The Personal Nature of Language
I spent three and a half years in college because I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.
In those three and a half years, I learned many things about the world and about myself. The last thing I learned was I didn’t want to be in college anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I love to learn new things — always have. I had just grown tired of doing it in that particular environment. I had been working toward a degree in English Literature, largely because, at the end of my sophomore year, my counselor informed me I had to choose a major in order to continue. English Lit was the degree I was closest to fulfilling from the mishmash of classes I had taken to that point. Yes, that was truly the determining factor, because I simply couldn’t make up my mind. I was interested in everything. Why the University thought it necessary for me to choose one area of study didn’t make sense, yet I had to play by their rules, even though I (or more accurately, my mom) was paying for me to be there. I had courses in biology, physics, three semesters of calculus, psychology, history, religion, and philosophy under my belt. I also took creative writing, Medieval literature, Shakespeare, Victorian literature, as well as courses in linguistics, two semesters of French and one of Russian. I even spent three semesters in the drama department as extra-curricular — Charlie Brown with wispy red hair? Yes, it was a thing.
Suffice to say, language and how we communicate has forever fascinated me. I also had a year and a half of Spanish in high school and was tutored in Japanese for several weeks as part of a job I had subsequent to leaving college. The variety of the spoken and written word around the world is astonishing. Even within the United States, regional dialects can differ wildly — sometimes to the point of confusion and miscommunication. And don’t get me started on the British Isles, South Africa, India, and Australia, all of which purportedly speak a language dubbed “English”.
Dictionaries give us a basis of understanding, but even they morph and change as language evolves. New words are added each year and the definitions of old words are adjusted in some cases if their meaning or usage has changed over time. Words and definitions can vary between brands of dictionaries. But, why all the confusion? Why isn’t something like the way we communicate more structured and immutable?
Because language is personal.
Yes, many aspects are fundamental. If I describe a woman walking down the street as wearing a red dress, we all will conjure a picture in our minds. That picture would be different for all of us, but we should all be able to agree on the basics: woman, walking, red dress. But what if I said the dress was scarlet in color? It’s still red, but the word “scarlet” will evoke different images — different emotions — within each person, based on our experiences. A young reader might be encountering the word for the first time and have to ask about its meaning or look it up. A fan of the movie Gone With the Wind might first conjure an image of the glamorous Miss O’Hara upon seeing the word. Someone who recently read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter may react negatively toward the word given its use and meaning in that story. Same word, different reactions. What if I used “crimson” instead? Again, more disparate meanings and feelings toward the word — and, by association, the woman wearing the dress — because of the individual experiences we each bring when we read or otherwise communicate.
As a senior in high school, I took AP English and one of our assignments was to read The Old Man and the Sea. I enjoyed the story and during one of our discussions about the symbolism and allegories within the work, my teacher mentioned an interview with Hemingway where he claimed he simply “wrote a story about a man and a fish.” In other instances, he, of course, talked about the deeper meanings within the story, but the quote got me to thinking. We all bring our own frames of reference, biases, and experiences when we read a work and can’t be certain how an author truly intended the reader to feel as they progress through a book. In fact, while doing some research for this post, I ran across an article where some scholars feel Hemingway had been so heavy-handed with the symbolism in The Old Man and the Sea, he might have been poking fun at the critical literary community. That shines an entirely new light onto the story.
Which brings me to the reason why I never finished that English degree.
As I took higher level literature classes, I noticed a pattern. Analysis of the assigned pieces drilled deeper and deeper, investigating why the author chose a particular phrase, or even a particular word, at a certain point in the work. I even remember a lecture on what happened during a dash — yes, a dash, just like these — within a story. At that point, I realized my professors had lost sight of the forest for the trees. Language is too personal to make absolute statements about intent and meaning. We can, more often than not, agree on basic premises when we communicate with one another, otherwise the world would be like the biblical Tower of Babel. But, for me, or anyone else, to say with certainty all an author meant by using a certain word at a particular point in a three hundred page novel just doesn’t make sense. It’s like asking Picasso why he placed a particular brush stroke where he did and why he chose that particular color. Maybe he had a specific reason, or maybe his brush slipped and he thought it looked good. Seeing deeper meanings in a piece depends as much on the viewer, or the reader, as on the artist.
Sometimes, the dress is just red.