I love language, and words, and the power that using a particular turn of phrase can have when I am truly in the flow of my native tongue.  I have often thought what a complete power trip it must be, to be multilingual and to be able to dance in the stream of meaning in so many different worlds and cultures and contexts.  To understand the meaning of a word – denotation and connotation alike – one must understand not just where the word is right now, but also where it’s been in the last decade or two, and also have at least a vague notion about where it came from in the century or two before that.

In general, I really like the fact that language is analog that way.  It means that I can become more creatively precise and accurate in how I make pictures and meaning with words, because the nuances and flavors of the different layers of meaning in the words that I choose mix together in a very complex stew.  Talking about something as simple as a cd – if I tell you it is smooth, and slick, and slides across my hand cool and fast, you will get a very specific feeling about that cd.  If I am talking about exactly the same cd, and I tell you it is chilly, and greasy, and slips out of my grasp before I can catch it, you will get a very different image of what happened, and a very different feeling.  The events could, reasonably speaking, be precisely the same – but because the common connotation of the words is different, the meaning conveyed is different, and the emotional resonance with even an inanimate object becomes so different as to make it an entirely different object in the reader’s mind.

To me, that’s a hell of a lot of power packed into what is, essentially, an invisible process.  Yes, I as a writer have some control over it, through understanding what the common connotations and nuances in words are.  What happens when that fails?  What happens when I do not successfully dance the knife-edge of nuance?  The art in the turn of phrase is lost, and it either conveys what I meant to convey poorly, if at all, or it leads the reader into a red herring of assumption that is actively counterproductive to communication.  And what are words for, if not communication?

From the best of my understanding, the only way to combat that failure is to know your words, know the places and histories the people reading your words will be coming from, and do your homework on how those two interact.  How do you explain “chav” to a Southern American, so that they know not just the basic social structure, but also the cultural implications, and the behavioral and mindset indicators or why someone would be referred to that way, and what kind of emotional and social implications it has when used, variously as compliment and slur, and how *that* varies from situation to situation?  How do you explain the same thing about “nigger” to a native of Denmark who has never been to the U.S., nor has much interest in our culture?  These situations are unlikely, but make interesting food for my brain teeth.  Because if you can successfully explain the complexities of an emotionally and socially loaded word (particularly one likely to cause a fight in the wrong situation) to someone who is a total stranger to the history and potential explosivity, then chances are good that you have started to understand how the analog world of words works.

At least, that’s where I’m hoping to get to.  I know perfectly well I’m still in kindergarten on all this, and that makes me kind of happy.  I fingerpaint with clauses and punctuation, and I will gleefully eat the play-doh of staring at my own literary navel for far too long at a time.  Obviously.

Advertisements