On Language

This semester, I’m going to be delving headfirst back into the world of language with a course on Old English. It’s been a while since I’ve stretched that part of my brain, but I’m excited. Language fascinates me. It’s the construction of ideas into an agreed upon format recognizable to the group that creates it. It breaks down images, emotions, actions and tries to make them tangible in order to explain them to other people. Like that feeling we get in the pits of our stomachs, sweaty hands, blushing cheeks that make us say we’re in love. Or the adrenaline rush that we translate into fear. Into panic.

It’s interesting to see how we take all of these small components of our lives, of our bodies, and make them fit into strings of words, sentences. Theorists have written essays on the structure of language, how it’s been constructed and how we use it. Some of the essays read very mathematically: part A plus part B leads to the formation of part C—language.

This is what I love about language: it can be broken down. We can strip it to see what’s in the spaces between the letters, between the mechanics. It helps me make sense of the world around me. It’s half of the reason why I write: after I’ve written, I can go back over the piece to see how I’ve made sense of what’s happening around me. I can search for the things that I haven’t said, but still exist within those spaces.

I wonder how it is that we come to agree upon certain terms and words as acceptable stand-ins for what we wish to communicate. What makes a tree a tree? What’s so desk-y about a desk? How have terms used to describe men managed to stay positive, while many, many words used to describe women are negative and derogatory? And are these words inherently good or bad or only conceptually? 

In many cases, we can take a foreign language and translate it clearly. We can match, for lack of a better turn, their conceptions with ours. Sometimes, though, we have untranslatable things. There are words in other languages for phenomena that we just can’t cleanly translate into our mother tongue. One of my favourites is mamihlapinatapei, or, a wordless yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something, but are both reluctant to start. Or the word won, which means that there is reluctance on a person’s part to let go of an illusion. It’s harder to break down these words to see their parts in a way that makes sense to our way of thinking. They’re harder to categorise. They’re harder to explain. It isn’t that we haven’t felt these things, that they’re outside of the realm of our understanding. It’s merely that we haven’t given them a name. Or, we’ve given them a different name. This also interests me. 

As interested as I am in language, as excited as I am to learn Old English, I’m also terrified of this course, simply because I haven’t used these skills in so long. I haven’t had to think about language as much as I will have to think about language now. I caught onto French fairly easy when I took it, but I fear that I’ve somehow lost that mentality.

We shall see. If anything, I’ll have some new conceptions and words to add to my repertoire. 

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