meditations on language

Okay, so let me start off by talking about a concept I learned in beginning journalism regarding feature writing: the Red Thread. It's basically a common theme woven throughout a piece of writing, designed to give cohesiveness and continuity, pulling the reader along, and wrapping up in a neat little bow at the end.

One thing I really like about my English major specialization (Literature and the Mind) is that all of the classes on the surface are unrelated, but are ultimately connected by a single Red Thread—the mind and its constituents—and so a lot of the ideas we discuss in class often overlap.

I don't know if everyone is as easily impressed as I am, but I thought this was so cool. The amount of intertextuality and connectivity and psychology that I'm going to mention in this post was pretty mind-blowing to me. Learning is awesome. So if you were ever interested in the meaning of life, body language, or Slavic literature, but didn't want to take the courses for it, I've compiled all of my insights about a particular topic that struck me while I was reading for them: language. We learned about all of these different aspects of language this quarter, and I'm going to try to do it justice and be as factually accurate as I can. But it's actually really amazing. Language is something we take for granted most of the never really think about the way it interacts with people on a social level; how different words mean different things to different people in different contexts.

We read The Unbearable Lightness of Being in my Meaning of Life class, which discusses the dangerous nature of metaphors. "Dangerous," because with metaphors we create associations that may not necessarily exist, or evoke particular, incomparable emotions with different connotations. My professor argued that we always speak in metaphors because inevitably, we can never experience things exactly as other people do or describe things completely accurately, because language is only a set of symbols used to represent objects. Words have connotative and denotative meanings, but they do not equal linguistic concepts. They have "semantic ranges," which means that they are emotionally and socially evocative; essentially, they are meaningless without some kind of context.

Linguistic relativity, or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, states that "the structure of a language determines or greatly influences the modes of thought and behavior characteristic of the culture in which it is spoken." And when you think about it, there are all these words that don't exist in English, and the even the way we speak (subject-verb-object) is so different from other cultures. It makes a lot of sense that the way we think is framed much differently than the way people from Brazil or Japan think (list of cool word origins from Reddit since I am on Reddit entirely too much now). 

According to my Body Language professor, metaphor works by exploiting an abstract category of language—it relies on our understanding of the English language, and our ability to interpret things based on context. She introduced the concept of linguistic competence, coined by linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, or a deep, structural understanding of the way a language works. Chomsky used the phrase "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" to prove his point—even though it doesn't actually mean anything, it's a grammatically correct sentence that we recognize as English. Idioms are another example of linguistic competence. To non-native speakers, they can be confusing, but because we know the way English works, they hold meaning for us. Linguistic competence is a kind of mental "scaffolding," the framework for the way we interpret things. The actual expression of language, whether it's verbal or written, actually helps stimulate thought; it actually helps facilitate the processing of information and the formation of complete thoughts.

And lastly, in my Slavic Literature class, which focused on Vladimir Nabokov (author of Lolita), we learned about language as expression. Nabokov is particularly famous for "giving name to what has no name," using language to connect sensory feelings and ideas to works in order to evoke particular emotions, which was his way of classifying. He also could hear colors, and was famously quoted saying:

Passing on to the blue group, there is a steely x, thundercloud z, and huckleberry k. Since a subtle interaction exists between sound and shape, I see q as browner than k, while s is not the light blue of c, but a curious mixture of azure and mother-of-pearl.

This phenomenon is called "synesthesia," described by Wikipedia as "a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway". Basically, it means an unexpected interaction of the senses, like how the word "cool" evokes a sense of temperature or the word "buzz" is onomatopoeic.

In short: language is rad, and it's not nearly given enough credit for the way it works.

Also, if you're a literature nerd, check out my Slavic Lit class' radio program!