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Language and Life

Through Thick and Thin: The Role and the Rule of Usage
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

The learner of a new language always looks for patterns, rules which tell one how to speak.  Westerners like to find a system, a structure or an order for everything.  They bring a sense of consistency and logic to the tasks set for them.  

Westerners have a strong sense of mechanical regularity.  This enables them to categorize life's experiences and to order their lives and control their relationships to the outside world.  This is a cultural value not shared by all cultures of the world.

The great benefits of industrialization arise from this philosophical sense of regularity and order.  The sense of regularity helps the language learner, because once a pattern is discerned in a language, the learner can anticipate that pattern recurring./p>

Math and Mechanics
The problem is that language as it is actually used is not as mathematically or mechanically regular as the analysis of the abstract Western mind would like it to be.  The learner wants a simple, definable and predictable pattern.  But when usages occur which do not fit that pattern, the learner tends to blame the speaker or the language because "it does not make sense."

For some reason, the total regularity and symmetry of abstract analysis is expected in the new language, though there is no language that is totally "regular." The learner has to actually observe how people say things, how people actually use a particular form or grammar feature.

Usage is the final arbiter of meaning for a word, phrase or grammar feature.  How a word or structure is actually used, and all the ways it is used, are the actual rule for its meaning.

Through Thick and Thin
A good way to illustrate this is to look at word pairs in English.  Most words are used with various meanings.  The paired opposites do not always match, and sometimes the ways of referring to opposite concepts are not parallel.  Take the common English adjective pair thick-thin.  

We may say that paper is thick or thin.  We have this same usage when applying this analogy to life: "through thick and thin," meaning through good times and bad times, also known as "the fat and the lean." We may also say "The traffic is thick today," but traffic cannot normally be thin.  The opposite of thick traffic is "light" traffic.  The opposite of light traffic may also be "heavy traffic."

The opposite of a thick taste is not a "thin" taste.  But a heavy taste is the same as a thick taste, and the opposite of both is "light." Physically, a person may be thin, but we do not normally say a person is thick.  We can say a person is thick mentally, meaning slow, stupid, dull-witted.  But you do not say a smart person is thin! The opposite of thick in the realm of intelligence is "sharp" or "clever."

Using the physical analogy, we say a person is in the "thick of things," but I have never heard anyone speak of the "thin of things!" Excuses may be weak, or thin, but the opposite is not thick, but "strong," or simply "good."

In certain school circles, we use to hear of a boy and a girl being "thick," meaning "close," being “an item.” But I don't think you will hear of a "thin" couple! Why aren't these pairs parallel, as they should be in a properly balanced system, especially for intelligent, educated Westerners?  Because people use language creatively.

Community Contexts
Words gain certain connotations because of the way they are used in certain communities or contexts.  When a certain individual looks for a word to express a specific feeling or idea, the old connotations may not be satisfactory, so a new word is coined, or an unrelated word is brought into service with a new meaning.  Or it may take on an opposite meaning, like "baaad" as a real compliment!

In this way strong words become weak, as "awesome," now being used to mean anything from mildly interesting to highly creative and pleasing, rather than a thing or event which produces fear or "awe" in the original sense.  And a "nice" person is one everybody likes to be around, or to take advantage of, as the case may be, no longer someone foolish or morally wanton.

Idiots and Cuties
Terms of derision may become endearments if used satirically for long enough, like "cute," which no longer denotes a bow-legged person, but someone physically attractive.  Or it can mean someone trying to be funny, but not necessarily succeeding!

We see this process occurring currently with words like "dummy," "idiot" and "stupid," which are often used affectionately when someone makes a mistake or has an unusual problem with something normally considered simple.

"Idiot" has lost its original technical denotation of a particular degree of mental retardation, having progressed through being a term of derision or rebuke, to being a mild jeer or affectionate name.

It often depends on who is saying such a word just what it is taken to mean.  A person may respond with laughter or anger to the same term, depending on who has used it.

Formal and Informal Parents
In English we have various pairs of words for parents.  The five common ones are mother-father, mama-papa, mom-pop (shortened forms of the second pair), mommy-daddy, and mom-dad (shortened forms of the fourth pair).

The common British form for mommy is Mummy, which they shorten to Mum.  Perhaps you have heard the affectionate name for the mother of Queen Elizabeth.  The official term is Queen Mother, and she is commonly referred to as the Queen Mum.

Mother-Father is the formal name for the relationship, but may also be used as the form of address by the child. However, most children who address the female parent as Mother do not usually address the male parent as Father, but more commonly as Daddy or Dad.

The term Mommy is normally associated with small children, like preschool age, being replaced with Mama or Mother while the parallel term Daddy is often heard into the adult life of the child.  My mother called her parents Mama and Daddy until they died.  But my father, who grew up in the same state, called his parents Mom and Dad.  Likewise, my mother’s older sisters called their parents Mama and Papa, but it shifted somehow with the younger children.

I grew up using Mama and Daddy.  I continued calling my mother Mama but sometimes shortened Daddy to Dad.  The set my mother and I use are a common pair, but unparallel.  Usage does not match our strictly logical abstract analysis.

Listen to Learn
Are we to expect a new language we need to learn to be any more regular than English? Each language has meaning in reference to the cultural context in which it is the native language.  And within that context, the actual usage of words produce their meanings.

The learner has to listen for patterns and usages.  It is important to develop the regular practice of collecting examples to develop a broad model or category of meaning for words, and phrases, according to those usages.

Why waste your time and energy fighting the language, searching for or arguing for abstract and artificial regularity which you would like to impose on it to make it easier to learn? You may learn definitions from teachers or dictionaries, and you may learn some connotations from dialogue sentences, but you cannot determine the way the native speaker speaks his or her own language.  (The same goes for varieties of your own native tongue.)

Look for the pairs and categories in your target language.  Distinguish between the formal pairs and the informal pairs.  Usage is the final arbiter for meaning in any language.

Also related
Raindrops and Snowflakes


This topic originally published in Language and Life, (Communication Press, Limuru, Kenya) 1989.
Also published as “Through Thick and Thin:  The Arbitration of Usage,” Afri-Com, November 1994
This version written and posted on Thoughts and Resources 5 May 2002
Last modified 15 November 2007

Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.

Copyright © 1989, 1994, 2002 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.
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