Do You Really Know the Language You Live In?

TSElastyr

You think in this language, you know who you are through language; you LIVE in the language of English, but how much do you really know about it?

Thanks to the unique historical development of the English language (no other language on earth can claim its complexity), we’re blessed with one of the greatest vocabularies anywhere. We have a variety of synonyms even for common, everyday things.

In fact, I’ve been frustrated trying to express myself in other languages, only to find I have to use the same word in one sentence I just used in the last sentence. Really? I have only one choice to mean two different things for which I have a comprehension of subtle differences?

As frustrating as an Inuit trying to tell us what kind of snow it was. Okay, SOME languages have us beat in SOME ranges of synonyms, but STILL, for the most part. . .

Today in Part I of a two-part blog, it’s necessary to give some fast-and-loose history before I can talk in Part II about the actual words and how we can use them to add precision and depth to our writing.

Part I: A Concise History, or, Why We Don’t Speak British

To understand how the English language came by a far greater vocabulary than most languages in roughly half the time, you have to look at England.

Not yet a twinkle in a Frisian’s eye

In Roman Britain (from Julius Caesar till they threw up their hands in frustration in 410 AD and left), the natives didn’t speak English because it didn’t even exist yet. THEY SPOKE BRITISH! More accurately, they spoke old Brittonic or Celtic which is where Gaelic and Welsh come from.

The Romans felt they had a handle on the Britons, but then the Angles, the Saxons, the Jutes, and a smattering of Frisians kept invading from what’s now Denmark and north Germany. When the Romans left these folks over-ran England and before you knew it everyone was speaking Anglo-Saxon.

We also call it Old English, but in actual function, it’s a completely separate language from modern English. Not only have the words and sounds (and alphabet) changed considerably in that time, but the grammar is completely foreign to modern English speakers. Still, those Anglo-Saxon words DID change and are still around, becoming all the most common of the words we speak today, like WORD and WE and SPEAK and TODAY.

(Paul Kingsnorth manages to write for us, using only an Anglo-Saxon/Old Norse vocabulary adapted for modern readers, a novel that is fittingly shows the reaction of a native Englishman when the Normans come in and change everything.)

But of course the land we now call England after those Angles (don’t feel bad for the other tribes: we already have a Saxony and a Jutland and some Frisian islands) was just so freaking adorable that invasions happened again and again.

Ragnar Lothbrok and his infamous brood, on HISTORY channel

Right about the time the Anglo-Saxons forgot they were the barbarian invaders and settled down nicely into Christianity, along came some REAL barbarians: Vikings! The name struck terror in the hearts of English monks and priests everywhere, since their churches housed exactly the kinds of goodies the Vikings wanted to take home.

Until they didn’t even want to go home. Old Norse shared Germanic roots with Anglo-Saxon but it wasn’t the same language, and you can draw a big diagonal line across England from the northwest to the southeast with place-names showing just how far the Vikings pushed in and settled. The Vikings’ language didn’t displace Anglo-Saxon (not the way the Celtic languages were pushed out and stayed separate languages), but they added a whole lot of words.

A new patois: English Kings speaking French

The Anglo-Saxons never stopped fighting the Vikings, and they were so tuckered out from these battles that the Normans had an easier time sweeping in from France in 1066 and taking over. (There’s a spectacular early movie all about it: it’s called the Bayeux Tapestry.) In fact, William the Conqueror did the job so impressively that no new Vikings even bothered to invade after he set up shop. And neither did anyone else, ever again, ever.

William brought with him all his French friends to enjoy the spoils and BAM, everyone who was anyone in England spoke French. But Anglo-Saxon didn’t just go away; the French nobles had to talk to their servants and those servants talked to the rest of the peasants, and what would you expect with all that mingling? The two languages had a baby called Middle English.

Okay, it took longer than nine months, but the process was evident all along. Eventually Geoffrey Chaucer, who could’ve written in French, up and decided to give the local vernacular a whirl in works like the Canterbury Tales, and the pure French of the ruling class began to fade away.

“More than kisses, letters mingle souls.”  –John Donne

But we’re not quite yet modern English: there’s one last major wave of influence that will tweak the language, but this time there was no marauding or killing involved. There was, however, considerable sighing and swooning and everlasting promises.

