15 July 2009

How Do You Say...?

This past weekend, i went with Briana to her parents' house in Cottonwood, a handful of miles south of Redding. While we were there, we visited the Sundial Bridge. On the walk back to the car, a cute little girl on a bike asked us our names, like she had walked in on a pre-existing circle and wanted to be included. We told her, Briana and Mike, and proceeded to ask her what her name is, Emma. All of this happened without either of us stopping. We walked up to, past, and beyond little Emma on her bike as we had our introductions.

In the car, Briana commented that she wanted to make sure Emma and her little sister, also on a bike, weren't behind us as we backed out of the parking space. 'You don't want to run over someone you just met,' she said. In response, i made a smart comment, as is my wont to do. 'Cause, you know, if you run over a little kid you don't know, it's one thing, but to run over a kid who's name you know, it's another.'

It sounds horrible. It really does. I admit that i made a joke that says it's worse to run a child over in your car if you know that child's name. That implies it's better to hit the young one you don't know.

But look at it again. Everything that makes my joke funny (or morbidly obscene, depending on your sense of humor) is not in the words. It is perfectly legitimate to claim that running over an unknown child is different than running over one you know. There is no judgement that one is better than the other, just that they are different. It's not even denying that both are bad things and should be avoided.

What makes this a joke that can easily offend (and i'm sorry if it has) is that what is literally says is different than how it's said and what that implies.

Language is more than words on a page and their literal meanings. Each word plays off the next.

The man who answers 'Black' to the questions 'How do you like your coffee?,' 'What style iPod would you like?,' and 'What is your ethnicity?' is saying something different to each question, even if it is the same word. But that is because 'black has multiple definitions.

As well, how you say something makes a difference. You can say the sentence 'I wanna go to the zoo' a multitude of ways that all mean something different. Emphasize the word 'wanna,' you sound like a little kid who didn't do his chores. Emphasize 'zoo' and you are differentiating between choices. Each of these words can be emphasized and the sentence changes.

That doesn't even take into account tone of voice. When i said the bad joke this weekend, i used my facetious tone of voice. If it had been my serious voice, i would have said something different, even if the words were the same.

Language is more than the words you speak, or write. It is how you say what you say.

01 July 2009

New Words

There is a blog at The Guardian, a British newspaper, that talks about a new book, Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction.

The blog got me thinking. Language is a utility. It's a tool that allows us to communicate with one another effectively so that the thoughts we hold in our heads are able to be communicated with other people. It's one of the only ways in which we can effectively share what's inside us with all those outside us. Music and the visual arts work as well, but those take time to craft and create; the tools of language, words, have already been crafted for us, by us, to allow quick, easy and effective communication.

But if we lack the word for something, whether it is an object, and idea, an emotion or something else, we are left like the painter, needing to create from scratch the internal impression of the thing. Where there are no words, language begins to fail.

Some say you can tell how great an author is by how much they add to the English lexicon. John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, is credited with about 630 new English words, and William Shakespeare is given credit for over 1,700 new words. Some of the words Shakespeare is given the credit for include 'bloodstained,' 'eyeball,' 'farmhouse,' 'lackluster,' 'moonbeam,' and 'perplex.' He's also given credit for crafting phrases that have since become central to our language, phrases such as 'brave new world' (see above book title for appropriateness), 'all's well that ends well,' and 'the game is afoot' (despite what you might think about Sherlock Holmes' involvement with that one).

In some ways, it takes poetry to create new words. Good poetry, like that of Milton and Shakespeare, take new looks at old things, and in so doing often find it necessary to create a new word to describe this old thing.

The best science fiction does the same. George Orwell's 1984 take new looks at old ideas like imperialism, government control and the media. H.G. Wells' The Time Machine sees humanity and civilization in a new dichotomy.

Science fiction also allows for new ideas to be looked at in old ways. Isaac Asimov's I, Robot created a morality for robots which has guided them since in works across all media.

In all of these, new language was necessary to create the story, to describe things in such a way that we, the readers, can ask questions of ourselves. The three works listed above brought us 'time machine,' time travel,' and 'newspeak.' 'Robot' was brought in by a Czech play, translated from the word 'robota' meaning 'forced labor,' but Asimov did so much to further the word it might as well be credited to him.

With the constant evolution of language transforming and growing as our world transforms and grows, we are constantly in need of new words to describe our environment and experiences. Are there any new words you would want to input into the language to describe necessary inventions of the future, or just modern-day experiences that have gone unnamed, or ineffectively borrowed a name from something else? What new words would you coin?