I already touched on Otto Jespersen's claim in Growth and Structure of the English Language that English is a “masculine” language – that it has plenty of consonants being one alleged reason, another that it has plenty of monosyllables. “English has undoubtedly gained in force what it has possibly lost in elegance, by reducing so many words of two syllables to monosyllables. If it had not been for the great number of long foreign, especially Latin, words, English would have approached the state of such monosyllabic languages as Chinese.” Jespersen adds that “an Englishman does not like to use more words or more syllables than are strictly necessary.”

Is this some kind of a Danish thing? Jespersen tends with a certain amount of justice to see old English as a sort of honorary dialect of Danish... still, the prejudice in favor of monosyllables abides -- when Virginia Woolf tells us, in a parenthesis in Orlando, that “only the most profound masters of style can tell the truth, and when one meets a simple one-syllabled writer, one must conclude, without any doubt at all, that the poor man is lying,” she is clearly offering an inverse platitude.

In children's TV shows, heroes always speak more monosyllabically than villains, a tendency which I believe has had a pernicious effect on U.S. political discourse. And yet... an artist once said to me regarding Piet Mondrian, “Monochrome has a power,” and perhaps the same is true of monosyllables. I am the way, the truth, and the life. To be or not to be. I am: yet what I am none cares or knows.

Monosyllabism adds to the evident sincerity both of Wordsworth's evocation of the hopes attendant on the French Revolution --

"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive..."

-- and to his disillusioned acceptance that, despite England's many political crimes, she is after all the world's least unworthy champion of liberty --

"O grief that Earth's best hopes rest all in thee!"

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The world is what it is.

2 thoughts on “Monosyllables”

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