Latin was no stranger to England: first the Roman overlords spoke it, then the church leaders after Christianity came. But after the Renaissance took off down in Italy and spread out, English poets were more than a little embarrassed that their language was downright clunky compared to those beautiful Italian sonnets.

Folks TRIED to write sonnets in English, but the rhythms of the language just didn’t fit, either. So English writers just started STEALING new words left and right–prettier ones. (Not just that, writers like Shakespeare eventually adopted new poem forms that made English sound better anyway, like the blank verse iambic pentameter of Shakespeare’s plays.) They stole from Italian and they stole from French and they stole Latin-sounding words that really made English sound grandiose and respectable.

And they ALSO did something that would make past editors of the Oxford English Dictionary sit up in their graves and cry, “Desist!”:  they made up new words!! (In the modern age we’ve seen how tech has required rapidly introducing new acronyms and memes, but we’re also a lot more chill when people just do what people do, and diss the old-fashioned idea that language is static and carved in stone.)

So many new words were successfully added into the English vernacular that Middle English was left in the dust. But here’s the clincher: the old words didn’t go away. The time of Shakespeare is known as Early MODERN English, and it had Anglo-Saxon words, and it had Norse words; it had a splash of Celtic and there were still the French words and the Latin ones and the Italian ones and even some words from the New World just being explored.

And this still wasn’t the end of the behemoth language English. It was one thing to add new words from new lands being explored–but all languages were doing that, all the time. It was another when the speakers of English became the conquerors and the British Empire expanded around the world. Native English speakers were living on five continents and absorbing words by the hundreds.

This is just the briefest history of England and its language, showing how we got so many words. In Part II I’d like to show you what this means for you: why all these synonyms you have at your disposal each carry the weight of history along with their meaning.

See you in Part II: A Precise Lexis

Where in your head are your dreams kept?

I sleep weird, so I glommed right onto this article about what parts of the brain are involved in dreaming. It’s really quite cool, go have a look, I’ll wait!

I think it’s interesting that the language region also takes a nap during dreaming, since dreams are filled with moods, sensations and imagery that defy description even after I’m awake–to my eternal consternation. It would be brilliant if we could communicate with some kind of short-hand vocabulary for all the colors and textures of those most-palpable moods and atmospheres in dreams. This is something I’ve always felt was sorely missing from human experience.

Ok, so this is what’s wrong with me in particular

I always wondered what misfiring mechanism enabled me to dream while awake–literally. In the morning, more often than not, my conscious brain wakes up but the dream I was in continues unabated, undisturbed, playing out of its own volition.

Though the moment is ripe for lucid dreaming–stepping in and gently steering–that still isn’t really what it is.

And there are similarities with hypnopompic hallucinations, in that all three sleep conditions fail to continue at the same time. Sleep is generally defined and characterized by 1) being unconscious, 2) succumbing to muscular paralysis, and 3) the intermittent presence of dreams. Sleepwalkers, obviously, lose the second, while those suffering from terrifying hypnopompic hallucinations begin to wake up while still feeling residual paralysis and dreaming other sensation such as a presence–here’s where alien abduction stories get started.

Not an alien abduction story

But my experiences aren’t frightening. I’m fully conscious and able to move, though lying still helps the dream reach its natural resolution.

Given the information from this article I can only deduce that, while my prefrontal cortex is able to assert itself as normal upon awakening, there is still some unusually strong brain system perpetuating the dream state–not the amygdala? There’s little fear happening. The limbic system? If it is, then my cortex is allowing itself to be commandeered by the lesser system, for the experience is genuinely like sleeping dreams: sophisticated, though without language at the moment they’re occurring; atmospheric, a largely passive self, “dreamlike”.

I was already accustomed to something quite similar

I now wonder if my temporal lobe seizures aren’t responsible for conditioning me to experience and maintain the dream even with a conscious mind at play. I’ve called my TLE hallucinations or fugues “being in two places at the same time”–it’s utterly miserable only when my conscious mind, the one engaged with reality, tries to or has to fight the waking dream. Perhaps getting used to my particular seizure disorder is why I don’t panic and destroy the dream mechanism as soon as I awake.

Or maybe I really am experiencing a TLE seizure that begins just before I wake up? If I am, I just have to point out: my seizures are just like dreaming!

