiose words, not only chooses the wrong words in her speech but uses them in the wrong sense as well. Hence there are Wrong Word malapropisms and Wrong Sense malapropisms, and people continue to make use of them in their reports and conversations. I have a fairly good collection and I will italicise a few of them to save the reader’s time.

(i) “The food was poor value for money and      in inexorable taste”(execrable)

(ii) “We have so emaciated our laws that many criminals are almost immune from punishment” (emasculated).

(iii) The Council is not a paradigm of virtue…. (paragon).

(iv) He brings to his job a style which is enervating.”(energising)

It may be worth your while to know that all these malapropisms appeared in English newspapers and magazines.

* * * * *

Having been involved with words (in dramatic productions) for a considerable length of time, I am now convinced that a word doesn’t start out as a word; it is an end product which begins as an impulse, stimulated by temperament and behaviour and attitude which dictate the need for expression. Let me illustrate: the writer thinks up a word, the actor gives the word its shape and its weight. It is because he finds all sorts of changes of rhythm in the word that he inflects it in a certain way like pronouncing ‘revenue’ as re’venue, or ‘galled’ as ‘gall-id’ for the sake of scansion. It is all too easy for an actor to be carried away by the sound of a word. The actor, the interpreter, must never try to separate the sound of a word from its living context.

But when the actor manages to harmonise the sound of a word with the context, he creates magic. I can never forget the way the late Alan Badell, a distinguished actor, with a lovely, grainy voice, standing under a balcony (as Romeo), saying:

“….I am no pilot, yet wert thou as far

As the vast shore washed with the farthest sea,

I should adventure for such merchandise.

He spoke the word ‘merchandise’ as if it had three syllables and then gave the three syllables of this humdrum word a syncopation so beautiful that I was transported beyond the realm of belief.

* * * * *

Words not only express what we want to express but also what we haven’t said. And words have a magic of their own. Bertrand Russell was once asked to send back a list of the words he most liked. He listed, diapason, begrime, alembicated, terraqueous, incarnadine.

Russell had a wicked sense of humour and in listing these words, he revealed something of his taste in teasing people. In his own prose, which was remarkably trenchant and unaffected, he never resorted to using words because of their rich, Byzantine sounds.

Words not only express what we want to express but also what we haven’t said. And words have a magic of their own.

I love words for their phonic value. Byzantine or not, my list would contain tintinnabulate, chinchilla, onomatopoeia, and diaspora. Even if you don’t know what they mean they evoke an aura. You will notice that all these delectable words contain two or more than two syllables. This is not so just in English. In our language (Urdu) too, words that give you an aesthetic pleasure just by speaking them full-throatedly, are made up of more than one syllable: sansanahat, muzmahil, jallaajil, chapqalish, mutajassis.

I put great store by language — any language. Language is nothing but culture. When you use a language accurately you gain a new confidence. Once you’ve acquired, not just the rudiments of that language, but the expression of that language, you become at ease with the culture in which it has been nourished.

When reading Urdu, for example, it irks me when I am unable to understand a certain passage. Is it because I have not become familiar with the words? Or is it that these words haven’t been a part of my upbringing? Quite a lot of Urdu literature is descriptive literature. Urdu is a very recent language. It hasn’t got the antiquity that Italian or Greek or English has, so nearly all the experiences of Urdu are either borrowed from the Persian or Arabic (or in some cases Brijbhasha) archetypical concepts and allusions. We have, to a great extent, an archetypal affinity with them because of our religion, our landscape, our climate and the continuity of what we wear and used to wear — and our upbringing.

Language is the only reality I have. ‘When I read something which I don’t understand I don’t dismiss it as something which doesn’t concern me. It irks me. It bothers me a great deal: is there something wrong with my own comprehension? Is it my lack of knowledge? Is it my lack of a certain kind of experience? And I don’t rest until I comprehend the text, for I cannot read it out to an audience until I am fully cognizant of what I am speaking.

I have always put a great deal of emphasis on a way a language is spoken. I think clear and good speech is extremely important because it also means clarity of thought in some way. Language is very important to me, especially a language about which I know a little bit. If and when it is distorted, or when it is not spoken properly, then, apart from the fact that, aesthetically, it jars upon my entire being, it also means that I am not getting the real meaning of the sentence and the syntax. It is my belief that language also enables people to become ‘humanised’. And I am quite sure that one way of softening a society is to make it aware of its own language and the nuances of that language.

* * * * *

One of the most moving documentaries I ever saw was on Stravinsky, the Russian pianist, conductor and one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. The documentary showed that he was a musical revolutionary who pushed the boundaries of musical design. At one point, an interviewer asked him: ‘What is you greatest moment? Is it when you finish a symphony or a concerto, or is when it is premiered? ‘And Stravinsky says, “No, no, no I am sitting here by the piano for two, three hours by myself, I have been working on this concerto for weeks, months… I am looking for a note…. and I cannot find the note.  It is driving me crazy. Then, after one, maybe two hours, I find the note. That’s the moment? The only moment. That is the greatest moment.”

(to be concluded)

Zia Mohyeddin

The author is the president and CEO of National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA)


  • What an inspiring article. Thank you for imparting your wisdom and knowledge.

  • Marvelous article by one of the Greatest teacher of our nation….May you live long.. We really need people like you among us now … It is the utmost need of time for Pakistan..

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