The word constitution comes from Latin; change it to groundlaw

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Over the years, Latin has gone from a language used to reach a wider audience to one used to intentionally reach a smaller one. Wikipedia gives the following: The New Latin of the 16th to 19th centuries had become otiose by 1900, confined to a few very technical areas (e.g., botany) where it functioned as a code, capable of only very limited types of expression, and not as a fully functional language. In other fields (e.g. anatomy or law) where Latin had been widely used, it survived only in technical phrases and terminology. The last survivals of New Latin to convey non-technical information appear in the use of Latin to cloak passages and expressions deemed too indecent (in the 19th century) to be read by children, the lower classes, or (most) women — intending to shrink readership, not expand it.

I wrote a post on this on back in February when I noticed that the word 'constitution' didn't really carry that much reverence for most of the politicians and news figures I had seen talking about it. With English, the problem might simply be that the word constitution comes from Latin, and given that the average student doesn't learn Latin anymore the word constitution doesn't really have all that much intrinsic meaning.

Take a look at etymonline's entry on constitute for an explanation on where the word comes from:
1442, verb use of adjective, "made up, formed" (14c.), from L. constitutus, pp. of constituere "to fix, establish," from com- intensive prefix + statuere "to set" (see statue). Constitution "health, strength, vitality" is from 1553; the political sense evolved after 1689. Constitutional (n.), short for constitutional walk is first recorded 1829. Constituency first recorded 1831.
Okay, so constitution kind of refers to the strength or vitality of a country, but only after you've taken the time to look it up. Other languages use much stronger terms for the same thing though:
  • Norwegian: Konstitusjon or grunnlov (groundlaw).
  • Swedish: Grundlag (groundlaw)
  • Dutch: Grondwet (groundlaw)
  • Estonian: Põhiseadus (north law)
  • Turkish: Anayasa (fundamental law)
What would be the point? The word constitution as it stands has a vague kind of feel to it; it seems to refer to a historical document rather than the basic law of a country, and derived terms such as anti-constitutional don't really carry as much of a punch as they should. Anti-constitutional feels like little more than anti-some-historical-document, and certainly doesn't give the impression that one has transgressed against the very law upon which a nation was founded.

English is full of these Latin words (or Greek words through Latin) that no longer carry much meaning anymore due to the lack of Latin education, and the only way to cure this is to:
  • restore Latin education to previous levels, or
  • change Latin-derived words that have lost meaning to the average person into terms based on Germanic roots.
Hence the term groundlaw. Some other terms that might be changed include:
  • casus belli. Just say 'cause of war' because the Latin term has no special meaning above this.
  • de jure. Just say 'by law'.
  • emeritus. Sounds impressive, just means veteran. Veteran professor means more than professor emeritus.
  • née and (okay, these are French) for born. These refer to a person's name when they were born, so if your name was Jennifer Brown and you were born as Jennifer McDonald, your Wikipedia page would say Jennifer Brown (née Jennifer McDonald)'s one example, the page for Margaret Thatcher: "Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher LG, OM, PC, FRS (née Roberts; born 13 October 1925) is a British politician..." no point in a née there; just go with born.
  • mea culpa. Change it to my fault, and a mea culpa is an apology. Without knowing what the word means, people are able to admit to guilt with a weak 'mea culpa' but for some reason this doesn't count as a full-fledged apology. This is an example of Latin being used to disguise meaning instead of clarifying it, the opposite of the way it was used in the Middle Ages.
  • per annum. No difference whatsoever from per year, so change it to that.
  • jus soli. Change it to birthright citizenship or right of the soil.
  • medical terms. I read an article a few months ago that for the life of me I can't find now, about how a lot of patients ended up scared by diagnoses they had because they sounded worse than they actually were. This included getting malignant (=bad) tumors mixed up with benign (=mild) tumors, and hearing the names of common illnesses as something worse than they actually were. The article used a different example but it was something akin to how the common cold is officially known as acute viral nasophyaryngitis, which sounds a million times worse.
  • lactose = milk sugar. Lactic acid = milk acid. You'll notice that German does just fine in Chemistry with terms that don't come from Latin: lactose is Milchzucker (milk sugar) for example.
Turkish went through a similar process when it switched to the Latin alphabet, as it too was clogged with loanwords that the average person didn't really understand. Modern English isn't nearly at that same level, but the above demonstrates a few terms that really have to reason to exist any longer, and there are many more. I would be just as happy with a restoration of Latin education to previous levels, but if that isn't the case then the only other way to give meaning to a lot of terms that we use but don't really understand is to switch to Germanic or other roots.

