Language, Writing

The Power of Language: Part III

Now for my final thoughts on language and the power it has. I’ve talked about how the power works and what it means, but I haven’t really explained how it applies to writers.

Our job is to tell the stories that we care about, be it through short stories or novels. No matter what language we’re writing in, words are critical to doing that job. We can have the best characters and the most exciting plot ever seen, but if we use the wrong words to tell the story, no one is going to read it. As you can imagine, that puts a lot of pressure on us.

We spend years writing books, rejecting draft after draft because something just doesn’t “feel right”. There is a craft to writing, sure, a necessity in learning what makes a good story, strong characters, etc. But, a lot of the “real skills” of writing come from trusting your gut. You’ll get this niggling somewhere inside that something in that chapter isn’t working. Or, maybe you’ll get the sense that the last sentence you just wrote isn’t quite right.

These are frustrating moments because we are the only ones that can get that chapter/sentence just right. Other writers may be able to offer a word or two of advice, but they have their own nigglings to take care of. The entire perfection of the novel is sitting on our shoulders alone, and it is no fun what-so-ever. In fact, not being able to perfect that one sentence is a huge contributor to the terrifying writers block. Sometimes that niggling even gets so bad that we scrap the novel entirely. So, you see, using the right word could save a character’s life, maybe even a whole world.

There is a silver lining, though. It’s that instant when we finish a perfectly executed cliffhanger, or create the best scathing line of dialogue. Those little shivers that zap down our spines and leave us with the thought, “Yes, that’s it. Perfect!” These moments may be rare, but they’re powerful and leave us on a high for hours after. These are the moments where we feel like real writers, the moments where we feel as though we’ve conquered language and its power, even if it’s just for a little bit.

clipart bolt 1
Image Credit: http://www.clipartsheep.com (via Google)

Each writer uses words differently; each spins a different tale, telling stories of their own characters in their own worlds. The power of language – of the written word – unites us all, though, in a quest to construct the perfect sentence and novel. Having an appreciation and understanding of the language and the power it wields makes us better writers.

Learning another language, as I mentioned way back in Part I, has helped me understand and respect the power of language a lot more, making me a much better and more confident writer.

While writing gives me as much trouble as the next person, I trust that the words will lead me to the right place when the time is right and all will be right with the world.

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

Food for Thought

Words are crucial in writing of any kind, that’s what writing is all about after all. In any language, strange expressions exist, and English is no exception. Two of the ones that get my attention the most involve cheese and corn. Yes, you read that right. The expressions are synonyms, too…or maybe for the purposes of sticking with the food theme, we’ll refer to them as “cinnamons.” No? Okay, anyway.

They’re used when referring to something as cliché or predictable: “Oh, that’s so cheesy.” or “Man, is that ever corny.” So, they’re totally inter-changable. My “beef” with these expressions is that there doesn’t need to be two food related expressions that mean practically the same thing, one will suffice! Having two expressions that mean the same thing makes me confused about which one I should use and why they’re both important.

I have the same problem with other expressions that have unnecessary duplicates. We writers know that having more than one way to say something is a good thing, but there is such a thing as having too many options. So, the question is clear: Is something cheesy or corny? Which word best describes something that is cliché? Personally I tend to use “cheesy” more often than “corny”, but I don’t have a reason for that. What are your thoughts on the cheese vs. corn debate?

On another note of expressions that aren’t entirely useful, there’s the idea that sometimes they are hard (if not impossible) to explain to someone who doesn’t know them.  This is especially true when someone is new to the language or doesn’t have much experience in the more colloquial part of a language.  I find that I have the same problem when I am reading in Spanish or having a conversation with a native speaker.  I miss some parts if it because they’re colloquial expressions that just do not translate into another language.  Then, when I ask what it means, they are at a loss as to how to tell me what it means even if they are trying to find a English equivalent.

That leads me to the question of why expressions change from language to language. Shouldn’t there be a universal understanding? But, then again, languages belong to different cultures and each culture has their own customs and, thus, expressions. Each culture has a right to have their own expressions, which explains why “cheesy” is not able to be understood in other languages. I just wish that there were a couple that could go from language to langue so that everyone understood them universally.  But, that’s just my opinion.  Do you think that some expressions should be universal, or that different ones in each language are a good thing?

What are some expressions that you think could be totally omitted from spoken and written language? Are there some that you’re more likely to use in writing than in conversational language or vice versa? Go ahead and share them!

 

Image Credit: thefinsters.com (Google)
Image Credit: thefinsters.com (Google)