Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Your Language

There are about six thousand languages available to those of us willing to track them down, if only for the sake of an accurate count. Perhaps another thousand languages, now extinct, are on record as having existed, all of them, existing and extinct, frameworks for articulating the knowable, the doable, the imagined, the hoped for. They are also frameworks for something else, the incipient potential for saying something, articulating some concept or notion or idea that has never been said before. Thus language is not only a platform for expression, it is a challenge to express with such qualities as charm, authority, wisdom, intensity, feeling.

Thanks to Dr. Chomsky we have a solid argument for all the extant languages and all those gone off to the Big Tower of Babel in the sky having absolute parity of complexity. One of my great heroes, Mr. Twain, would have agreed with Chomsky's thesis of equality of complexity, then gone off on a riff suggesting that some languages, say German or Finnish, sound more complex than others, particularly to those who do not speak them. He might have riffed further that hearing or reading such languages, the complex-sounding ones, might well make us English-speaking sorts feel inferior.

This digression is not as far fetched as a good, serious digression ought to be. Hearing Mr. Twain's language--I have had the privilege of "hearing" him via the actor Hal Holbrook numerous times in his Mark Twain Tonight presentations, and as well the late great Paul Newman doing the Book-on-Tape reading of Tom Sawyer--or reading it from his many books, sketches, and essays, are both daunting experiences, making me charitably feel awe but more likely inferior.

Thinking about the enormous global ocean the English language has become is also a daunting, awe-inspiring experience, driving me forth to collect dictionaries, thesauri, and compendia, not so much in hopes of keeping up as with the more realistic hope of not falling too seriously behind the evolution of language. We note and expect words from French and Italian and Spanish to migrate into our language; they are practically neighbors. Faux pas actually makes mistake sound more continental or sophisticated, siesta actually makes an afternoon nap sound rational, and how would you describe a pizza if there were no such word as pizza. One of my more recondite dictionaries, The Hobson-Jobson, renders Hindi and Urdu and some Bengali words into English and shows me the passage of such words as bungalow and khaki into our language. Japanese has done some fancy migration and quick, for extra credit, name at least three words that have made their way in from Yiddish.

Hoping for clarity in English or in any language goes without saying, striving for originality begins to apply pressure, saying something that is at once clear and has never been said before is enough to give us the chills and stop us in our verb forms. Using language in a descriptive way is a necessity;using language in an evocative way is an act of heroism. Each of us who seeks to leave some literary equivalent of tagging on the literary walls of humanity has a personal approach, an attitude, a way of going about the task. My own is a combination of reading everything I can get my hands on, trying to get at the inner mechanisms of my characters through an amalgam of acting techniques, psychology, observation, and a good deal of revision. My approach involves attitudes--my own and those of my characters--politics, and for want of a better word, one of those Germanic relatives we have brought into English and no longer italicize, zeitgeist. This is a lovely word not only because of its having said in one word what it would take spirit of the times to say in English, but because it sounds like what it is and what it means.

It is an energizing task as well as a daunting one to step forth out of the mists of sleep, enhanced with coffee or Irish Breakfast or Earl Grey, try to remain equanamous while reading the morning news, then step into the potential for clarity and originality and some form of beauty whispered into your ear by the voices you have forged within you. It is a recipe for failure as well as a recipe for success as you pick a word or image out of the pile and try to capture its essence. After a time, after you have lived this confrontation long enough, you will have passed the tipping point, will have reached that stage where you take those steps and look about for traces of the clarity and originality as the second nature it has become. Your language.

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