But I just don’t know. Disclaimer time: I’m not a medical expert and nothing I write is to be in any way construed as technical enough for self-diagnosis. But this is my experience.

The ancients would have labeled me a mystical saint or a shaman–if I were clever or lucky enough not to be labeled a lunatic or a witch–and would have believed I had a hotline to the divine. Scientists today would point out that the temporal lobe is the seat of religious sensation, and hallucinations there are just that: not divine trances, just a neurological mistake.

I believe somewhere in-between. We all have temporal lobes and the capacity to imagine and even feel a higher abstraction, a divinity. To what evolutionary end? That’s for each of us to decide.

 

Seriously, what have you decided? Have you ever given much thought to how your brain chemistry creates your philosophy of existence? Or do you just have some really cool and bizarre dream experiences to share? I’d love to hear either!

Monkeys Swinging Through Trees and Your Ability to Parse this Sentence

Fun Language Factoid

Some of my favorite ideas about the brain and language are posited in Robert Ornstein’s book The Evolution of Consciousness: the Origins of the Way We Think. His fascinating theories about the evolution of the human brain are back-engineered from its amazing structural advantages today (e.g., we walk upright in part because it’s air conditioning for the fast-growing human brain. Oh, and humans have bigger butts than most mammals in order for them to walk upright.)

Check it out

The brain region primates developed to coordinate the complex sequences of movements needed to swing through trees is the very part later co-opted for language. The hominid brain expanded rapidly for other skills long before language developed, but when language did become necessary, it was possible because that part of the primate brain was ready and waiting to adapt to the similar task.

Reading this very sentence requires an ability to use rhythm and to suspend understanding until the completion of a task. Our ability to anticipate then assimilate input is what allows us to construct complex grammar.

I wonder if it works on a smaller scale. Is my lifelong love of languages enhanced because I spent most of first and second grade recess on the monkey bars?

One Discovery Can Change All of History

This is a really nice example of how a single discovery or breakthrough can change all of history. Of course, the iconoclasts who love the existing history books have to be flexible and allow it to happen! Cracking the Rosetta Stone: BIG, big deal.  Dead Sea Scrolls: not as earth-shattering as you might think. Go figure.

We’ve had the Voynich manuscript in our hot little hands for centuries, yet because no one had cracked the code, we haven’t known exactly what it was we had. Now because of computers, that may all finally change. As was noted in Star Trek: the Next Generation, “As far as we know, it might just be a recipe for biscuits” (The Chase).

But it will be fun to finally find out.

 

Writing With One Hand Tied Behind Your Back: When Medical Issues Intrude

When my neurologist said I had a complicated brain, I didn’t take it as a compliment.

I’ve spent the years since trying to live an even more simple life, not to complicate my psyche beyond recovery, allowing the meds I take for fibromyalgia to blunt the second consciousness I carry around with me, the one I hopefully call my creative writer side, even though we all dream fantastically–I just do it wide awake.

But sometimes during my morning routine a voice deep inside suggests: twenty to twenty-nine pills a day probably isn’t indicative of a simple life, either. And what’s the inevitable outcome to such a story? Medications don’t work the same way on the same conditions forever.

The Brain Oppressed

I’ve written about the effects of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy and Geschwind Syndrome on a person’s life even when the seizures are controlled. The permanent, chronic effects are called “interictal symptoms”–those that are present between seizures. Learning I had the Writer’s Disease had a devastating effect not only on my creative life, it caused me to question everything in my personal life as well. I forced an acceptance of my invisible-to-others split-consciousness, and to cope I developed a great deal of pity for the co-workers and family members who couldn’t understand my life’s turmoil. Like Seven of Nine (Star Trek: Voyager) waking up from a Borg existence, I gave myself social lessons now that there was finally hope for me to pass as human.

And a few years later when meds appeared to treat the fibro, the new-found deep sleep also wiped out most of the seizures, and my assimilation into normal society was made that much easier. Peace and harmony transformed my turbulent life at last!

Sucking at Jeopardy

The decade or so of calm that followed was a decade where I did no writing at all. Cymbalta is notorious for making you slow to find the right word. It also wounds your pride when you start to really suck at Jeopardy. (I knew I knew it! I just didn’t remember the word for it.) At first I didn’t mind: I was, after all, trying to leave behind that uptight, arrogant, intellectually abstract freak of neurology, wasn’t I?