Lastly, if a full restoration of Latin education is too difficult the other possible solution of course is an auxiliary language based on Latin like Latino sine flexione, which is a simplified form of Latin that looks like the following:

The Lord's Prayer

Latino sine Flexione version: Latin version: English (ELLC - 1988[1])

Patre nostro, qui es in celos,
que tuo nomine fi sanctificato.
Que tuo regno adveni;
que tuo voluntate es facto
sicut in celo et in terra.
Da hodie ad nos nostro pane quotidiano.
Et remitte ad nos nostro debitos,
sicut et nos remitte ad nostro debitores.
Et non induce nos in tentatione,
sed libera nos ab malo.

Pater noster, qui es in caelis:
sanctificetur Nomen Tuum;
adveniat Regnum Tuum;
fiat voluntas Tua,
sicut in caelo, et in terra.
Panem nostrum cotidianum da nobis hodie;
et dimitte nobis debita nostra,
Sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris;
et ne nos inducas in tentationem;
sed libera nos a Malo.

Our Father (who is) in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial
and deliver us from evil. [...]

Latin proverbs converted to Latino sine flexione

Latin Latino sine flexione English
Vox populi, vox Dei. Voce de populo, voce de Deo. The voice of the people is the voice of God.
Hodie mihi, cras tibi. Hodie ad me, cras ad te. It is my lot today, yours to-morrow.
Gratia gratiam generat, lis litem generat. Gratia genera gratia, lite genera lite. Goodwill begets goodwill, bickering begets bickering.
In medio stat virtus. Virtute sta in medio. Virtue stands in the middle.
Qui non laborat, non manducet. Qui non labora, non debe manduca. He that laboureth not, let him not eat.
Medice, cura te ipsum. Medico, cura te ipso. Physician, cure thyself.
De gustibus non est disputandum. Nos ne debe disputa de gustu. There is no disputing about tastes.


smamat said...

Estonian: Põhiseadus (north law)

I guess this should better be 'ground law'?

Well, I don't know Estonian but in Finnish, pohja = base, background etc.
Also c.f.
Finnish - English - Swedish
pohjoinen = north,
Pohjanmaa = Ostrobothnia region = Österbotten
Pohjanlahti = Gulf of Bothnia = Bottniska viken

Maybe a Finn can confirm this.

smamat said...

Another thing, I read somewhere that the word for 'north' in Finnish (possibly Finno-Ugric languages as well) came from the old compass system (see old Islamic Maps).

Only recently has compass orientation been turned upside down.

I guess it's got something to do with the Northerners (i.e. Western Europeans) trying to assert themselves in the world when they had just came into power. But this is only my opinion.

Me said...

What about Polaris the north star, since it's fixed and unchanging like a constitution should be? (a few amendments not withstanding)

I think anything that gives a clue as to the meaning of the word is acceptable, so north, foundation, basic, ground, anything like that is acceptable.

smamat said...

Another thing, I read somewhere that the word for 'north' in Finnish (possibly Finno-Ugric languages as well) came from the old compass system (see old Islamic Maps).

Only recently has compass orientation been turned upside down.

I guess it's got something to do with the Northerners (i.e. Western Europeans) trying to assert themselves in the world when they had just came into power. But this is only my opinion.

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