Language, Writing

The Power of Language: Part II

Last week I talked about how words have deeper meanings that can’t be translated to another language or explained fully. The words have lives of their own and, when used correctly, can gift you with a really beautiful expression or sentence. Now, I want to look at how words can mean multiple things at the same time, especially to a writer. This isn’t in the context of definitions, but rather, how words can be used to make a sentence mean thousand different things by understanding their different levels. Confused? No worries, it’ll all make sense. Keep reading!

The whole “different levels” idea makes a lot of sense when I put it into the perspective with a quote from the book The Golden Compass, the first book of the His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman. This is a personal favorite series of mine and is known to be stuffed full of subtle (and not-so-much) hints and images over a variety of sensitive subjects.

The trilogy focuses on 12-year-old Lyra, a rough-around-the-edges tomboy who is destined to save the world. To help with her journey she is given a truth telling device called an alethiometer. It’s a large compass-like object and has a series of images on its face. In order to use it Lyra has to move the three hands to different symbols that form a question and the fourth hand will swing from symbol to symbol on the compass to give its answer.

As you may have already guessed, each symbol has multiple meanings so that any question can be asked and answer given. There are thousands of meanings, and the user of the alethiometer must go through various encyclopedias to get the right meaning. Lyra differs in that she can look at the alethiometer and hold all of the meetings in her head, knowing where to move the hands to ask the question and how to interpret the answer:

“And how to do you know what these meanings are?”

“I kind of see ’em. Or feel ’em, rather, like climbing down a ladder at night, you put your foot down and there’s another rung. Well, I put my mind down and there’s another meaning, and I kind of sense what it is. Then I put ’em all together. There’s a trick in it like focusing your eyes.”

Image Credit: www.gotchiworld.de (via Google)
Image Credit: http://www.gotchiworld.de (via Google)

In the same way that Lyra talks about the symbols having different “levels” for different meanings, words have that same power. When we, as writers, construct a sentence, we have to make sure that we are using to correct words on the right “levels”. Using the wrong word and/or level would lead to a different meaning entirely.

To me, words have the same magical power as the alethiometer has to Lyra. Sometimes I’ll go back and forth between three synonyms for hours in the back of my mind because using the wrong one really does change everything. A lot of the time to read or may not be able to notice the “small difference” of a sentence that has the wrong word, from that with the right one, but they will feel it, whether they are aware of it or not. It’s my job to make sure they don’t misinterpret the sentence by ensuring and using the perfect words.

If you’re still following, keep an eye out for Part III, the final section, of this idea net week. Also, feel free to comment with alternative comparisons to complex/deep levels of words, I’d love to hear them!

Language, Writing

The Power of Language: Part I

The most challenging thing I’ve learned in my time as a writer is that words are not just dead pieces that make up a sentence, they have life to them that make each one unique. No, seriously stay with me. Each word that we use carries a specific meaning and, shall we say, power, that none of its synonyms have. You can see this when using the word “shrieked” instead of “yelled,” sure, but my point becomes much clearer when looking at different languages and word translations. This is where I truly understand how each word is so individual.

When you’re in the beginning stages of learning another language you learn how valuable a translation dictionary is. You’ll be looking up words as you move between languages in reading and writing, gaining a bigger vocabulary as you go. Then, there comes that magical point where you can write a complex paragraph or read a chapter with little to no help from the dictionary and recognize the words in the language you’re reading/writing in. This is exciting for two reasons:

  1. You’re remembering the vocabulary, yay! You’re one step closer to fluently speaking a foreign language.

  2. The words in the foreign language for taking on the meaning of their own instead of simply being a translated word.

This is the nugget right here. A word in one language doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing in another. Okay, literally speaking, yes it does, but work with me! Once you’re accustomed to the foreign language, you start to see its words differently. They take on a deeper, more complete meaning that you’ll notice when you finish a well written paragraph and think “Wow…that was powerful.”

The expression “lost in translation” is another way to understand it. Say you love that well-written paragraph so much that you want to share it with your best friend who doesn’t speak the language. You translate it using the best word you can think of, but it still loses something no matter how hard you work. This is how we can understand the power of each word.

For this reason I’ve really come to be in awe of words and language in general. As a writer, it’s my job to pick the best word for each sentence, and knowing what I do about words, I’ve discovered that sometimes even the best words still fall flat. Sometimes you need to throw in those foreign expressions, like “je ne sais quoi,” or “bon appetit,” to name a few of the most popular ones. They are so much more powerful than their English equivalents and can’t really be translated to carry the same weight and significance.

dictionary-page
Image Credit: bookriot.com (via Google)

So, words have a lot to them, much more than you would think at first glance. Learning another language has really helped me understand words and the deep, profound impact they can have. As a result, my appreciation of great writers has really grown. I’ve got more to say about this, so keep an eye out for next week’s post where we will explore part II of this topic!

