When I was a wee little thing, I apparently didn’t have much use for language. According to my parents, while most other children were learning how to string sentences together in a useful manner, I was defiantly mute. I had long since discovered that I could get my point across just as effectively using non-verbal cues. For example, pointing to a banana and then pointing to my mouth was far less complicated than saying, “I’m hungry, may I have something to eat please?”
Fortunately, the phase didn’t last very long, and I eventually became a functional English speaker. Then, in elementary school, I started to learn some other languages; a few years of German, a bit of Spanish, a smattering of Irish. These classes were hardly formal language education; we mostly learned traditional songs, memorized poems, and listened to the fairy tales of the culture in question. But so began my love affair with languages, and my fascination with the language of, well, language.
In high school and college I took as many language classes as I could reasonably enroll in: French, German, Arabic. But I also fell in love with English as a language, too. And I began to learn that every language has its own personality, an identity that is both connected to and separate from the culture it comes from. French is a sensual language; the words are spoken from the front of the mouth, as though each word is being tasted and savored like a fine wine or a chocolate mousse. German is crisp, logical, utilitarian; perfect for a country whose trains are always on time. The sounds of a culture’s language echo with the history of its people and ring with their hopes and fears.
As a writer, language is central to everything I do. I write in English, of course, but my love affairs with other languages have taught me so much about the sounds of a language, and what to listen for even when I’m writing in my native tongue. Sentences and paragraphs have rhythms, and the tone of a word can shift depending on the other words surrounding it. Words have secret lives, layers of nuance that can both connect and dissociate them from their sisters and brothers on the page.
In French, there are two words that mean language. The first, langue, literally translates to tongue and refers to the series of words and rules that make up a language. The second, langage, refers to the forms of expression of a language; the verbiage, the style, the nuance. To me, this is an important distinction that I like to make about my own writing; English is a tool that I use, but the way in which I use it is my art. And that art is about listening to the words, hearing the langage instead of the langue.
Leveraging language isn’t always easy. I often find that I get caught up in my own language so much that I forget that my characters, their histories, and even the setting might demand a different language than the one I’m using. For example, if my main character has not had the benefit of years of formal education, why would his inner monologue be dotted with lyrical, erudite words? If a scene takes place on an icy, frozen landscape, perhaps flowing words with long vowels and warm connotations are not the best choice for describing action. It’s important to always listen and inhabit the language, choosing and living the words that are most appropriate and most natural.
And if all else falls, you can always point. Banana, mouth. That was easy!
Do you love language, both as a tool and an art? How do you use language in your life or your work? Leave your thoughts below!