Another interesting element of the English language just struck me – albeit a strange thought for a Wednesday morning.
In English, perhaps more than in any other language (although I’d be interested to hear examples from other languages of this), the placement of certain words can make a huge difference to the way that the sentence, as a whole, is interpreted.
Take for instance, the following sentence:
He told her that he loved her.
Nice and simple, right? Now, try inserting the word “only” into that sentence. You’ll find that, depending on where you choose to place the additional word, the meaning of the sentence changes. That’s the magic of English. Although all versions of the sentence make sense in terms of English grammar and sentence construction, some of the differences between the statements created are actually quite pronounced:
Only he told her that he loved her.
He only told her that he loved her.
He told only her that he loved her.
He told her only that he loved her.
He told her that only he loved her.
He told her that he only loved her.
He told her that he loved only her.
He told her that he loved her only.
Statement 1 implies that the male expressor is the only source of love for the female recipient.
Statement 2, in contrast, sounds like the commentary of a third party, and has quite an informal and colloquial tone (I can’t help but imagine some spectator exclaiming “‘Ere! ‘E’s only gone an’ told er’ he loves ‘er!”).
In Statement 3, the meaning shifts, so that the male subject is exclusive in his love for the unnamed woman of this sentence.
Statement 4 is similar, in that the woman is the only person to be told that she is loved by this man, but this sentence has connotations of infidelity (i.e. that perhaps he has many sexual partners, but only one ‘lover’).
Again, in Statement 5, the meaning shifts – this time, there is an implication of an abusive relationship taking place, as the statement this time is basically a warning that this man is the only person who will ever love her.
Statement 6 is interesting, in that it takes the importance and value of love the topic of the sentence – it’s only love, after all, what does it really mean?
Statements 7 and 8 are perhaps the most similar, as they express largely similar sentiments, but even here, the implication of the latter is of an earlier time; a different manner of speaking.
This is an oddity which rarely occurs in language – take the same phrase in German (“Er sagte ihr dass er sie liebte”) and mix up the word order, and nothing happens. Germanic language structure allows for variations in word sequencing without changing the meaning. Whilst this is perhaps a more efficient language solution, it eliminates a whole world of possibilities that can be created through the subtle combination of words.
This, for me, is where English comes alive – it is not only the words chosen, but the order in which they are presented, that dictates the meaning of any given sentence. As a creative writer, this allows me to experiment and create in a way that I would be unable to in another dialect.
Although colonialism inevitably is the primary reason why English is so widespread, I like to think that one of the reasons why English authors, poets and playwrights are so heartily celebrated is that they were enabled to create vivid, multi-layered meanings in their work by the language that they speak. Though the greats – Shakespeare, Blake, Joyce, Wilde, and so on, ad infinitum – undoubtedly had beautiful minds, they also had an incredibly beautiful language with which they could work. Hurrah for English!