Da da da

Today is National Grammar Day, but rather than rail against common misuses of the English language like the insufferable language snob that I am, I thought I’d mention a peculiarity of language that I happened to notice.

The German word “da” means “there”, as in “Mein Bier ist da” — “My beer is right here”. In this sense, it refers to a location.

But in certain other combinations, it refers to a noun: “dagegen” means “against it” or “in contrast to it”. It literally means “that-against”. “Dafür” means “for it”.

So sometimes “da” refers to a location, and in at other times it refers to a “thing”. I put “thing” in scare-quotes because the object that a da-compound word refers to need not be an object made of atoms: one of the examples linked to above is “Haben Sie etwas dagegen, wenn ich rauche?” — “Do you mind if I smoke?”. Smoking is an activity, not an object, but our minds still treat it in many ways as an honorary object.

In fact, I can imagine an evolution of language in which “da” started out referring to a location, perhaps a location being pointed to, later came to also represent the thing in the location being pointed to, and eventually came to encompass honorary nouns.

But before we go pointing fingers at those silly Germans da, it’s worth pointing out that “there” — the English word for “da” — is similarly schizophrenic: it usually refers to a location, as in “I live in that house there”, but sometimes, in combinations, it refers to the same kind of “thing” as in German: “therefore”, “thereof”, “therewith”, and so forth.

In fact, the most common English example of this location/thing oddity is “wherefore”, in Romeo and Juliet, when Juliet says, “O Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”.

Wherefore” has “where” in it, which makes people think Juliet’s wondering about Romeo’s location. But actually it means “why” or “for what reason”. She’s asking why Romeo is Romeo, as in “of all the guys I could have fallen for, why did it have to be Romeo?”

Okay, so I couldn’t help myself and snuck in some grammar-railing there at the end. I warned you I was a snob.

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