But wasn’t knowing-it-all supposed to be my distinction? And wasn’t writing the outlet I had originally chosen to keep my wild elliptical observations safely out of polite society?

As it turned out, I wasn’t going to have a choice in the matter forever, anyway. Things that are suppressed do surface again. Ducklings submerge then re-appear only to quack all the louder. I’m a deep-diving duckling, hear me quack.

Which is to say, I’m starting to hallucinate a whole second consciousness again.

The Worm Turns. . .To the Laptop

Writing is the time I need to stop all the confusing detail of a life both social and cyber from erupting as the chaotic dream imagery that keeps me forever in my second consciousness. I have to answer the demand to follow the metaphor and meaning of the recurring dream, of the dreams that erupt full-blown in the middle of the day with all the power that a TLE déj-vu has to pull me away from the task at hand.

But writing doesn’t come quite as easily these days, when I know so many words but can’t recall them all that quickly. It’s easy to blame Cymbalta, but even that is masking new fears: my temporal lobe seizures, active as they are in the language centers of the brain, may finally be taking a permanent toll on my linguistic abilities. Before the twenty-some troublesome pills a day there was a genuine medical condition, a complicated brain that never was going to simply settle down and function “normally”. I have a scarred brain; no medicine would ever heal it.

Quitting Is No Longer an Option

Looking back, I lament that there never was a time when my writing skills were reliable. For a few years I successfully channeled all my energy into academia and did very well–right up until I didn’t, and my inability to shut off that second consciousness so I could concentrate with the first caused me to drop out of grad school, with all-but-dissertation defended. This isn’t an insignificant effect on one’s life path.

I’m looking for the strength–or wisdom, or spirit, whatever it takes–not to “drop out” this time, and to find a way to keep writing in my life. I read all the useful writing blog advice on finding the time, fostering the commitment, etc., but the one thing they don’t seem to address is this final hurdle so many of us face: an unpredictable medical condition, one which directly affects, either mentally or physically, our ability to write.

I mean, Beethoven continued to compose after he went deaf. Van Gogh. . .Oh, well. I’m normal; I don’t want any more pain! Is there a better way to handle this?

I really want to hear from you: what is that medical issue that keeps one hand tied behind your back? How do you respond? And have you found a community of support? More power to you all!

Pathologically Disconnected, or, Why I Write Novels

“Here.” I handed my college buddy a small magazine clipping with a photograph of some place with trees and water. I’d just had a very nice visit there, in fact. Then I ripped out the page I was looking at and cut the place out.

“What is it?”

I was excited to explain the birthday gift. “It’s a. . .it’s a ‘place-to-be’. You look at it and you can picture yourself in the picture, anywhere in the picture you want. . .Like I did. When I looked at it; it was a really cool picture that way.”

This was all falling apart really fast; I could see he didn’t get it. And I couldn’t say it any more clearly than that. Here I was, a writing major, and I couldn’t find the words to express something this important–and stupid me, I just assumed he would understand what I meant and finish the thought, complete the gesture. I just assumed it happened to everyone: a certain photograph in a magazine ad or travel book just hits you the right way, and you’re transported. In a virtual, euphoric trance your mind takes you right into that picture, to the exclusion of the present; you are–if “you” can be taken as your consciousness rather than your body–quite literally suddenly someplace else.

Well, I tried, and it sure didn’t come across as the tremendous gift I had intended it to be; my buddy just saw a little slip of paper. And since I failed scissors in the third grade it wasn’t even a perfectly square picture.

Why don’t you get it?!

I tried again with other friends but in the end only this first buddy was ever nice enough to see it meant something to me, and for a few years when we wrote back and forth after college I still sent occasional clippings. But I had no illusions anymore; these trances were mine and mine alone. Wow. What did photographs even exist for, if not to blow your mind and give you a waking dream, a whole new mood, a new atmosphere to exist in for some time?

I’ve written already about my TLE seizures, but knowing what’s happening to me, while a relief on one level, doesn’t really solve the underlying problem: Geschwind Syndrome sees to it that your very personality and being are affected by a scar on the temporal lobe, and you are who you are who you are. As proof, I had most of the tell-tale personality traits since earliest memory, long before the seizures appeared. My lifelong struggle to connect was now understandable but it wasn’t over.

