Saturday, August 07, 2004

Parlance, perchance?

Language is such a beautiful thing. Though we use it every day merely in its strictest functional sense – to communicate the bare essentials – it can delight, amuse, incite, inspire, incense and challenge as well as transport us to worlds we have never nor will ever see.

The joy of a quote is its ability to succinctly describe a complex thought. With few words, clearly an unerringly, it heads toward its point and shines a light for us to see, share and revel in the portrayed idea. When the statement is from a truly gifted orator or writer, the quote can be wrapped in a wry humor that doubles the construction’s capacity to delight.

The joy of a novel is unsurpassed to me – with the exception of VERY few films and shows*. The level of detail afforded, the insight into character’s thought processes and the ability to trigger visuals in my mind that no special effects studio could match simply propels the medium of the written word far beyond any other to deliver an engaging story. Add to this the inherent uniqueness of the worlds that I create from the stimulus of the book and there’s an ‘ownership’ of characters and scenarios that’s intensely personal.

*(yes, yes, Firefly is there…it HAS to be there. I am now a certified, raving Firefly lunatic. Ask anyone who has spoken to me in the last few months. In fact, ask the guest who was strapped to a chair and forced to watch the pilot tonight.)

The joy of a non fiction book is knowledge condensed and organised in a way that is conducive to another human reading it and learning a new skill from it. Be it a textbook drier than your palate on a Sunday morning after an unmentionable Saturday night, or a slightly more readable (if a little bubblegummy) pop-management offering, there’s something wonderful about being a more knowledgeable human when you put the book down than when you picked it up.

All of these rely on the author’s clear use of language to convey important messages, be they of fact or of feeling. Isn’t it just fascinating that, like Lego, the same basic words can be used either in a paragraph describing an economic idea or one describing the flight of a silver dragon into battle? It always fascinates me. It tells me that the essence of communication is not the 80% of words that are filler, but the 20% that are integral to that one, unique, communication.

…which is why I don’t understand people’s insistence on just sleepwalking through a sentence – filling it with platitudes and words used simply because of tradition rather than function or suitability.

Here are a couple of examples that have made me stop recently and reassess why on earth they are used in their modern-day contexts:

“Bear with me” – Used constantly in the UK to mean ‘please wait, please be patient with the time it will take me to perform this task’, it is a complete contradiction. Take a look at it – it’s an instruction, a call to action. ‘Bear down with me’, it says, ‘help me bear the load’. If you really wanted it to mean ‘deal with the fact that I’m going to take some time with this.’, then shouldn't it be “Bear me” as in, ‘put up with me’?

“Threshold” – traditionally, houses didn’t have solid floors. No, really, I’m not kidding. Poor inhabitants of the English isles didn’t just pack the mule and head to IKEA for some cheap laminate flooring, they packed the dwelling’s floor with hard dirt. This had a tendency to be rather dirty and smelly, so straw strewn with herbs was used to keep things fresh – straw that had a tendency to sneak out the door as people moved in and out. The door had a raised area called a ‘thresh hold’ to keep the stuff in. When you walked over the threshold, you literally walked over the ‘thresh hold’. You carried your bride over it too, lest she snag the family lace on a splintery ‘thresh hold’ on the way. Why in blazes do we still use the term? Isn’t ‘doorway’ functional enough? Personally, I’m waiting for the door to become obsolete and Star-Trek-like swooshy doors to be standard. Then we can say we walked through the ‘swooshway’. If anyone mentions ‘thresholds’, they will be humiliated with a game of Musical Airlocks. Mine is an amusing and unusual future, I think you’ll agree.

There’s another subtle perversion of language that I’m not sure I completely agree with, and that is the encroachment of English terms into other languages.

Going to Poland and shopping at the ‘supermarkety’1 for ‘komputery’2 and ‘dzynsy’3 just seems silly. I’m sure that there are ways of creating a new word in the language for ‘computer’ – it is, after all, just a derivation of the English term ‘to compute’.

1 – supermarkets, 2 – computers, 3 - jeans

Much as having uniform terms in English would make life easier, I think it will corrupt many languages and rob them of their uniqueness.

In fact, one of the reasons I don’t like the idea of the EU (besides the fact that it’s a fascist state set to blanket everything from Glasgow to Gdansk in regulations so absurd that only Sir Humphrey Appleby could possibly approve) is that I think it will be the beginning of the end of the wonderful individuality of each of it’s member states. At the moment, Europe is a patchwork of cultures, peoples, languages and architecture. It’s what makes Europe a geographical area with many NATION states, not many states – such as America. Uniform beaurospeak, uniform regulations and…well…general borg-like uniformity will probably begin to meld these into a mutant bastard child of everyone and no-one.

Part of the individuality in countries is always the native tongue. I love to walk the streets in countries where I have NO idea what’s being said. Where I can simply listen to the musicality and tone, where I can do my best to guess and honestly never know if I’m right.

At the same time, I love to visit countries where I can speak one of my other languages. The subtle shift in the order of sentence (and therefore coherent thought) creation gives me a good mental workout. I’ve already written about how much I love the sensuality of Russian. I also love the humor possible with the Polish language – there’s a wry, quick wit that I haven’t heard anywhere else…and then there’s the way that Italians describe their food – half the time I’m willing to eat just about anything when an Italian waiter rolls the name of it off his tongue.

There is a great enjoyment in using one’s native language well. It’s not just easier to communicate a concept, it’s not just easier to convey the EXACT shade of meaning desired – it’s also easier to appreciate someone else’s mastery. Easier to sit back and be taken for a journey with little effort and maximum pleasure. It’s also great fun to play with words, as anyone who has been subject to our household’s frequent games of Pun Pong will attest.

At the same time there is also a wonderful joy in the very different-ness of other languages. Much as I love English, I would hate to lose that treasure trove of sounds, descriptions and words that can be found elsewhere.

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