Search
  • David Mclaughlan

THE DEFINITE ARTICLE - IN FULL

Those of you who have read this summer's WordWise will, I am sure, have enjoyed it. But you may have been left scratching your head over one piece.

Only the first half of Iain Masterton's The Definite Article went to print. As he pointed out, this made it look like he was simply taking up space writing about himself when, of course, he actually went on to make a profound and important point.

The production of WordWise involves a lot of little decisions ans sometimes the brave editor can be so focused on the details that a rather large thing - like a missing page - could slip past their attention. (Those who might scoff should try it.)

Because Iain's article is well worth reading in full, I include it below, with apologies to you the reader and to Iain who put so much thought and effort into it.

THE DEFINITE ARTICLE

What’s in a name? Well, to be honest for me there’s quite a lot riding on it. For a start, I’ve lost count of the number of times I have had to correct a misspelling of my first name… “It’s Iain-with-two-I’s”. But with even more historical gravitas, my surname, Masterton, goes back to about 1072. I haven’t traced the tree in its entirety – I don’t think that is possible, but I do know that one forebear – William de’Maistun in the 1200s gave his not inconsiderable lands back to the church “for the saving of his soul”. Quite what he’d done in this earthly life to decide, in his Middle Ages “Indulgences” mindset, that he might need such a substantial bribe to The Almighty to keep his name in the Book of Life, one can only guess. But the mere fact that a seven-hundred year-old bequest has been preserved as a matter of record is a treasure in itself, as intriguing as the language in which it is couched.

Closer to current times, I am equally intrigued by the way in which those whose English is non-native express themselves. Not in a pejorative way, but more out of interest at how their own native language informs the interpretation. It’s Chomsky in action. A German kid doesn’t ask “But Why?” it’s “But How?” “Why“ is “Warum” – two syllables: “How” is “Wie” – just one. It doesn’t take Einstein to figure out the line of least resistance. And in that simple linguistic twist, a whole cultural dichotomy is born.

It’s perhaps most noticeable in the way our Russian and related Slavic co-habitants of the Indo-European language family misuse, or to be accurate, completely ignore, the definite and indefinite article. Read the sentence “I am builder”, and I challenge you not to inflect it with an ersatz Russian accent. Where it does translate into accurate English the cultural overlay is quite subtle. I am a Russian would suggest an individual in a mass of individuals. I am Russian seems a more inclusive, encompassing description of a people bound together by their common Russian-ness.

In the Bible, of course, names are very much more than just labels. The character is encapsulated in the name, and a change of name implies a change of destiny: Jacob becomes Israel; Saul becomes Paul. It is interesting that Genesis Chapter 2 has Adam naming the animals and by implication their worth. Those of a certain vintage will recall the Singing Kettle children’s song about that. But if character and worth are somehow beholden to the name, we need to be careful with our self-labelling. “Trust me, I’m an Engineer,” is likely to get fairly short-shrift reply. But, “Trust me, I’m a Doctor?” Here is an invitation to put you’re your faith in the carrier of the name. So what about “Trust me, I’m a Christian?” What does that evoke?

My grandmother was a very prim and proper lady, almost a throwback to a lost Victorian era. But she had a way of sending you off about your business that resonated with the glint in her eye as she said it. It was never “Mind how you go!” – an instruction to be careful out there, but always “Mind who you are!” – an exhortation to live up to the name you carried out of the door with you.

It also carries over into our own creative field. If “I am a writer” is really just a label, “I am writer” perhaps might conjure up a time when writing was a knowledge possessed by a select few who as a consequence wielded real power. ”I am writer?” Writer to whom? Writer for whom? Perhaps that ancient order The Writers To The Signet provides the clue. The king’s scribes were in effect the bureaucratic glue that held an independent Scotland together. Even today, the ability as a solicitor to add “WS” to your name is a mark of considerable status.

And we, of course, are equally The King’s scribes. We bear a mark infinitely more precious than “WS”. So when you announce “I am Christian,” don’t say it with a fake Russian accent. Say it with conviction. And, as Grandma would have said, “Mind who you are!”

copyright Iain Masterton 2018

25 views