Thursday, August 11, 2011

On Language and Words

I have long been fascinated by language.  It's complexity is mind-shattering, and yet it's simplicity is something most babies learn early on.  Language is not confined to any one medium, and I'm of the opinion that anything that translates communication from one sender to a receiver makes use of language.

I suppose my love of language is in large part why I love to write (and read).  Words are powerful.  I mean, God created the cosmos with His Words.  Man has created kings and queens from their fealty.  Revolutions have sparked from concealed messages.  There's no doubt that words are powerful.  As a writer (I say that like I'm some sort of professional), I feel like I have a vast tapestry of words before me, waiting to be taken and abused.  Often we use these words in traditional formats, obeying common grammatical rules and syntax.  But personally, I prefer pushing the boundaries of what's deemed normal and play with the words I use.  It's a you have to know the rules before you can break them mentality.

The English language is extremely interesting.  A part of me loathes it with such a deep passion that at times I wish it did not exist.  This is rare, but it happens.  The majority of my thinking, though, is that I'm glad English is my native language, even if it is the American dialect.  So many of our idioms make no sense when you put a second's thought in them.  And the plethora of words that have multiple meanings is simply astounding.  Off the cuff I'm sure I could come up with a score of 'em.

But the more and more I think about the language, the more I wish I had taken some sort of linguistics class in college.  Studying etymology* and learning the down-and-dirty history of words would be of great benefit to the way my brain thinks.  (For that matter, I wish that I had taken some sort of creative writing class, or a class on European folklore or something.  Alas, the engineering school gave me no time for such trivialities.)  The way language has refined itself over the course of history just sounds interesting to me.

And then there's the slew of problems with language.  It's ultimately a flawed system, because humans are too complex, too intricate, for words to precisely portray our thoughts.  To understand what I'm thinking, consider the example of simply defining words**.
faith: Complete trust or confidence in someone or something
confidence: The feeling or belief that one can rely on someone or something; firm trust
belief:  An acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists
true: In accordance with fact or reality
fact: A thing that is indisputably the case
indisputable: Unable to be challenged or denied
I see these words and I think, okay, there are so many holes in the language here that we're really going out on a limb to even try and understand one another.  Someone may be talking about faith, which generally we define as mentioned above.  Biblically, faith is "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." (Heb 11:1)  However, as someone remarked on a blog*** I was reading yesterday, "Faith comes from the Greek word pistis which means “trusting in something for which you have seen the evidence.”  Now if I read it like that, I essentially read something like
"Faith is trusting in something that I have seen the evidence...[and] the conviction of things not seen."
So, if I'm reading that correctly, faith is mutually exclusive.  It's both somehow based on fact and visible evidence, and yet it's not.  (Dichotomy, in particular, is something I find immensely frustrating and fascinating.)  This is just one example of why language ultimately is untrustworthy.

Of course, there is no alternative.  Until we can communicate via telepathy--and then our telepathy must be able to convey emotion and color and imagery and words and songs and an infinite number of other things--we will always have misunderstandings.  It's the way of the world, I suppose.

I could go on and on here.  In fact, I had a 3 page outline for a few different essays I had on language, but I'm not sure if I'll ever get to those.  So I guess I'll just leave it here.  Any thoughts?
*I go to etymology sources often to get character names and/or creations when I write.  FYI.
**Taken from the Google define search tool.
***As I said, I've no education in language, so I'm taking this guy at his word.  Read that post if you want to read something to think about.


Mattson Tomlin said...

Very interesting. My newest project is about, in a fashion, language. Several suddenly mute people have to try to communicate very complex things to each other. The actors lips were all glued together, and the cast and crew were suddenly in a "language barrier" of sorts. The way we began to communicate seemed sometimes telepathic, and other times, very primal. It was amazing to see someone be able to communicate to an crew member "can you get me a water, and also ask the makeup artist to come make sure I'm bleeding enough on the next take" through gestures within the first few hours of shooting.

Anonymous said...

It is also interesting how certain languages have words that only pertain to that language.

logankstewart said...

@Mattson: That's crazy, but very cool, too. Telepathic and primal. Sounds quite interesting, friend.

@goodbyereality411: Yes, I agree. Globally, for example, Facebook means something to a lot of people, but to a remote tribe in the Amazon, Facebook would mean absolutely nothing. What's a computer? What is Internet? Facebook? Thanks for stopping by!