My childhood made a lot more sense; my friends never seemed to get lost in books as completely as I did, they never understood when I said they were magical that way, I didn’t just mean it figuratively. Then came the mind-blowing discovery that I could write my own stories, my own worlds, my own friends. I was teetering at the mouth of the rabbit-hole.

And it wasn’t too long after high school that I no longer needed books or photographs; these trances started to occur of their own volition, more intense, a déjà-vu moment that wasn’t just a moment.

Still freakily abstract

“I just had one of those really good déjà-vus,” I told my grad school apartment roommate.

“What do you mean, the ‘good’ ones?”

“You know, the kind that last a long time. The good ones–the ones that feel good.”

“Déjà-vus don’t last a long time; they just hit you.”

“I know, usually they do, like a ping pong ball hits you and bounces off. But the other kind hits you like a velcro ball and sticks. You have a déjà-vu of another time you had a déjà -vu, and that was maybe about another even earlier déjà-vu. . .”

“Yeh, but a déjà-vu is just a hiccup in your brain; it can’t last more than a second, because it was an accident.”

“Okay, maybe you don’t call it a déjà-vu, then, maybe you call it something else.” I wasn’t ready to give up; she and I already got along well in so many uncanny ways, maybe this was the one friend who would get what I was trying to say. “Like looking into a mirror with a mirror behind you, a feeling of something that keeps echoing back into infinity.”

Yup, I realized with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, there it was: the look. She didn’t get it and she didn’t mean to but the look said I was a little off, somehow. I waffled, “Anyway, it’s a really cool feeling. That’s why I wasn’t paying attention.” . . .And then she had the look like she thought I was making it all up. And my cheeks burned and my hands tingled and my head buzzed with nervous embarrassment. And it wasn’t because of any déjà-vu that that felt so familiar.

It’s what you aren’t experiencing, obviously

“Why don’t you just shut up?” I’ve asked myself over and over. I’ve gotten so used to people not believing me when imagination takes over and my mouth starts running that I’ve become apologetic about practically everything. And I should be: long ago I learned that my words–so effective in every other area of my life–just weren’t the right language for explaining to people what it was they weren’t experiencing and I was.

Sometimes I think I’ve finally found a common point of reference–dreaming. Everyone has dreams. Remember last time you told someone you had a really cool dream, the first thing you’re asked? “What was it about?” And then you struggle to find the threads of the plot–but that’s useless. Plot’s generally not the impact of the dream; it’s the entire atmosphere taken as a whole. Something might happen in my dream: a young girl is holding a bunny with a ribbon around its neck. But that “thing” in the dream doesn’t convey the concrete “mood”; in this instance my overwhelming sense of dread and foreboding. But how was it any different than the last time I dreamt an overwhelming sense of foreboding? Well. . .just trust me.

Doomed to fail

So maybe I’m doomed never to know if others can bring to the experience I want to share the same sensory and perceptual dysfunction that keeps me living on another plane of existence. It’s lonely without the words I need to make a connection with other people. Gradually I realized that it wasn’t my inability to express or lack of will that kept me apart; it was the failure of the English language, whose words I loved so much I would surely have found the correct ones when I tried.

There aren’t enough words for all the subtly different kinds of overwhelming, palpable moods in a dream, and it’s the exact same way with my little transports. When I describe them they sound intangible, ephemeral. . .but if there just existed enough words you would see they’re anything but. “Mood” isn’t even the right word; I’m fumbling again.

Obviously the rest of the world sees no need to have verbal markers for all the kinds of mental transports that define my life. Alone again. I spend ten paragraphs explaining a meaningful and quantifiable mood that should have required only a couple words–I don’t know, a color combined with a place and a season, a shorthand to convey it all in an instant.

A Vulcan mind-meld might just do it, though

So I suppose this is where art comes in. It’s so patently true it’s a cliché: art can indirectly convey a thought more accurately and more concisely than direct prose. But unless you’re Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra*, I can’t go around spouting to you my everyday feelings in poetic allegory.

I go through life, then, feeling disconnected, but hope I never reach the despair of someone like Van Gogh, furiously painting flowers and fields and potato farmers, internally crying out, “Don’t you get it? Don’t you get it?”

