worth words |Language
The most used word in the English language may only have three letters - but there's a lot of power behind it.
"THE". It's ubiquitous. we cannot imagine English without it. But there isn't much to see. It is not descriptive, evocative or inspirational. Technically it makes no sense. And yet this mild and seemingly innocuous word could be one of the most powerful in the English language.
This story was originally published in January 2020.
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"The" tops the list of most commonly used words in the English language.They make up 5% of all 100 words used. "'The' really slips out," says Jonathan Culpeper, a professor of linguistics at Lancaster University. But why is it like that? So the answer is twofoldThe BBC Radio 4 program Oral Tradition. George Zipf, a 20th-century American linguist and philologist, coined the principle of least effort. He predicted that short and simple words would be the most common - and he was right.
Another reason is that "the" is at the heart of English grammar and has a function, not a meaning. Words are divided into two categories: expressions with semantic meaning and functional words like "the", "to", "for" with a task to be done. "That" can work in a number of ways. That's typical, explains Gary Thoms, an assistant professor of linguistics at New York University: "A word that's used a lot develops a real flexibility," with various subtle uses that make definition difficult. “The” helps us understand what is being said and gives nouns meaning as a subject or object. So even someone with a rudimentary knowledge of English can tell the difference between "I ate an apple" and "I ate an apple".
"Score a goal" seems to be more important than "score a goal" (System: Alamy)
But while "it" has no meaning per se, "it appears to be able to effect things in subtle and wondrous ways," says poet and author Michael Rosen. Remember the difference between "scored the goal" and "scored the goal". The inclusion of "the" immediately suggests that this goal is important. Maybe it was the only game? Or was it the deciding factor that won? Context all too often determines meaning.
There are many exceptions to the use of the definite article, such as in proper nouns. We wouldn't expect anyone to say 'Jonathan', but there's nothing wrong with saying, 'You're not the Jonathan I thought you were.' A football commentator can deliberately create a general atmosphere by saying, 'You have Lampards in midfield,” meaning the playersIfLampard.
The use of "the" may have increased with the increase in trade and manufacturing leading up to the Industrial Revolution when we needed to refer to things and processes. "That" contributed to the clear distinction and could serve as a quantifier, for example "a stick of butter".
This could lead to the assumption that "the" is the English horse. functional but boring. However, Rosen rejects this view. As elementary school kids are taught to use "wow" words and to choose "shouted" over "said," she believes no word has more or less a "wow" factor than any other. it all depends on how it is used. "The power of language comes from context... 'that' can be a wow word," he says.
This simplest of words can be used to dramatic effect. At the beginning of Hamlet, the keeper's utterance, "Long live the king," is soon followed by the appearance of a ghost: "Doesn't he look like a king?" To whom, the audience asks, does "it" refer? Living or dead king? This kind of ambiguity is the kind of "hook" authors use to ask us questions, even if only slightly alarmed. "'The' does a lot of work here," says Rosen.
A deeper meaning
"It" can even have philosophical implications. The Austrian philosopher Alexius Meinong said that a term like "round square" represents this object. now there was such a thing. According to Meinong, the word itself created nonexistent objects, arguing that there are objects that exist and those that don't - but all were created by language. "'The' has a kind of magical quality in philosophy," says Barry C. Smith, director of the Institute of Philosophy at the University of London.
"The" gives substance to phrases like "Mann im Mond" and implies that they exist (Source: Alamy)
The British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote an essay in 1905 entitled "On Denotation, All About the Definite Article". Russell introduced the theory of definitive descriptions. He found it unacceptable to use phrases like "man on the moon" as if they actually existed. He wanted to revise the surface grammar of the English language because it was wrong and "didn't provide a good guide to the logic of the language," explains Smith. Since then, this topic has been discussed in a philosophical context. "Despite the simplicity of the word," Thoms notes, "it has long eluded a very precise definition."
Lynne Murphy, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sussex, spokeBoring conference2019, an event that celebrates issues that are mundane, mundane and overlooked, but prove fascinating. He pointed out how strange it is that our most commonly used word is one that many of the world's languages don't have. And how amazing it is for English speakers to struggle with the myriad of uses.
