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Posts tagged ‘Language’

18. Why Read?

We use words all the time. More often than not we abuse them, punctuating them with umms and ahhs, likes and sort ofs; sloppily approximating them to our meaning; relying on gestures to get our point across; barely even hearing the sound of them; and rarely giving a thought to their innumerable resonances. We are so terribly careless with our words.

Some might argue that this doesn’t really matter. So long as we are able to communicate, share information and understand each other then words have served their purpose. I might agree, were it not for the astonishing pleasure to be found in words that are used well.

When you read a good book, you find pages and pages of words treated with the utmost respect. Here is language used with consideration, deleted of slurs and ers, where words have been picked, swapped, and replaced again until the perfect one falls into place.

Moreover, these are words which a writer has spent years choosing. Someone has spent a tremendous amount of time finding the right words and arranging them to tell a story in the best possible way he or she can, and you need give only a few hours – at most, perhaps a few days – to a book to read all those carefully-chosen words. After all that work put in by the writer, reading those words is the least you can do.

I wonder how long it took James Joyce to write one of my favourite lines in all literature, which falls at the end of ‘The Dead’ in Dubliners:

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

How did he come up with the crooning sibilance of ‘soul swooned slowly’; how did he even think to use the word ‘swooned’? How did he discover that inverting ‘falling faintly’ to ‘faintly falling’ would create the perfect echo of snowfall, soft but persistent? So much care, time and genius has been put into making this brilliant sentence, and yet it takes us only a few seconds to read it, a few seconds and then we have it for the rest of our lives.

Once you’ve read something so beautiful, so powerful, it will linger in your mind, minutely affecting every other word you will encounter. Even if you don’t remember the exact quotation, it will stay with you. You might catch an echo of it when you next hear the word ‘swoon’, or perhaps you’ll remember to look it up and read it again next time it snows.

Why read? Read because it’s been written well. Read because we all use words, and if we were all to read more we might use them a little better.

Emily Rhodes works at Daunt Books and writes the blog EmilyBooks.

15. Why Read?

I couldn’t read till the age of 10 – not at all. My parents sent me to a spechal school for dyslexic purpils in Pimlico. Each day, aged 8, I would take the 88 bus home to Clapham. If the bus broke down on rounte or decided to terminate half way I would take out my mobile (brough for exactly this purpus) and call home. Mum would ask what I could see in order to try and figure out where I was: trees, cars, buildings. I would find a street sign and spell out the letters best I could: ‘Sout Lamdeth Roab’. She would then come and get me in the car.

After 2 years of daily one-to-one reading lessions I creacked it and moved back in to main stream education. But this struggle to learn has left me with a odd hang-up. For me reading and ‘being good’ is the same thing; there is nothing more important I should be doing, I never think of it as a waste of time or being lazy. It is an important part of life that has to be done. This makes it sound like a chor or a punishment but I don’t mean it to. I love reading and I use it to make myself feel better. If I’m restless, feeling guilty or distatefied I sit and read a novel for a couple of hour and feel that I have both achieved something and am a ‘better’ person for it. I only ever read fiction and never trashy books. 14 years on from the bus stop I have an English degree and work in communications, although, sadly my spelling is still crap.

Why Read?

I couldn’t read till the age of 10 – not at all. My parents sent me to a special school for dyslexic pupils in Pimlico. Each day, aged 8, I would take the 88 bus home to Clapham. If the bus broke down on route or decided to terminate half way I would take out my mobile (bought for exactly this purpose) and call home. Mum would ask what I could see in order to try and figure out where I was: trees, cars, buildings. I would find a street sign and spell out the letters best I could: ‘South Lambeth Road’. She would then come and get me in the car.

After 2 years of daily one-to-one reading lessons I cracked it and moved back in to main stream education. But this struggle to learn has left me with a odd hang-up. For me reading and ‘being good’ is the same thing; there is nothing more important I should be doing, I never think of it as a waste of time or being lazy. It is an important part of life that has to be done. This makes it sound like a chore or a punishment but I don’t mean it to. I love reading and I use it to make myself feel better. If I’m restless, feeling guilty or dissatisfied I sit and read a novel for a couple of hours, and feel that I have both achieved something and am a ‘better’ person for it. I only ever read fiction and never trashy books. 14 years on from the bus stop I have an English degree and work in communications, although, sadly my spelling is still crap.

Olivia Amory

http://www.ideastap.com/People/fdcdcddc-3beb-49fe-9e3c-9ea8009b1dbe

The world looks different today

Book coverThrough the Language Glass – Guy Deutscher

“Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.”

So said the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, king of Spain and archduke of Austria, who, as a seasoned polyglot, ought to have known.  However, the idea that language somehow reflects cultural difference is an interesting cliché.  It’s a natural assumption to make that because people speak a different language they must think differently too.  In fact, I’ve always wondered about the extent to which one changes personality when speaking another language: physically, you’re clearly the same person, but at what point exactly does a thought cease to be an abstract thing and crystallise into the rigid confines of a particular language?  Depending on where you stand, this could occur at the very last moment before you open your mouth, in which case language doesn’t really affect the thought itself, or, it could occur at a deeper level of consciousness, in which case the thing you are trying to express may itself be sculpted by the vehicle of its expression.

Deutscher approaches the issue from a strictly scientific perspective.  Not for him the airy generalisations about the musicality of Italian breeding a nation of poets, or the harsh logic of German providing fertile ground for the intellectual rigour of philosophers.  Instead, Deutscher looks at specific examples of linguistic interpretation that can be held up to scrutiny.  He then uses these examples as a platform to assess how language affects the way in which human beings view the world.

One such example is the evolution of how different cultures describe colour.  It turns out, for instance, that Homer was extremely one-dimensional when it came to using colour in his work.  This was seized upon by early linguists as evidence that although our perception of colour may not evolve as such, our need or desire to distinguish between different areas of the colour spectrum does.  Another way of looking at it is this: as a culture becomes more sophisticated it tends to refine its language to allow for a more precise distinction of colour.  As such, early civilisations always had a word for red that was used a lot because red is the colour of blood, but not a word for blue because blue was only really appreciated as a colour in its own right with the invention of colour dyes.  Colours were also lumped together, depending on their usage: the early anthropologist W.H.R. Rivers was astonished to find that on the islands of the Torres Straits, people used the same word to describe the colours black and blue.  An overcooked bit of meat is black, but so is the sky.  Bizarre though this may sound, we still use the word ‘blue’ to describe a huge chunk of the colour spectrum, preceded in some cases by the words ‘light’ or ‘dark’, as though someone realised retrospectively that the two shades were not in fact very similar.

If this makes Deutscher sound like he is only interested in the minute detail of linguistic expression, then I’m doing him a considerable disservice.  In his exploration of language, he seeks to establish concrete instances of how the way we see things is predetermined to an extent by the lens of language.   In doing so, the scope of his observations reaches far beyond differences in colour schematics, and embraces the murky relationship between the biological and cultural evolution of humanity.

The Editors