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HindustanTimes Wed,22 Oct 2014

Karan Thapar

Riches to rags
Karan Thapar
December 05, 2009
First Published: 21:05 IST(5/12/2009)
Last Updated: 21:11 IST(5/12/2009)

Is English the richest of all languages? Not being fluent in any other, I have no way of answering that question authoritatively. But, that said and done, I suspect the answer could be yes. So, purely on the basis of a crude hunch, let me explain why.

First, the English tradition of separate and unique collective nouns for a variety of wildlife. I admit I’m fascinated by this. Most of us know of shoals of fish, packs of wolves, flocks of geese, herds of elephants or prides of lions. But here are a few that took me completely by surprise. The credit goes to Bambi Rao and Syeda Imam who sent out a round-robin email. For instance, did you know of a pod of whales, a rafter of turkeys, a muster of peacocks, a coffle of asses (when roped together), a drove of asses (when driven), a skein of geese (when in flight) and a skulk of foxes? 

Not to be outdone by his own discoveries, Bambi has also suggested a collective noun for bankers. Borrowing from the good Dr Spooner, he proposes ‘a wunch of bankers’! 

But it’s not just the collective nouns that seem to differ for each animal in English; the word for the sounds they make does too. Dogs bark, cats mew, snakes hiss, wolves howl, horses neigh, tigers roar, cows moo, hyenas laugh, elephants trumpet, mice squeal, pigs grunt, donkeys bray and ducks quack! Can any other language beat that? 

Even the statement that birds tweet or chirp can be further refined depending on which bird you have in mind. Crows caw, peacocks scream, owls hoot, swallows titter, parrots squawk, doves coo, nightingales warble, magpies chatter, cocks crow, turkeys gobble whilst larks, believe it or not, sing! 

Now, you could ask why the English language has such well-defined specificity for wildlife and, indeed, birds in particular. The answer, I suspect, may have something to do with 19th century mid-Victorian zoology and ornithology. Or just plain British eccentricity. Either way, it has made the language delightful and wondrous.

However, it’s not just the fact that the English language has specific collective nouns for different collections of wildlife or precise terms for the sounds they produce that might make it the richest of all, it also has a variety of different synonyms for the same word. According to The Oxford English Thesaurus, there are 380 for the simple word ‘good’. And, if you believe what you read on the Net, a certain Paul Dickson of the US has found more than 3,000 for the word ‘drunken’. They’re all included in a book called Drink: the Definitive Drinker’s Dictionary! And I would add that if you lay your hands on a good thesaurus you can while away several hours in amused wonderment.  

The sad part is that this rich heritage has not just fallen into disuse but is in danger of being forgotten except by the fussy or the aged. After all, how often do we use the ‘right’ collective noun or the mot juste for a particular sound? Rarely, if ever, is the answer. Worse, those who do are often sniggered at. 

Instead of rejoicing in the richness that English offers, we’ve all dumbed down and happily settled for the limited range of SMS-speak. Imprecise words like ‘good’, ‘nice’, ‘bad’ and the dreadful ‘awesome’ have colonised our minds and begun to dominate our speech. Quite frankly, the loss is ours.

The views expressed by the author are personal.


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