Scandinavian languages such as Danish or Norwegian and some Semitic languages such as Hebrew or Arabic use an affix (or a short addition at the end of a word) to identify whether the speaker is referring to a specific topic or using some other general expression. A Latvian or Indonesian uses demonstrative words like "this" and "that" to do the work of "that". There is another group of languages that do not use either of these sources, such as Urdu or Japanese.
Function words are very specific to each language.
mouth to mouth
This story is adapted by BBC Radio 4Word of mouth: The strongest word, produced by Melvin Rickarby.
So someone who speaks Hindi or Russian as a mother tongue would have to think very differently when constructing a sentence in English. Murphy says she's noticed, for example, that her Chinese students sometimes play it safe and put "it" where it's not needed. In contrast, Smith describes Russian friends who are so unsure of when to use "the" that they sometimes stop: "I went to the . . . bank." I have . . . a pen. English speakers learning a language without an equivalent for "the" also have difficulties and can compensate by using words like "this" and "this".
the Atlantic watershed
Even within languages, there are subtle differences in the use of "the" in British and American English, for example when referring to playing a musical instrument. An American is more likely to say "I play guitar" while a Brit is more likely to say "I play guitar". But there are some instruments where both nationalities like to omit the "it", such as "I play drums". Likewise, the same person can alternately refer to playing any instrument with or without a specific member—because either is correct and both have meaning.
Americans are more likely to say, "I play the piano," while a Brit is more likely to say, "I play the piano" (Source: Alamy)
And yet, depending on the musical atmosphere, there is a subtle difference in the meaning of the word "the" in the expressions "I play the piano" and "I clean the piano". We instinctively understand that the former means piano playing is general and not limited to one instrument, and yet with the latter we know it's a specific piano that turns into sharpness.
According to Culpeper, "that" is about a third less common in spoken language. Of course, it depends on the topic in question whether it is used more frequently in the text or in the language. A more personal, emotional topic might contain fewer instances of "it" than something more formal. "The" appears most often in academic prose and provides a useful word for conveying information - be it academic papers, legal contracts, or news. Novels use "das" less often, partly because they involve conversation.
Deborah Tannen, an American linguist, suggests that men are more concerned with reporting and women are more concerned with relationships - this may explain why men use "the" more often
According to Culpeper, men are much more likely to say "it." Deborah Tannen, an American linguist, suggests that men are more concerned with reporting and women are more concerned with relationships - this may explain why men use "the" more often. Depending on the context and background, a woman in more traditional power structures can also be brought up not to accept the voice of authority, so she uses “she” less often. Although all of these gender generalizations also depend on the type of subject being studied.
People in higher positions also use "es" more often - this can be a sign of their prestige and (self-)importance. And when we speak of "Prime Minister" or "President," it gives more power and authority to that role. It can also add credibility to an idea or move a plan forward. The discussion of the "greenhouse effect" or the "immigration problem" clarifies these ideas and assumes their existence.
"The" can be a "very unstable" word, says Murphy. Someone who speaks of "Americans" and not just "Americans" is more likely to criticize that nationality in some way. When people started talking about "Jews" in the creation of the Holocaust, it became different and objectified. According to Murphy, "'The' makes the group seem like a large, unified mass rather than a diverse group of individuals." That's what Trump was there forcriticized for using the word in this contextduring the 2016 US presidential debate.
We don't know exactly where "the" came from - there is no exact ancestor in Old English grammar. The Anglo-Saxons didn't say "the", they had their own versions. According to historical linguist Laura Wright, they have not entirely disappeared. In parts of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumberland there is a remnant of Old English inflected forms of the definite article - t' (as in "going t' pub").
The letter y in expressions like "ye olde tea shop" comes from the ancient rune Thorn, which is part of a script used in northern Europe for centuries. Only relatively recently, with the introduction of the Roman alphabet, was “th” created.
"It" deserves a celebration. The three-letter word outweighs its weight in impact and breadth of contextual meaning. It can be political, it can be dramatic - it can even lead to the creation of non-existent concepts.
You can hear more about "the" on BBC Radio 4Word of mouth: The strongest word.
And if you liked this story,Subscribe to bbc.com's weekly feature newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of BBC stories from the future, culture, working life and travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.
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Strong words put a clear, specific image in the reader's mind, forcing her to visualize something pleasant or painful, evoking an emotion that affects her thoughts, mood, and eventually, her actions. Weak words are more abstract.