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I recently listened to the song “Colors of the wind” by Vanessa Williams and I’ve found two grammatical problems in the last verse that I don’t understand.

You can own the Earth and still
All you’ll own is Earth until
You can paint with all the colors of the wind

  1. My first question is why the first Earth follows a the and the second does not.

  2. My second question is about the usage of until. Shouldn’t it be a “not...until” usage here?

    • Shouldn’t it be something like, “You won’t own the earth until you can paint with all the colors of the wind”?

The original lyrics sounds to me as if they mean the opposite, because what I understand from the original lyrics is, “Once you can paint with all the colors of the wind, you’d stop owning the earth.“

Is my understanding of the usage of until wrong?

  • "Once you can paint with all the colors of the wind, you'd stop owning the earth": what is really means is that even if you are somehow the owner of the earth, you cannot be considered the owner if you haven't been able to paint with all the colours of the wind – user13267 Oct 30 '15 at 9:34
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    in other words, the first line is saying "Even though you have something of apparent large value", the second line is saying "it is, in fact, valueless", the third line is saying "if you haven't figured out how to paint with all the colours of the wind" – user13267 Oct 30 '15 at 9:38
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    Lyrics are not subject to grammatical rules, which are secondary to meter, rhyme, poetic effect, and other considerations. – choster Oct 30 '15 at 15:03
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    @choster - And yet the above lyrics do conform to normal grammar rules. – Hot Licks Oct 30 '15 at 18:20
  • (There is nothing wrong the the lyrics as they stand. They adhere to "proper" grammar and are semantically coherent.) – Hot Licks Oct 30 '15 at 21:26
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The lyrics are using two different meanings of earth. The first is Earth as in the planet, the second is earth as in soil.

The intended meaning is "You can own the whole planet but all you'll have is dirt/something worthless", until you are able to paint with all the colors of the wind.

It's a polysemous rhetorical trick; it would appear to be Antanaclasis:

Antanaclasis is a rhetorical device in which a phrase or word is repeatedly used. However, the meaning of a word changes in each case. It is the repetition of a similar word in a sentence with different meanings, or a word is repeated in two or more than two different senses.

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I think you've been misled by an extra capital letter. The meaning is "You can own the whole planet (the Earth), but all you'll have is dirt (earth), but when you learn multi-colored wind painting, you'll realize what a beautiful place the world is. The same sentiment appears in the first verse:

You think you own whatever land you land on
The Earth is just a dead thing you can claim
But I know every rock and tree and creature
Has a life, has a spirit, has a name

You can claim land, but it's just lifeless property to you. The singer realizes more, the spirt of the place.

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    I think the second Earth does not necessarily mean literal dirt, but it's trying to devalue Earth, that is, you may be the owner of the Earth (the whole planet), but it's still not anything valuable, until you figure out how to paint with all the colours of the wind – user13267 Oct 30 '15 at 9:36
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    @user13267 - No, the second use is "just dirt and rocks and stuff". If the planet was implied on that occasion, it would still have a definite article. – bye Oct 31 '15 at 13:51
  • possibly, but the E is also capital – user13267 Oct 31 '15 at 14:20
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You can own the Earth and still

This "the Earth" refers to the planet Earth (a particular entity), or in other words, this sentence means "You may be the owner of the world, but..."

All you'll own is Earth until

the article "the" is not used here. Although I feel the use of "the" here is optional and it would not make too much of a difference to the over all meaning even if it were included, this particular line is trying to decrease the value of "the Earth" that you were said to own in the previous line. The line is trying to imply as if the thing you own is just one of many, something very common and not too valuable. In other words, this sentence means "...you don't own anything of much value..."

You can paint with all the colors of the wind

I don't really know how to interpret this line for you but I think this would be one of those things that can be interpreted in many different ways, limited only by the interpreters imagination.

To rewrite the lyrics in slightly different words, "You may be the owner of the world, but you don't own anything of much value, until you have understood how to paint with all the colors of the wind".

"Once you can paint with all the colors of the wind, you'd stop owning the earth"

This is the opposite (sort of) of what the original lyrics mean, and I suspect the confusion might be due to the somewhat poetic nature of the language used. In fact,

"you won't own the earth until you can paint with all the colors of the wind"

is exactly what it is trying to say. The "not...until" relationship that you mention, can be attributed to the use of and still in the first line.

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The article is simply optional here, so you could say equally well:

On the Moon you can see Earth rise.

or

On the Moon you can see the Earth rise.

The article is only left out for the meter.

Sometimes there is a slight difference of meaning, though; we you say

We need to travel back to Earth.

the article can't be used because here 'Earth' is used as a place name.

The lyrics is trying to point out the difference between mere ownership of a thing and appreciation of its spirit.

This is the same as

You can have a million dollars but all you have is money until you know how to create joy with it.

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