Friday, June 26, 2009

Not Enough Words

Even though I have a stack of books from the Book Fair that I want to read, I am slowly making my way through Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. I am doing it slowly on purpose; I don't want it to finish. I love his writing. It is smart and funny and creative and exactly the kind of writing I wish I could produce. I said this to a writing friend and she said- no Jeffrey Eugenides must write as Jeffrey Eugenides and Lauri Kubuitsile must write like Lauri Kubuitsile. And I guess that is the case, sadly, but then of course the next question is- how does Lauri Kubuitsile write? I know her and I don't know. She's a bit of a chameleon if you ask me; she can't be trusted.

Anyway this is not why I started this post. The reason I started this post was thoughts that have been inspired by something in Middlesex. He says that it's obvious language was created by men because there are so few words for emotions. We all know that the Eskimos have a bazillion words for different kinds of snow, because snow is an important part of their lives. But us, in English at least, have only a handful of words for emotions; which may be a commentary on the emotional maturity of English speakers- but I'd rather not go into that now.
If we're sad we can be distressed, tormented, melancholy, unhappy, doleful, inconsolable- but what is the word for the particular sadness you feel when you just discovered the tyre on your car is flat. There should be a word for that mixture of anger, sadness, frustration and just plain bad luck .

Or what about happiness. You might be contented or joyful, enchanted, or even exhilarated. But what is the word for the happiness you feel on a hot summer day, with not a single cloud in the sky, and you've just been handed a chocolate ice cream cone. There's joy, of course, but also anticipation, relief, some nostalgia for past cones, and even a little bit of sadness as you know it will all be over in such a short bit of time. There should be a word for that feeling.

Our thoughts and our writing are housed within the box of the language that we choose to write in. I'm limited and can't quite be sure about this since I speak only English fluently enough to write in it , but I think that this may be the problem in being forced to write in a language that is not your mother tongue. I mean how would an Eskimo write a story without her bazillion words for snow? It would become paralyzingly frustrating to pick from the limited list English has on offer.

Thanks to Mr. Eugenides I'm wondering about all the ways that English, or any language for that matter, keeps us from being able to describe all of the things we must. It means in almost all cases we never get it quite right, we actually never can because there are just not enough words at our disposal. Then too, that space between what we want to say and what we can, is the place in which our readers write their own stories from the ones that we've provided for them. Perhaps that is a bit of the magic of reading and the wonderful interaction between the writer and the reader. So maybe it's not as bad as it seems after all.


Ivor W. Hartmann said...

I think we must just use the language tools we have been given to the best of our abilities, but at the same time English is not a static language, no living language is. It is added to all the time, soo why can't we (writers) create new words then? (if in all the words of the language you are using you really can't find the right word to express yourself). Though perhaps the truth is, there will always be things/feelings/experiences that are perhaps just inexpressible in the limited symbology of any language written or oral.

Helen Ginger said...

I agree with Ivor. The good news is that English, and other languages, can grow and evolve. We can create words that become commonplace. Back in the dark ages when I was teaching at San Antonio College, one thing I assigned my students was, in class, to create a new word. We'd agree on what this made-up word meant. Then their assignment was to go out and use that word in conversation over the week. Then we'd re-convene and discuss whether others picked it up and used it.

It was an interesting exercise.

Straight From Hel

Lauri said...

Yes I too think Ivor makes a good point. I love the writing excercise you gave your students, Helen. I wonder how many of those words went on to become part of the local language and for how long.

ernestine said...

Sometimes words just seem to present themselves. Decades ago, when I was in an organic chemistry class, we had to describe a precipitate of a particular reaction. My lab partner said. "It's garpy green." At first I was taken aback. But as I looked around the room at the variety of precipitates, many in shades of green, it was clear which color was 'garpy green.' Luckily the instructor agreed. Over the years I presented classes with a selection of green solids and liquids and more often than not, they identify 'garpy green'. I'm always amazed.