THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

17 May 2017

Short words strike home

A monosyllable is a long word that means a short one. Some tongues have more of them, some less; some are rich, some poor. English and Catalan (Eng and Cat in the MARC language codes used by library cataloguers) have more than Spanish (Spa).

Some think they’re the soul of Eng: all the words we spell with * are short and stark.

But what a punch the short can deal! To quote:

Basic English, produced by Mr C. K. Ogden of the Orthological Institute, is a simple form of the English language which, with about 1,000 words, is able to give the sense of anything which may be said in English.

The Bible in Basic English:

1 At the first God made the heaven and the earth.
2 And the earth was waste and without form; and it was dark on the face of the deep: and the Spirit of God was moving on the face of the waters.
3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
4 And God, looking on the light, saw that it was good: and God made a division between the light and the dark,
5 Naming the light, Day, and the dark, Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Now, Cat or Spa? Let’s try some.

Spa             Cat
bueno         bo
cabeza         cap
lejos             lluny
plano           pla
vino             vi

And of course names such as Pep, places such as Vich and El Clot and shops such as Pans.

Ausiàs March (1400-59) loved short words:

Qui no es trist de mos dictats no cur
ó en algun temps que sia trist estat
é lo qui es de mals apassionat
per ferse trist no cerque lloch escur
lija mos dits mostrant pensa torbada
sens algun art exits d’hom fora seny,
é la rahó qu’en tal dolor m’enpeny
Amor ho sab quina es la causa estada.

Monosyllables March C.62.c.5.
Les obres de Mossen Áusias March ab una declaratio en los marges, de alguns vocables scurs. (Barcelona, 1543) C.62.c.5. fol. 1r

His Spanish translator, Jorge de Montemayor (1520-61) lived a short life but did a good job:

No cure de mis versos, ni los lea
quien no fuere muy triste, o lo aya sido;
y quien lo es, para que más lo sea
lugar no pida escuro, ni escondido.
Mis dichos puede oýr, y en ellos vea
cómo sin arte alguna me han salido
del alma, y la razón de mi querella
muy bien la sabe Amor qu’es causa d’ella

Monosyllables March trans 1072.c.18
Las obras del excelentissimo poeta Mossen A. March ... Traduzidas de lengua Lemosina en Castellano por J. de Montemayor. (Saragossa, 1562). 1072.c.18 fol. 1r

Here’s a punt of my own:

If
you’re
not
sad,
don’t
heed
my
verse,
or
if
you
weren’t
sad
once,
and
if
you’re
burnt
with
lover’s
ills
don’t
slink
to
dark
holes
to
make
you
sad,
but
read
my
words
that
show
tormented
thoughts ...

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies