An attempt to put ‘it’ into words – by Emily Oldfield

What is the true solution when we can’t ‘find the word’?

Being unable to find ‘the word’ is a frustrating concept whether writing or speaking, and a number of theories have been postulated in an attempt to elaborate on why this happens.

 The principle of linguistic relativity holds that the structure of a language affects the ways in which its speakers conceptualize their World, and I believe that this is a highly important view – especially in light of the frequent expression ‘I can’t put it into words!’.  Sometimes, when I am talking, I yearn for a more appropriate word in the context than ‘sad’, but not to the infantile nature of ‘upset’ – indeed, some languages have multiple terms with only slight differentiations for the same word. This in turn implies that those speaking and writing in one language, will hold a differing view upon the content of the text then those in another language. Yet the extent to which this is dependent on cultural context is debatable. 

 On the other hand,  a relatively new way of approaching and dealing with language ‘E-prime’, could appear to try and address this, as a form of the English language which is almost identical to the norm, yet omits the copula – ‘to be’. However, this reductionist approach expresses problems, especially to myself – surely if we are facing difficulty saying what we mean, we need more words rather than fewer? The human faculties to be able to talk and write demonstrates amazing skill– human beings are the only creatures on the planet known to be able to speak a language which often involves the filtering of sensory experiences to an expression through sound. Yet sensory experiences often confuse us, and for example, some people wish that there was a more appropriate word to describe their emotional states. I am guilty, I admit, of ‘inventing’ my own words, as I feel this establishes a more unique perspective upon the World when I write. This technique is observable in many forms of writing, for example in Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Convergence of The Twain’. Hardy coins the term ‘thridding’ in what composites an active, deep description of the sea. However, It is often the case in writing that emotional embodiment is dependent upon the empathy of the reader, for example, a line of haunting resonance for myself is in Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ – ‘The face in the mirror looked like a sick Indian’’, as apparently a description of physical factors. 

Language to describe emotional states highlights the issue I am attempting to explore – the majority of the time I believe language is a descriptor, rather than the actual case per se – language is the description, rather than the physical object – and a subjective description, whether recording the person’s emotion, perception or memory at that time. As the artistic movement of expressionism suggested,  incorporated so vividly in the artistic piece ‘The scream’ by Edward Munch, perhaps it is the meaning which lies in emotion – and after physicality, the  closest expression may be language.

 I believe that the view of the linguistic ‘object’ being higher than the physical ‘object’ is somewhat contradictory and flawed – I do admire the power of the word, but I believe that we do need experience of context in order to decipher meaning.  For example those who scoff at physical pleasures and experiences compared to intellectual experiences, as the physical world and our experience seems to actually appropriate our language, considering the sapir-whorf hypothesis. The sapir-whorf hypothesis implies that experience, the world around us and hence factors such as culture, provide the foundations for the meanings of our language. The hypothesis argues that the thoughts of those who speak one language cannot be understood by one who speaks a different language. This theory is often regarded as ‘difficult’ as in turn implies that translations of texts will lack much, if not all of their original meaning -  not my growing horror in thinking – am I reading Tolstoy, Sartre and Beauvoir in a flawed way? Initially, this did not settle well with me,  considering the argument of the  linguist and semiotician Roman Jakobson who declared that “poetry by definition is untranslatable” especially, as it could be considered that poetry, often a highly personal form, has intrinsic connections to the culture of origin. But, as can be still viewed today, it is these translated works which still often hold that classic quality – they are forever in discussion, upon the tongue, and can hold personal meaning to the reader.

But then do we get even further away from the true literature, according to the hypothesis, when we incorporate into another form of language – speech? Is it the case that speech diverts from meaning even more? This does depend on where ‘meaning’ is formulated and in this case, the meaning of the literature, if any, as time proceeds, could be moving farther and farther away. But how I see it, is this – the time they were written and the contexts may be further away, but there can still be explored some rather enthralling text relativity today, even if not all of the context is.

Any linguistic influence is now generally considered to be related not primarily to the formal systemic structures of a language but to cultural conventions and individual styles of us, an although the sapir-wharf hypothesis has perhaps helped to shape this, it is important to consider how we can face the difficulty of linguistic expression rather than just theorising it.

The world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds – and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, we in turn attribute meaning to our language. But what is ‘meaning’ – ‘meaning’ is content we seem to be able to understand, and ‘understanding’ is developed by the senses, the physical sense which in turn emphasize the importance of the physical experience just as much as the intellectual.

To apply this to literary movement , Romanticism rejected the ‘cutting up’ of nature so to speak, as is an ‘environment’ I feel highly comfortable within – rather than implying limits of language to specifics as is somewhat the case in ‘E-prime’ such rather than shrinking language, goes beyond and uses the combination of human language and an external nature in order to appropriate powerful emotions for example. Works of literature, especially that of the Romantic Period at its peak at about 1840 I believe often avoid harsh reductionism of theory, as language may appear a harsh reduction of thought. This seems to allow for more personal interpretation.

Instead, especially in terms of poetry, Romanticism was a movement which embraced the creativity of imagination and power of emotion. I believe that meaning does not reside in a text but arises in its interpretation – and interpretation is through use of the sensory faculty and involves human emotion,  perception and so on, hence the importance of aesthetics, as the Romantics implied in terms of often lengthy description of the beauty of nature. For example Shelley’s beautiful line from the poem ‘ A Summer Evening Churchyard, Lechlade, Gloucestershire’ –  ‘And pallid Evening twines its beaming hair/ In duskier braids around the languid eyes of Day’ uses the personification of nature to compare such to the beauty almost of a woman’s hair entrancing the eye. In this way, it is perhaps language which can we seen as the ultimate personification of nature.

Factors such as ‘beauty’, ‘value’ etc. are of course subjective, but in terms of a piece of literature this allows for the ever-lasting validity of the readers interpretation and my view that there should not be specific limits to language – for example there is no specific ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’ from an ethical perceptive. To consider that in terms of the feature of a ‘tree’ in a poem for example one person may imagine a voluptuous oak tree in full leaf, whilst another may imagine a slender silver birch. Neither is wrong per se, or could be both wrong in terms of the poet themselves was picturing an entirely different tree! The implication is evident however; the subjectivity of emotive language holds an experience for each individual faculty of perception. For example in William Faulkner’s description of a deer “Then the buck was there. He did not come into sight; he was just there, looking not like a ghost but as if all of light were condensed in him and he were the source of it, not only moving in it but disseminating it, already running’’, for myself, the rhythm of this passage is thrilling and emphasizes the wild thrill of nature, whilst another person may interpret this description in a completely different sense.

Having taken the sapir-whorf hypothesis into consideration and that of linguistic relativity, when applied to Romantic literature, the issue, for myself, is much subdued. What I love abut reading and writing, although  it may be at times frustrating, is the subjective opportunities it offers and capacity for the individual to only realise others, but realise the processes of their own mind. As prevalent in the novel ‘A Clockwork orange’ were Nadsat, a type of Cant or Anti-language is used in an attempt to exclude wider social groups, that we, who are not one of group of ‘Droogs’ still read such today I believe reveals that in literature there is always capacity for both language and ourselves. 

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