God, I love words. Written, spoken, familiar, foreign, crass, literary – I love them all. I admire the human ability to string random words and letters together to make a sentence, a phrase, that can make your heart swell, make you cry, make you laugh, make you furious or even just make you very confused.

Words are capable of building captivating worlds of intense beauty, and of inducing the deepest, darkest nightmares purely by the power of suggestion – you don’t see it, you don’t feel it, you can’t hear it, but words use a kind of weird telepathy to project those images, sounds and textures straight into your head. In addition to its literary applications, perhaps my real fascination for language lies in its mechanisms – the structure, the rules, and how they can be applied and broken. I love how languages are built – the convoluted evolution of my own language, English, the similarities and differences between other language families and how they are used and shared.

I’m sad to say that I can only speak one language fluently. I can get around in French, Latin American Spanish, and Swiss German. I know useless bits and pieces of Japanese, Welsh and as a teenager I could read, write and translate Sindarin Elvish (Yes. I know). I’ve always wanted to learn another language, but I could never pick which one. The process of learning, sounding it out and working out the structure varies so wildly between each language, and I want to learn them all! It seems that learning languages is the only thing I’ve ever really been good at. I wanted to do a linguistics degree, but they focused on one language and its culture rather than a broader application of linguistics in multiple languages and a more sociological and perhaps historical context, which is what I love. I have since discovered that there is a linguistics course like that available, but my window for university study has long since passed.

But why? What draws me to this relatively obscure area? I’m not sure. I guess it fascinates me that English started as a Western Germanic language which was bolted onto a Latin structure and integrated Norse and French vocabulary. English is a real bowerbird of a language. There are words in it derived from Japanese, Spanish, Hindu, Native American languages (usually through Spanish corruptions) and others. Oddly, the native Celts of the British Isles never left any words to the English, except in some geographic terms. (I mean, come on – when was the last time you used the Welsh-derived word cwm? That’s right – to win at Scrabble.)

English also seems to be unrivalled in terms of sheer volume of words, due to our mixed heritage. English can have up to four times more words than other Western European languages. English is probably the only language that needs a thesaurus. And then, there’s the limitless capacity and passion for wordplay that English lends itself to. Wordplay is common in other languages but not to the extent of English.

Now, please don’t think that I think English is a superior language – its shortcomings are many and varied. The same heritage that gives us our rich bounty of words also ensures that the phonics, orthography and grammar of English is all over the place like a mad woman’s shit. I sincerely doff my hat to anyone who learns English as a second language. It is a bastard of a thing. But, alas, it’s the only language I know.

I’m highly excited to see Stephen Fry’s new series called Planet Word, which focuses on pretty much everything I’ve been waxing lyrical about. Not only does it cover everything that interests me, but to be presented by such a formidable and skilled user of language is a big bonus. As Stephen once said, words are truly my mistress.

Of course, I can hardly tell you all about my love of linguistics without imploring you to read what is probably my favourite book of all time, by one of my favourite authors – Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson. I read it as a teenager and it’s one of the things that’s really stayed with me. It’s a tiny bit dated (published 1989) but still highly interesting, funny, and valuable. Another excellent book is Blooming English by Kate Burridge. Get thee hence to the library. Go directly past the Lynne Truss books, do not stop, do not pass go.

Any other budding wordsmiths out there?

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