Writing

The “Text” in “Text Message”

Sometimes writers tend to go a little overboard in their obsession with writing the perfect sentence. For me, this obsession becomes clear when I send text messages to my friends. Not only are they free from abbreviations (for the most part), but they also have proper grammar and punctuation. There are some people who send text messages entirely in abbreviations and other shorthand, while majority of us use a combination of proper language and the occasional shorthand and abbreviation. With the rise of the text message, there are some who are adamant that language is being destroyed the more widespread it gets.

As mentioned, I use traditional language when writing a text message, though I must admit that I like to use the occasional “btw” or “atm”. I could say that I use traditional language because typing out the shorthand takes too long, but the whole truth is that I find the shorthand very frustrating. It’s hard to decipher unless you already know what the abbreviation means, and a lot of the time, autocorrect will change it to a similar word anyway. So, by the time you fix the abbreviation, you could have written it out normally and sent it already. What’s more important, though, is that it really does destroy language bit by bit.

You lose the emotion – or worse, get confused – without proper punctuation like exclamation points, question marks, or periods. Sentences run together in one giant text message bubble and you can’t tell where one thought ends and another begins, not to mention how the other person is feeling. You may unintentionally hurt someone’s feelings because you responded incorrectly to their text message filled with anger, which you had understood as excitement. Or, you didn’t respond to their question because you hadn’t realized they were asking one. These kinds of misunderstandings can lead to fights both on and off the phone, and could be prevented by correctly using a question mark or comma.

If you are texting on the run or trying to get a reply quickly, it’s understandable that punctuation and traditional spelling aren’t your biggest concerns. But, if you send texts entirely composed of abbreviations and no grammar what-so-ever for no reason other than not wanting to type the full word out, you’re missing out on the gifts that language can give you.

The most important one is that you won’t accidentally put shorthand into an essay or a grant proposal. You’d be surprised how easily they slip past your editing radar when you’re used to using them all the time. Secondly, you’ll remember how to spell more words and remember more grammar than the person who regularly uses shorthand. Lastly, you’ll have a higher chance of being understand and/or replied to by everyone on your contacts list because they won’t need Google to hep understand what you’re saying.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a time and place for shorthand, but generally speaking, traditional language and grammar will take you much further.

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Image Credit: icbengaynor.tumblr.com (via Google) A little dramatic, perhaps, but you get the idea.
Writing

All in a Day’s Work

Since I was about 13 I’ve had a strong attachment to my agenda. In the beginning of the school year I’d be more excited about getting a new agenda in homeroom than seeing my friends. When I got to University I’d pick an evening after the first couple of classes and put all of the essay deadlines and quiz dates in the agenda. It’s one of the most important things that I own and bring it everywhere. “Alright,” you may be thinking, “she likes to be organized…so what?” There’s more to it than that, though.

For me, my agenda is a journal. The color coding system and specific highlighters and pens that I use are all about preserving the memories that happen. For example, one professor changed the deadline of the paper, so the line of white-out that covers the “essay due” reminder has emotions attached to it: relief, because I already had two other essays and a midterm on that day; excitement, because I had already finished the research and half the rough draft, so I now could take my time with the essay; anger, because I wished I had known this would happen when I dedicated precious time to work on it, neglecting my other classes, etc. Never thought a streak of whiteout could say so much did you?

The same kind of thing happens with the highlighters. I’ll look at the note highlighted in pink or blue and remember where I was when I wrote it, both physically and emotionally speaking. Why? How? I have no idea, but everything in my agenda holds a memory for me.

My point in all this is that there’s no definition and how a journal or diary has to look or work. For some, it’s a traditional “dear diary” record. For others, it could be a daily food and/or weight log. Or, it could be a log of your personal and/or professional expenses. Maybe it’s a letter/photo journal, or a social media account. A journal takes on many different forms and means something different to each of us.

Keeping some kind of journal is an important way to remember all of the little moments, those quick bring – a – smile – to – your – face memories that didn’t require a camera. They’re still really important, precious times that you get to keep to yourself. For example, there’s an entire page of an old agenda that is covered and doodles and coffee stains, because a good friend and I had to kill an hour between classes so we got hyper on coffee and took turns making art all over my homework list. Seeing those sketches and coffee splotches still makes me smile even if I had a hard time figuring out what my homework was through the battlefield a stickmen and smiley faces.

So what if my friends tease me for panicking when I momentarily lose my agenda? Who cares if no one else understands why highlighters and color coding are so important to me? The point is that I understand the deeper meaning to the agenda pages that lingers within the facts that I write down.

If you recognize some of what I’m saying, then you understand the significance of a journal at its purest form: a place for you to save the important times with the emotion intact, and still be able to smile as you flip through it years later. Be proud of your journal– whatever form it takes – and cherish the memories that are tangled within it.

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Image Credit: http://www.pinterest.com (Google)