In Cyber-Space, Everyone Can Hear You Scream

But is there an alternative to the intense social and spiritual need to connect to other people? I can revel in my solitary condition but gradually the avoidance of despair takes on the appearance of cynicism–one could stave off the existential angst with wry irony. Isn’t there something more in-between for the self-aware idiosyncratic?

I don’t know about you, but as soon as I asked that question in print a little voice deep inside answered gleefully, “There is! There’s the internet!”

“What? The internet is the answer for disconnected artistic-types everywhere?”

“We all come to cyber-space already an artificial construct.”

“It levels the playing field, you mean.”

“You can rule at last.”

“I wouldn’t go that far.”

I won’t go that far

Like most of us who were the freaks and geeks and wall-flowers in high school I’ve reaped a bit of cathartic revenge ripping apart the willfully ignorant and narrow-minded on various forums on a variety of topics. Fun for awhile. Wearying of that, I turned my powers to good instead of evil and sought companionship among those with similar interests, those to learn from and those to support. But that’s just life writ, well, in writing.

So I’ve come full-circle and returned to the escapism I once thought was dangerous and abnormal: writing novels. Big novels, full-blown worlds filled with fictitious characters and fake-fake-fake-fake-fake.

No, art! Artifice’s more socially-acceptable twin sibling. And if online writing communities had existed back when I was a teenager, well, I might very well “rule” by now.

I’m very curious just how different a path younger writers have had for this reason. Why do you write, and do you still have people in your life who think it’s an unhealthy escape?

 

*Star Trek: the Next Generation’s episode “Darmok”, oft-mocked for its abstruse subject matter, is a beloved favorite of poets and literary types, celebrating as it does the centrality of myth to our world-view.

Re-post: Anglo-Saxon color series, writing as art!

Writing as art. . .as writing. It’s never far from my mind, the magical characters we use, and how many more we could be using. Give your eyes a feast every once in awhile!

Old English Wordhord

blæc, adj: black, dark, swarthy. (“black”)

Descent of the Holy Spirit, The Black Hours, c. 1475 Book of Hours, Bruges (Belgium), c. 1480. Morgan Library, MS M.493, folios 18v and 19r. The Black Hours, one of a very few manuscripts on vellum that is dyed black. The illustration shows Whitsun, or Pentecost, the occasion of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and other followers of Christ, as described in Acts 2:1–31. Source: Morgan Library.

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A blog post after my own heart!

A coupla hundred years ago, our good ol’ mate Darwin thought up this totally radical idea called evolution. This had two noticeable results: the church got their knickers in a twist, and it revolutionised our understanding – of biology, humanity, pretty much EVERYTHING-y. Since then, all manner of disciplines have co-opted the evolution concept: stellar evolution! Directed […]

via The Evolution of Language: Three Things We’ve Learnt — Mother Tongues

Taming the’Saurus–Dangerous in the Wrong Hands

or, Etymology Won’t Teach You About Beetles

“Its very variety, subtlety, and utterly irrational, idiomatic complexity makes it possible to say things in English which simply cannot be said in any other language.”
― Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

It’s apparently the thing to make fun of English on Facebook: memes abound. Today I saw a quote (attributed to David Burge): “Yes, English can be weird. It can be understood through tough thorough thought, though.” My buddy sent me a set of proper English teacher mugs with helpful reminders like, “They’re there for their afternoon tea” and “I’m going to add two sugars, too.”
(Along about second grade I prided myself on coming up with the grammatically correct “That ‘that’ that that girl used was incorrect.” Four ‘that’s! Count them. WHOA! I just did one better: “I always said that that ‘that’ that that girl used was incorrect”. Guess that’s why I went to grad school for English, huh? Top that.)
Then everyone on FB will always comment something about English having no rules and English being the hardest language to learn as a result. . .Ha, ha, I laugh along with them, but part of me wants to proclaim, “NO! EVERYTHING IN ENGLISH HAPPENS FOR A REASON, AND IT’S FASCINATING!”
Whoa, sorry I shouted just there; that’s about three decades of pent-up enthusiasm for one of my favorite of all subjects: the History of the English Language. No other language in the world developed quite like ours, with a unique political history allowing a variety of languages in a variety of time periods each to dump a whole new vocabulary into the mix. And though for most this results in laughable pronunciations and spellings, the far more important and brilliant fact about English gets lost: we have more word choices than any other language!

