Monday, November 3, 2008

More About Language

I was exchanging a few emails with a friend of mine, and at a certain point she was grasping for a word to describe a complex emotion she was feeling. "I wish there was a word for it" she said.

I kind of don't. Neologisms are fine--I'm rather a fan of them sometimes, especially if they're witty--but I have been thinking about how we speak about our emotions lately, and I've got a bit of a bone to pick.

Sometimes it is nice to have a label at our hands, but we Americans have a tendency to like to label that I'm starting to get really uncomfortable with. Not just really damaging labels, like "anti-American" or "terrorist," but even labels like "family values," "pro-life," "pro-choice," etc. Not all these labels are political of course, but right now, that's what's on my mind. "In love" or "out of love," "happy" or "sad."

To a certain degree, a symbol is always reductionist. "Liberty" is something we can all agree on; the face of liberty is more complex. Politicians sense that, and that's why political speech basically trades on symbols. But art, too, has been trading on symbolism to a certain extent. And we do in our lives. "How are you doing?" "Fine." What does "fine" really tell you about your state of life?

I think we need to start describing. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it's the elaborated phrase that sinks to the depths of character. Two words reveal a level of nuance that one alone simply can't.

Sometimes, I think, the urge not to explain things is a fear of wasting other people's time, or a fear of sharing too much. That's fear. Sometimes that fear is justified. But when we are talking with those we know and love, those we feel safe with, we shouldn't keep the habit of poor speech.


A second thought about language and emotion: I was in my Czech language class today, and we were talking about how in Czech, you "have" fear as opposed to English, where you "are" afraid. Many European languages are constructed similarly. What I like about that construction is that it allows you to operate independently of your emotion, without denying it.

Think about what it means to be afraid. That in that instant, you equal fear. After all, if you think about what function "to be" serves in a sentence, its an equation. I am afraid. It's more than an attribute: it's a state of being; it is said to define me in that moment. Who is he? He is afraid.

Instead, European languages make your emotion a separate entity. It exists separately. Perhaps that separate entity is inside of you (filling you up with emotion, perhaps) but it does not take you over. I was struck by Andrew Sullivan, describing his relationship to marriage, and the implication that his entire private life was swallowed up by his emotion; and because that emotion was condemned, his whole private life went inward. I sympathize with that.

Casting that emotion that exists but does not define may be an empowering way to deal with it. I'm sure psychologists agree. But do linguists?

Side note: it also reminds me of when we were in Spain, and my brother pointed out that in Spanish it isn't "I lost the camera," it's "The camera was lost by me." The event happened. The culprit is at the end of the sentence. You could, easily, say "the camera was lost" without self-implicating, without making it sound a little odd. I have often by chastised for using the passive voice. I think the passive voice is not always bad grammar. You just have to use it wisely.

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