like snowflakes in museums

The words we use aren’t really real. They’re a tool, they’re a construct. They’re like objects we hand back and forth to each other to put pictures in each other’s head. Words aren’t the bottom layer of language-the pictures and thoughts in your head are. Words themselves are a couple of floors up.

How hard is it to hold a thought in your head when you don’t have the words to express it? I can feel thoughts like that inside myself all the time, and they dissolve before I can get a grip on them. Because I can’t find the right words. It’s confusing-we have this big dictionary full of words that we call the English language, right?

On one hand, I’m saying those words are just sounds we’ve invented and all kind of agreed to use to stand for different thoughts and feelings, objects and actions, ideas and states.

But on the other hand, if there’s a thought I have that no word in the English language matches, the thought can’t really exist. I can’t understand its meaning. Instead, I get random shapes & colors in my head that filll in for the words I don’t have – but my brain doesn’t know what to do with those. My brain only knows what to do with words. Words are my tools, but they’re also my prison.

So will I have richer thoughts, live a more vivid life as a human if I learn lots of languages? Assuming, of course, that different languages have different priorities on what they give words to. But I think that’s a safe bet.

New words come into our language every year to accommodate the changing human experience. Would we create a richer, more aware culture capable of having more interesting and creative ideas if we mounted a campaign to infiltrate our language with more and more good new words?

Like a word for when you’re frustrated at the crowded grocery store but you choose not to let that frustration turn into ugliness. Instead you smile at a stranger or let them go in front of you or just say “excuse me” as you brush past in the aisle. If there were a verb just for that, would we be more conscious of how important it is to do that? Would we do it more often? Would we make the world a better place by giving more words to good things that currently take a sentence or two to describe?

Madeline L’Engle wrote in “A Circle of Quiet:”

The more limited our language is, the more limited we are; the more limited the literature we give to our children, the more limited their capacity to respond, and therefore, in their turn, to create. The more our vocabulary is controlled, the less we will be able to think for ourselves. We do think in words, and the fewer words we know, the more restricted our thoughts. As our vocabulary expands, so does our power to think…If we limit and distort language, we limit and distort personality.

I’m glad I took the time to hunt down that quote, because the book is fantastic. But I think she just said what I’ve been trying to in fewer, better words! I’m okay with that-our thoughts and ideas are influenced by other people’s, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth having. They’re all the more worth having. We each need to discover the world for ourselves in order to develop as responsible beings; hearing and reading other people is a part of that discovery.

1 Responses to like snowflakes in museums

  1. Andrea says:

    Language tends to take on the condition of things in a world, and especially the active view that holds a world together. One’s own language perpetuates one’s world; indeed, this may be a primary function of language, world-preservation. To assess the condition of one’s world, one might examine the state of one’s language, its degree, for instance, of flexibility. It follows that the very possibility for conscious change can be read in the functional range of one’s language. Poetry, then, is an art form of this possibility, registered in the sense of verse as intentional turning, including conscious reversal.

    –From George Quasha’s essay “Axial Poetics” (at “Exquisite Corpse”)

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