He went up the stairs.
He mounted the stairs.
He ascended the stairs.

. . .And we have three different guys who need to get up the stairs, right? The first is a plumber, the second is a cheap romance-novel hero, the third is a bishop or something.

The plumber reached the second floor through English’s original origins as a Germanic language (to go, to wend). Dirk Kirkwood benefited from the French influence on the language following the Norman Conquest. His Eminence’s usual mode of transportation derives from the Latin influences our writers in English actively imported during the Renaissance in order to “beautify” our language for better-sounding poetry.

Three different sentences (which would usually translate into only the same sentence in another language) which technically do mean the exact same thing in English as well–and yet, they don’t. In English-teacher speak, the three sentences have the same DENOTATION but they don’t have the same CONNOTATION.

And we writers are always all about connotation: we’re always seeking to say things in a new way, yet we still want it to be the correct way, and we really really want to achieve that subtlety of expression that Heinlein celebrates and which “word-inventors” or word-importers like Shakespeare worked so hard to make possible. It’s so much easier to express ourselves with so many words to pick from–and that’s before you even employ colorful idioms and cultural allusions. Thank St. Francis de Sales for the Thesaurus.

Hold your jets.

The Saurus-Trap

All right, I admit it, while my vocabulary is astoundingly prodigious, I AM on the wrong side of 50 and more often than not these days I’m too slow to come up with the question on Jeopardy! –even though I know that I know it, I just can’t think of the word. So on my laptop, where I do most of my writing, the Firefox homepage is a thesaurus.

A thesaurus is wonderful for people like me who already know the words, who already understand the exquisitely subtle connotations of a given word, we just need reminding. The same tool in the hands of a beginning writer becomes as laughable as the English language is to an internet memester.

“If Facebook has taught us anything, it’s that a lot of you, are not quite ready for a Spelling Bee.” –OH, NO THEY DIDN’T! Someone actually made a meme that complained about spelling at the exact same time s/he made the egregious grammatical error of separating the subject from the verb with a glaring comma. Hah!

So, yes, imagine the creative writing results someone like this would produce if you handed him/her a thesaurus. I could always spot the student who had gone out and bought a Roget paperback a mile off:

“We need to be fastidious not to under-estimate the perilous effects of global warming.” –Fine, I’ll be sure to bring along my hand sanitizer and St. George.

So where’s the good news? First, anyone reading an obscure blog like mine purporting to address “matters of peripheral interest to writers” isn’t the kind of person to fall into the leaf-covered Saurus-trap. You’re aware that denotation is not connotation.

Second, back up to where I (and also some famous writers, you can look them up) proclaimed English the best language on the planet for exquisite precision of expression. I’d like to add another assertion, the implications of which are even far more glorious: those of you who have grown up with a love of words and have grown up with English have had your very brains shaped by vocabulary to perceive reality with exacting complexity. Well, potentially. One always hopes.

It’s like the old paradigm presented in the saying that Eskimos have 50 different words for snow (which, incidentally, is not an urban myth… 2013 update). If your mind can comprehend fifty different kinds of snow and ice condition, then you literally do see your environment differently than someone who only has a couple words at play during winter.

Etymology will teach you about beetles and scarabs and coleopterans. . .

One of the best ways to tap into your English-speaking cultural advantage is to have a good look at the history of that language, how and when the words evolved, which in turn will give you greater understanding of why those various connotations exist. It’s true that most people wouldn’t tell you their plumber ascended the stairs while at the same time describing the Pope on TV going up some steps for his inauguration ceremony. Writers, however, can give a lot more depth as well as precision to their writing by studying word origins.

Navigating the requirements of graduate school can be treacherous.
Negotiating the requisites of graduate school can be tricky.

…This one’s easy to explore without having to consult your American Heritage dictionary. (Which is, btw, the best dictionary for Americans interested in etymology; I won mine in a 5th grade spelling bee and the rest is history.)

“Treacherous” has connotations of betrayal, with its origin meaning “to cheat”, whereas the word navigation brings to mind a sailor managing unexpected obstacles on the sea. Both have the implications that a graduate student is met with much that is out of her control.

“Negotiating” instead sounds like a person who is at least on equal footing with the task at hand, with its implicit meaning “to conduct business” and a further overtone of something that is actively worked at, not passively achieved. Combine with that the seeming-synonym for treacherous of “tricky” and we have an additional sense that the student is empowered to act upon grad school just as well as grad school springs surprises on the student.

