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ON PARTICLES

MRS. GRIMBLY, REST her teacher’s soul, would be disappointed that I’d forgot the meaning of an English language “particle.” Maybe I earn some redemption by recently learning about particles in the context of Ancient Greek.

Τι kαι! Literally, “Whaat the….??” By the way, “kαι” is a particle, both in Ancient and Modern Greek.

As described in “Greek to Me,” by Mary Norris in The New Yorker, January 14, 2019, “Particles help make a language a language. They give it currency and connect you to the person you’re speaking with.”

Illustration by Tamara Shopsin in The New Yorker, January 14 2019.

At The New Yorker, Norris is known as the Comma Queen; high praise indeed. She explains, “English is loaded with particles, words and expressions that float up constantly in speech: like, totally, so, you know, O.K., really, actually, honestly, literally, in fact, at least, I mean, quite, of course, after all, hey, sure enough…know what I mean? Just sayin’.”

This and other flag images from https://www.theflagshop.co.uk.

The Comma Queen remarks, “Some people deplore the extra words as loose and repetitive, and complain that kids today are lazy and inarticulate and are destroying the beauty of the language. But we have relied on such little words since antiquity…. They act like nudges, pokes, facial expressions.”

In fact, in selecting a name for this SimanaitisSays category focusing on language, I chose “I Usta Be An Editor, Y’Know.”

I also have fun taking English idioms on a voyage of reductio ad absurdum. For example, “Would that I had gone…”

Norris’s article also got me thinking about particles in other languages. Maybe you’ll add to these from your own experience.

French. I’ve heard the French word alors used as sort of an introductory nudge. Literally, it translates as “So,” in the same way we’d say in English, “So then I said….” It’s partly a pause to think, partly for listener’s prep.

France.

Google Translate turns the French term d’accord into a straightforward “Okay.” I’ve also heard it used as a particle confirming what the other person has just said, sort of a “Right on, man!” However, I’m not sure this English phrase has much post-Sixties currency.

Japanese. Japanese listeners use はい, Hai, literally “Yes,” as their particle of agreement. Women, especially, repeat the term; TV male anchors seem to have their Hai-ladies sitting next to them.

Japan.

I’ve also heard わかった, Wakatta, literally “Understood” as a related particle. わかりました, Wakarimashita is the polite version.

The Japanese particle あのう, anou, is the language’s preparatory “Umm….” Google Translate renders it as “Excuse me,” but I think of あのう as a thinking pause in preparing for a statement.

German. The German Ach, sort of English “So,” is a particle sometimes used in emphasizing an adjoining word. For instance, Google Translate teams up the English “Alas” with Ach! Weh!

Germany.

Yiddish. Do you suppose Ach! Weh! is related to the Yiddish “Oy vey! Just askin’. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2019

3 comments on “ON PARTICLES

  1. Bob DuBois
    January 16, 2019

    You threw me there, Dennis. When I think of “particle”, I immediately think of ions, atoms, molecules, etc. I never thought of it as a (p)article of speech.

    • simanaitissays
      January 17, 2019

      Me too, Bob. That’s why I owed an apology to Mrs. Grimbly. I’m confident she covered EVERYTHING.

  2. jlalbrecht64
    January 18, 2019

    There are actually numerous particles in colloquial Austrian German. Colloquial German German is more strict IMO, but keep in mind my analysis is anecdotal.

    Austrians often use, “oder” (“or”) at the end of a sentence as a question, softening a declarative statement. More casual is “gell” which is also used at the end of a sentence as a question and roughly translates to, “right?”

    In general, Austrians add A LOT of “particles” to declarations. Two common ones are “im Prinzip” = “in principle” and “eigentlich” = “actually,” which have the effect of being disclaimers or negations (partial or full) of the statement made. “Eigentlich” (actually) as a disclaimer is ironic/funny that when someone says, “Eigentlich, ja” = “Actually, yes” what they might mean is, “yeah, I guess.” I deal with this a lot in our engineering work when asking for an opinion, “yes or no” and then having to nail down the speaker who wants to hedge on the answer. Just happened yesterday, for example. We laugh about it because it is so common in Austria that it is mostly second nature to NOT give a straight answer. It sounds and is sometimes frustrating, but it is also very endearing.

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