Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Eroticism and the preposition

It’s striking how often I’ve either read or listened to people from different speech communities telling me how uniquely expressive their language is. The implication, or sometimes explicit claim, is that their language is superior to all others.

As the boast seems to be made of all languages, I can only conclude that it’s always wrong. The reality is that languages have strong points in which they outshine others, which in turn will be more expressive or elegant in other respects.

To me, the great asset of English, or any Germanic language, is the phrasal verb.

Note how up to date I am in my terminology: when I was studying these things, I learned to call them ‘prepositional verbs’, but my family is full of language teachers and I know they’d be down on me like a thunderbolt if I didn’t use the term ‘phrasal’.

Anyway, whatever they’re called (I’m told a rose by any other name would smell as sweet) they’re a source of great richness to the language. For instance, if we want to move relatively quickly on foot, and aren’t worried about the strain on the ankles to say nothing of the lungs, we run. As in French courir or German rennen.

Our run might be enlivened, however, by our running into a friend. On the other hand, if on the drive home afterwards, we ran into another car, we’d be significantly less pleased and it would be much worse if we ran over a pedestrian. If a policeman who attended the accident disliked our attitude, he might run us in. If we objected to the law under which he did that, we might try to get it changed by running for parliament.

Actually, we British would be more likely to stand for parliament. It’s the Americans who run for office. In this country, we like to maintain the pretence that we merely ‘stand’ – you know, put our names forward, as someone reluctantly prepared to have power thrust on them, in the interests of the community at large. We’d never be so low as to scrabble for office like the Americans do, with all that vulgar running. The reality, of course, is that we fight and stab and lie and betray like anyone else, which makes it all the more sensible that the American usage, like so much American English, is becoming increasingly common over here.

If I were to run for parliament, the reality is that I would be run out of town by my fellow citizens. I expect my adversaries would run down everything I stood for, and they would run me through with their metaphorical sword thrusts.

A political failure but a fine illustration of the change in meaning produced by simply modifying the verb ‘run’ with a preposition. A humble little part of speech but it packs a punch.

What brought all this to mind was discovering a great line in a John Donne poem, one of the most erotic in English poetry. Here, with the previous line to introduce it, is the monument to prepositions from Donne’s To His Mistress Going to Bed:

  License my roving hands, and let them go
  Before, behind, between, above, below.

Maybe no two readers will get the same mental picture from those five prepositions. But I doubt that any will disagree about their general thrust.


Mark Reynolds said...

I'm surprised Donne's writing was never adapted for the stage. I'm pretty sure it would have a good run on Broadway. I'd bet there'd be a run on tickets for opening night.

Awoogamuffin said...

Why didn't you go on? It's not as if you'd run out of potential examples.

David Beeson said...

Zounds! Got one meaning of that one, missed the other