rife

Word country is rife. It is rife with the usual things, of course: speculation, rumours, problems, conflicts, and even corruption. Such strife! If something is rife with something else, that something else is simply expected to be negative. It is like a loaded rifle, this word, and with is the charge and the word that follows is the bullet.

But this rife gun may also bear flowers. And so it does in word country. Here it is also rife with life, each stream teeming, each river ripe with fish and flora. Words may reproduce like cells: each one, when riven, arrives as a pair, making multitude, a flow and a flood. Is this a corruption of the language? If so, we are rife with it, but is that a bad thing? Let sense effloresce. Somewhere in the rough, forgotten past, a split happened in a word and one branch went on through Latin to become river and arrive and kin, and another went by way of Germanic words to become a word that split to be the dividing word rive, best known now in its riven form, and rife, a word for multiplicity and prevalence.

Multiplicity and prevalence that has, over the centuries, leaned towards the sour flavour, the sound of strife and rifle more than of ripe and life and wife and rice; we seldom – though not never – now see such assemblages as rife with beauty or hope was rife that… The sense has split again, and one stream is the stronger.

As words and senses may divide, so too may sounds. In the word country of Canada, there is one more thing dividing rife and rive: the vowel sound is different. Oh, it is the same phoneme, it stands for the same thing, but Canadians start the /aɪ/ diphthong higher before voiceless consonants: “uh” rather than “ah”, [ɹəɪf] against [ɹaɪv]. Thus it is riven and we are ever more rife with sounds in the river of our language.

But what comes may go. Time will not reverse any more than a river may, but differences can disappear and words and sounds may merge, dissolving conflicts and creating problems. What is rife may yet see itself undone in fire. When will that happen, and how, and where? Speculation and rumours are rife. But you will not know until the time is ripe.

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