The G that won’t leave

I wrote the other  day about the way people look at the world and the fact that things basically are just a construct of your human brain squeezing them into a box and slapping a label on them (‘you don’t know what an apple is’). No sooner do I write this, than I get to experience it firsthand: thanks to my new arch enemy – the letter ‘G’.

hig vs hi. or… why is a tree called a tree?

Those who have kids will know the experience I’m about to describe. I was walking to the park with my 5 year old daughter and – on seeing a sign with the word ‘high’ in it she asked me what it said. She insisted it said ‘hig’ and couldn’t understand why I possibly thought it should say ‘hi’. The following 30 minutes turned into an epic struggle as we both tried to figure out why on earth there was any need for a ‘g’ in the middle of the word ‘high’, or in fact for it to be lurking in so many other unnecessary words – night, light, right, flight etc etc.

Basically, after talking and talking and thinking and thinking we came to one of 2 conclusions:

– Either the english language is stupid or…
– The letter G has a brain of its own, and is deliberately creeping into words by itself and refusing to leave.

I am sure there are real academically-proven reasons why there’s a G in the word high, reasons people a lot cleverer than me probably know. And I’m sure at some point it made sense. But it doesn’t make any sense now. So the question from my daughter? Why don’t people just stop putting it there? Why does everyone spell it with a G?

The only answer I could come up with – the last resort of parents everywhere in the same situation: because they just do. They spell it with a G because they spell it with a G. This of course opened a pandoras box of questioning, including why trees are called trees, why she can’t change her name to Emily today if she prefers that name and then be called Chloe tomorrow and so on and so on… Pretty much why is anything what it is?

Sometimes it’s easier to agree than to do what’s right

This is what really interested me – I explained to her, that at some point people needed a word for tree and so they just picked a word and stuck with it. And that’s the reason it, and her name, and the spelling of high exist – it’s that what people agree on. This seems a sensible way of doing things, but the problem? Even if something makes no sense at all, (like the sneaky, intrusive letter g) people sometimes find it easier to agree on something wrong than to try and make it right.

When it comes to changing words this is just an idle amusement – I always like seeing my older relatives spitting and cursing about the americanization of things (using a z instead of an s!? awful!! how about cutting the ‘u’ out of humor? and don’t even get me started on the word ‘aluminum’). That’s before we even start talking about textspeak and the ‘deterioration of language’ that people complain about all the time. It doesn’t matter that actually ~ and I’m a Brit here saying this ~ in nearly every case the American way of spelling things makes much more sense. What people hate is change, and they’re resistant to it, and they like the comfort of sticking to what they know regardless of whether it’s right or wrong.

Baggy pants and textspeak? Are you and your grandparents really that different?

By now you can probably see where I’m going with this – if people can’t bring themselves to be open to removing the letter g from a word, how hard is it to change their minds on something bigger? From the evils of textspeak, consider your parents or grandparents views on videogames. Or violence and nudity in movies. Or rock music. Or dance music. Or, in fact, any music that “has no words in it”. On the changes in society in general. People hate having to change what they think about things. And it’s not just older generations:

Look at the polarization of politics in the US recently, and the lines around which those battles are being staked, and the basis on which each side builds their opinions. Rights to contraception, rights to choose, big state vs small state, healthcare or no healthcare. In the UK we just had the archbishop of canterbury telling people gay marriage will damage society. Half the politicians in Europe think that immigration is the worst thing in the world. Pretty much everyone has a strong sense that they know what is wrong with  the world and ~ surprise surprise ~ it’s inevitably someone’s fault. Someone else. Do people know why they think these things? Do they even think about it? How much of what they think is based on logic or reason, and how much is actually groupthink encouraged by readership of a tabloid newspaper or  membership of a religion, or of an ethnic community or a political party? A case of ‘well we agree on this. so that’s that’.?

The world is shaped by human agreement. Maybe more than we know

I once read some interesting thoughts on ‘natural law’ – basically the question of what makes a law real, and valid and legal – and maybe that’s a thought for a separate post. But basically the interesting conclusion was, if you really look at all the theories and the written words that have gone into answering this question and you cut out the BS it feels like the closest we can get to an answer is: whatever people agree is fair/just/right is what goes. And that’s the crux of it. Do you think people ever realise just how much the world around them is a construct of their own opinions? How much what we think is solid is actually changeable and shapeable by human agreement? How much power we have to change the world around us? Probably not, because a) that would require effort and we all hate changing our opinions and b) if you ask me, thinking you have the power to change things puts you on the hook for the way things are. And that’s a guilt-trip most people really don’t want to go on.

There are times that being a parent is tough, luckily outweighted by times it is great. And this is one of those things that I love: I love that my children force me to constantly question the world and to constantly ask why why why, to constantly look at things from a different light and to never just accept things as they are. I read a lot, and I think a lot, but I’ve never thought to ask why there’s a G in the word high. Maybe if I did, maybe if we all just questioned ourselves a little more once in a while, the world would be a better place.

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7 Responses to The G that won’t leave

  1. Actually, if you think about it, the English words are filled with silent letters. My friends from other countries tell me that this why English is so difficult to learn. One of my best friends is Korean and, for an English speaking American like me, it sounds like gibberish.

    Linguistics is an interesting field! Your post was very interesting as well and provides much food for thought.

  2. dougsan says:

    thanks – glad you liked it, especially as I’m a fan of the blog.
    re language, I’m interested in it as I think the words people use shape so much of their thinking without them ever realising. like in the Matrix, when he starts seeing the world as made up of green code instead of walls and floors etc… only with the world being made up out of words instead of code.
    Hmm… maybe i’ve just spent way too much time reading.

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