Two sentences, but only in the second does the student seem more powerful. I might add that a “requirement” is something issued by one entity to another, whereas a “requisite” is a static or neutral condition of need–but I’m probably just over-thinking it now.

The next time you find yourself torn between two “big” words, have a look at their etymologies–and you might just be surprised. Usually that alone is enough for you to decide. But along the way you’ll find yourself exploring the origin of another word, and yet another. . .Soon you’ll be reading and writing untold layers of meaning in every new choice of words.

Saurus
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The Aphasic Horror – or, the Flip Side of Hypergraphia

When, literally, there are no words, there is no self.

Last time, I wrote about the phenomenon of hypergraphia as part of a collection of possible attributes that comprise Geschwind Syndrome, itself sometimes a feature of temporal lobe epilepsy. Having an over-abundance of words can be a wonderful “symptom” for a writer to have. But in my case TLE has on occasion led to a frightening, albeit brief, type of seizure producing aphasia: the complete loss of words. There are TLE seizures that are enjoyable when I’m given the leisure to entertain them: euphoria, dreamlike, dreaming-while-wide-awake, all-encompassing deja-vu states that hyper-stimulate both memory and creativity. But of all the unpleasant seizures that go along with TLE, none that I experience are anywhere near as horrible and frightening as the aphasia one.

I must be forgiven for complaining, because my seizures are relatively mild (and after Cymbalta was invented for my fibromyalgia I began to get quality sleep and the seizures have all but disappeared) and, being temporal lobe seizures, are usually undetectable to the outside world. But appearances most absolutely and certainly can be deceiving.
I know that the dreaded sensation I’m about to describe lasts probably only a second or even less, but believe me, it feels like an eternity while I’m “in” it.

It begins with a metaphorical “aphasia cattle prod” that hits me right between the eyes and it’s almost as if I’m being physically struck backwards; in the same moment my mind is wiped utterly blank. You can’t even imagine how blank. I suddenly have NO WORDS–none, nothing to think with. And the sensations are overwhelming: I feel as if I’m falling in total blackness, my hands clutching the air and finding nothing to hang onto, and with that/because of that I’m feeling utter terror, just about the worst terror I’ve ever known. (You can’t see me right now, but as I try to put myself back into that place, my hands are actually clawing at the air.)

During this eternity-moment I feel like I’m not even alive anymore; it feels as though I’ve been instantaneously relegated to a strange nether-world or limbo where life and death are the measure of nothing. I have no words so I can’t think! I may as well be a non-sentient slug in a petri dish. You can poke me and I might have an autonomic reaction, but I won’t be able to think about my past or my future or why I’m being poked. I can’t even think about thinking. I can’t think about myself as being apart from the petri dish or the poke or the pok-er or the pain. There is no form or structure for my consciousness; I’m not human when I have no words.

Of course my entire description of the experience is only possible in after-thought, and certainly what the experience is not occurs to me only as part of a sensation during the actual seizure. Falling and flailing in blackness and in terror is as much as I know at the time. It’s more than enough.

Afterwards I have a residual pressure (absence of pressure?) fogging me up right between and behind the eyes, a bit of fatigue after the aura, but a profound sense of relief to be standing on firm ground again. Sensory input flows through my mind again and the little talker in my head assigns what I experience words and descriptions and I exist once more.

The capacity for aphasia even for a moment scares the daylights out of me, and I can only begin to imagine the horror for people whose neurological impairments are more long-term. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and writer, has described in multiple books some of the more strange and painful variations brain-damage can exhibit. There are more familiar conditions like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and the catatonic conditions seen in the film Awakenings, based on Dr. Sacks’ work. These are conditions which, like Geschwind Syndrome, can challenge one’s very definition of personhood and sense of self. I appreciate every day not being on that end of the spectrum.

So hard-wired wordiness aside, I honestly don’t take for granted that my reliance on words, my love of words, my very self-perception and definition through words is a given. Rather I know that it is a gift, this indicator of sentience and human-ness. I see words for the magic they are and I’ve understood for as long as I’ve used them the drive to tell stories with them, to make something that wasn’t there before I took pen to paper.

Aphasia