Research Programs: Public Scholars

Period of Performance

9/1/2020 - 5/31/2021

Funding Totals

$30,000.00 (approved)
$30,000.00 (awarded)

Small Words: What Words Such as "Be," "The," "Not," and "If" Reveal About Human Minds and Cultures

FAIN: FZ-272198-20

Mary Lynne Murphy
University of Sussex (Brighton BN1 9QN England)

Completion of a book on the historical function and development of the English language's small words and what such words reveal about their speakers. 

Books about words often concentrate on the dialectal gems, the lost lexicons, the rare and peculiar species of the linguistic world. Our most common words are given scant attention, mumbled in speech and glossed over in reading. We notice the weighty nouns, verbs and adjectives, but miss the slippery mortar holding them together: 'be', 'the', 'not', 'if', 'and', ‘of’, ‘it’. But poke those small words, and each opens up a world of discovery into human minds and cultures. Take ‘the’, as just one example. How can it be the most frequent word in written English, when many of the world’s languages have no need of an equivalent? Why does it cause trouble for Bible translators? Why does it feel different when an American speaks of ‘the Mexicans’ rather than ‘Mexicans’? Why do English writers use it less each year? This book synthesizes research from across the humanities and social sciences, allowing the small words to tell stories about what it is to speak English and what it is to be human.