Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Linguistic Musings

I absolutely love language. To the point where I get distracted from the thesis of an article or textbook--or person in front of me--because of something in their language that catches my cognitive fancy. It's unfortunate; there are times when it has caused problems, and I am definitely not advocating this as a legitimate attention deficiency excuse, but it can be a nice way to pass the time if one has nothing else to do. Oddly enough, I have recently found myself in just such situations with nothing else to do, and I have discovered that it is one of my quirkier habits to consider, ruminate, and meditate on words. I have also had a lot of time to read nearly anything I wish or desire, and have indulged my literacy with pretty much everything I have come across. It has not always been a pleasant journey--some people are freaks, and fewer than I imagined are good writers, even when their points are accurate and valuable.

That said, I have also discovered in my ruminations an irrational like and dislike of certain words apart from their inherent or intrinsic meaning, such as 'colleague' or 'fungus' or 'cigarette' or 'crux.' Some of these I avoid at all costs because I can't say them without cringing, and people tend to get a little confused when you cringe at something in an otherwise innocuous sentence and then are subsequently disturbed when you explain that the reason for it was due to your imagining that the word 'colleague' is somehow anthropomorphically snobbish towards the words 'acquaintance' or 'friend.' Why? I have no idea. It's a perfectly good, specific, useful word in the contexts for which it was created, but I will almost always substitute 'co-worker' instead.

The converse of this irrational dislike is the equally irrational love I have for words, such as 'crux,' which I will throw in a conversation at any opportunity (that actually makes sense) because it gives me an internal thrill to hear it spoken. It's a little more difficult since crux is a fairly uncommon word in everyday usage anymore, but I seize it when the opportunity presents itself, and then move on quickly when the person to which I'm speaking looks at me like a thing never to engage in conversation again. Here, look at this picture of a Corgi pup and keep talking to me:

Ok, I know what you're thinking at this point, and no, I'm not crazy. Most of these inclinations towards or against specific words are just things I think about and keep inside my own head for my own contemplation. Except, of course, when I share it on the internet for the amusement of blog readers. However, this impulse towards words apart from their meanings is not an isolated phenomenon.

It's comparable, if further down the irrationality scaled, to the concept of 'word aversion,' where a speaker avoids the usage of a word based on the feeling of physical shape of that word in the mouth, such as 'moist.' There are so many articles about this phenomenon around the internet, with so many comments from readers about how they thought they were the only ones and please add these words, etc., etc., that I have to wonder: how long has this been going on? and how many different variations on this theme exists?

I wonder if this is how the art of language began--there are cognitive studies being conducted now to determine how we humans glean meaning from language, where that meaning came from in the past development of the species, and why it didn't develop in others, and you know what? Scientists (as yet) have no idea. On page 2 of his book, Louder Than Words, (2012) author Benjamin Bergen uses a scientific observation about the intelligent action of polar bears covering their noses to hunt seals in order to introduce the depth at which we derive meaning, from the recognition of words like 'bear,' 'hunting,' 'seals,' and 'noses' to the understanding that this behavior is incredibly evocative for in terms of cognition studies (are they aware that their noses give them away or is it an accidental evolutionary advantage?) to the point where we "virtually "see" the arctic scene in our mind's eye," and while no mention of color is ever explicitly made, we fill in implied details of color from the implicit description of the whiteness of the Arctic landscape and polar bear's fur in contrast to the blackness of their noses. Why? How do we derive this virtual picture from words on a page? Well, that is "the mystery of meaning," as he says, and is also his way of explaining the point of his book as well as the research that led to it.

He doesn't talk about word aversion, or its variations, but I wonder if it's related. Also, I wonder if it's similar to what makes poetry work. What is it about the organization of words and the way they flow out of the mouth that makes Bernard de Ventadorn and Shakespeare and Taylor Mali so engaging and pleasing to the ear? Is it just the meaning? or rhythm? I don't think so, but I haven't formulated a theory yet...

Something to ruminate on, I suppose.