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The Hyphen War and the Velvet Divorce

Some years ago there was what the English language newspapers called a ‘Hyphen War.’ It was not a war with guns and bombs, it was what you might call a war of words. The ‘war’ was over the name Czechoslovakia.

Czechoslovakia was a creation of World War I. The big powers at that time who won the war decided, in their wisdom, to create a new nation to bring the Czechs and the Slovaks under one roof.

The new nation was christened by the big powers as Czechoslovakia without a hyphen to indicate that it was a link-up of two nations and the Slovaks grieved over its omission.

This forced-marriage went on bickering for some time as forced marriages do. Then Hitler came on the scene and he remembered that the territory which the Slovaks occupied once belonged to Germany. He decided to get it back. And you know what happened as a result. A second instalment of the World War series followed.

When the World War II was over the Czechs and the Slovaks began grumbling again. But this time Czechoslovakia had come under the suzerainty of the Russians and the grumbling was muted. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, the hyphen war came into the open once again.

The Slovaks wanted a hyphen put into the name of this nation like this, Czecho-Slovakia, but the Czechs did not want it like that. After haggling for about a month the Czechs finally agreed to drop the hyphen and to name the country in the Czech language as The Federation of Ceska and Slovenska.

The rigidly fought war over a hyphen came to an end and was hailed by the English language papers as the Velvet Divorce, but the outside world still knows it as Czechoslovakia without any hyphen. So much for the Hyphen War and the Velvet Divorce.

Czechoslovakia has ended its hyphen troubles but in the English-speaking world the hyphen has become lately a little irksome. Most of us are not too sure when or where to put the hyphen as the situation pops up.

One well-known personality who was irked by the hyphen was Sir Winston Churchill. A keen student of the English language, Sir Winston told a government official one day, “One must regard the hyphen as a blemish to be avoided wherever possible.”

He put it even more vividly later on when he went on to tell how it should be used. “My feeling is that you may run them together or leave them apart, except when Nature revolts.”

By that what Sir Winston meant is that you may link two words together or keep them apart if the result does not look unnatural. For instance, ‘co-worker’ is aesthetically satisfying but not ‘coworker’ which at first glance you tend to read as ‘cow,’ raising at once what Sir Winston called a ‘natural revolt.’ And so does ‘co-ordinate’ when it loses it hyphen and reads ‘coordinate.’

That the usage of hyphens has become complex and confusing can be seen by the way how Fowler reacts to all this in his book Modern English Usage. This is what he says: “No attempt will be made here to describe modern English usage in the matter of hyphens; its infinite variety defies description. No two dictionaries and no two sets of style rules would be found to give consistently the same advice.” Despite these drawbacks Fowler ventures out to give some advice.

The hyphen, points out Fowler, is not an ornament. There is general agreement, he says, that its use is to help understand and that it should be used only for that purpose. Look at the two sentences below:

A man-eating shark

A man eating shark

The first sentence tells us clearly that sharks eat man. The second one tells us that man, too, relishes eating shark. As you can see, the hyphen performs an important clarification.

The BBC in its newsletter announced the other day that the sixth edition of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary has removed the existing hyphens from 16,000 words.

This may sound alarming to conservative users of the English language. What actually is happening is a very interesting scenario. The English language being a living language is not rigid like Latin or Sanskrit.

Just as there is birth and death in real life, there is birth and death in living languages like English and Sinhala. In between, words grow up in different ways. In the English language in particular, sometimes one word becomes two as in fig leaf and two words become one as in bumblebee.

A reader writing to the BBC newsletter only shows what Fowler has been saying about the variety and difference when it comes to usage of hyphens.

“It’s nice,” he says “that the OED is catching up with usage (was anyone really writing ‘chick-pea’?) but note that in compounds, two-worders will still need a hyphen: pot-bellied pig, ice-cream cone, test-tube baby. And let’s not forget London Transport’s lamentably unhyphenated promise to provide ‘More late night buses’!”

The hyphen problem has emerged, according to some people, because the Internet has come to play a greater role in our lives. According to them the hyphen is a drag on fast typing.

As most computer users are only two-finger typists, one has to make a special effort to reach for the hyphen at the top of the keyboard. As a result they usually ignore the rules about the use of hyphens. It is not only the ordinary person who does this, we are told, even scholars have been found to be negligent.

That’s how the email has come or is coming in spite of the protection given to it by the New York Times and the BBC who are the stout upholders still of the hyphen in e-mails.

Curiously enough this disability to reach for the hyphen has led to the creation of some clever poetry by the American poet Don Marquis or rather his alter ego whom he named ‘Archy the Cockroach with the soul of a poet.’

Archy suffered not from a drawback to reach the hyphen as in the case of humans, but being a cockroach he hadn’t the strength to press the shift key. The result was that all his words came to be written in simple letters. Here is Archy making a complaint to his creator Don Marqui:

boss i am disappointed in some of your readers they are always asking how does archy work the shift so as to get a new line or how does archy do this or do that they are always interested in technical details when the main question is whether the stuff is literature or not

Taking inspiration from Archy, as it were, a reader of the BBC’s Newsletter suggests that the next innovation should be to stop capitalising words. Most scripts outside the Roman-script, he says, do not resort to capitalisation saving a good deal of space and time.

This is true I find about Sinhala, Tamil, Sanskrit, Hindi, Arabic and such languages which seem to need no capitalisation. The BBC has published his suggestion entirely in simple letters.

Britain’s Clarendon Press did in fact announce nearly half a century ago that all capital letters in the Oxford Dictionary will appear in simple form. Intrigued by this announcement, a columnist of the Daily News at that time produced one of his weekly columns written entirely in simple letters or what the printers call lower case. This is an excerpt from that column:

“Physical defect or not, i must say the lower case makes things quite simple and i am certain that the lino-operators of the world will be behind me if i were to campaign for it. besides, it gives me a kick to see that at last mr. bandaranaike, mr. khruschev and mr. nehru have been cut down to their proper democratic size and are now forced to take their position alongside mr. autolycus.”

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