How a simple hyphen can alter meaning of words in sentence

Logically, then, to remember should mean “to member again”.

Saturday January 9 2016

Kawangware Primary School Standard Three pupils taking notes during an English session on October 5, 2015. In any English class, students are taught whenever you insert a hyphen between the element re- and the stem of a verb, it should remind you that you are repeating something. PHOTO | GERALD ANDERSON | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Kawangware Primary School Standard Three pupils taking notes during an English session on October 5, 2015. In any English class, students are taught whenever you insert a hyphen between the element re- and the stem of a verb, it should remind you that you are repeating something. PHOTO | GERALD ANDERSON | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By PHILIP OCHIENG
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I spent the Christmas-New Year period leafing through and thinking about Re-membering Africa, a tiny book by my high school classmate Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

What appals me every time I look at that title is the thought that many readers may not notice the hyphen (-) in Ngugi’s word “Re-membering”.

Without the hyphen, the verb to remember means to recall — that is to say, to call back — to one’s mind. So the question is ineluctable.

Why did the celebrated son of Limuru find it necessary to insert the hyphen into that word?

The answer: Because the hyphen is the whole point that the book is trying to make.

For the great storyteller does not mean merely that the world – especially Africans – should remember Africa in the sense merely of passively “keeping the continent in mind.”

There is, of course, that. But many non-Africans with our continent at heart also necessarily have it in mind and some may be planning great things for the continent.

REPETITION

Do not forget, however, that, when prefixed to an English verb, the element “re” denotes or connotes repeated verbal action.

For instance, as Tom Mshindi, the Nation Media Group’s editorial pontiff, will tell you about his stock-in-trade, to reissue is to “issue again”, often — in newspaper parlance — by “stopping press.”

Logically, then, to remember should mean “to member again”.

The only problem is that I know no such verb as “to member”.

That is odd because the verb to dismember — the negation, the antonym — is prominent in the language.

That, indeed, is the whole point that Ngugi is trying to make in his commentary.

NGUGI'S MEANING
For the substantive member refers, primarily, to any one of the limbs of, for instance, a mammal.

To dismember, therefore, is to cut off one or two or all of the members of an animal or a human being and, by implication — as the god Seth did to the god Osiris (in Nilo-Pelasgic mythology) –— to cut them to smithereens, sometimes even to annihilate the victim.

A good example was what Europe — a continent given to perennial inter-national warring — once (not too long ago) — did to Poland (one of themselves).

As historians call it, the “Dismemberment of Poland” meant that it disappeared from the map because it had been divided into bitty little pieces that the belligerents then swallowed — as a Germans observer might have remarked — Auf einmal.

The “dismemberment” of Poland is memorable because it was perpetrated almost coevally by the same European powers which had just dismembered our own continent into tiny little pieces of real estate called colonies which they had then apportioned to themselves — the parcels that, were what later emerged as independent states.

PURPOSE OF HYPHENS

Note, in Ngugi’s hyphen, that to “re-member” is to put back Africa’s members that Europe chopped off.

But, minus the hyphen, to remember is to recall — namely, to call back — to mind.

Thus, whenever you insert a hyphen between the element re- and the stem of a verb, it should remind you that you are repeating something.

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