Sunday, August 10, 2008

Essay Brainstorm: Writers as Engineers of Language

Form: Essay Brainstorm Session
Word Count: 360

Language gives us a way of understanding ourselves. Native speakers of different languages vary in their understanding of themselves by sheer virtue of what they can express verbally. Every language and dialect has evolved differently from culture to culture, and even individual to individual. Every individual has his or her own "personal dialect" which consists of considerably fewer words and phrases and ideas than the language he or she claims to speak.

A personal dialect is similar to a vocabulary, but also includes all of the cognitive implications of a vocabulary. If one uses the word "love" for dispassionate sexual intercourse, passionate sexual intercourse, infatuation, and what is typically understood as "romantic love," then his vocabulary consists of the word "love," and his personal dialect consists of the linguistic and cognitive limitations posed by this vocabulary.

The language of a group of people is the convergence of their personal dialects -- the mutually understood words, phrases, and ideas. Language evolves from the introduction and acceptance of personal dialects into the mainstream language. And with language, so does evolve our understanding of, and potential to understand, ourselves. We tend to think our language can be used to express anything we want, but writers are constantly in battle with words that don't exist. They see this as a shortcoming in themselves, but in reality, it is a shortcoming in language, until some writer comes along and offers a new way to do it. In this way, language is not unlike technology, and writers not unlike engineers, engineering the technology of expression.

Remember that evolution only means survival of the fittest and not necessarily survival of the best (although some might argue that fitness is the only quantitative evaluation of "best", I would argue that there is none). Sometimes words are combined in a beautiful, elegant manner which gives us enormous insight into the world, life, and ourselves, new unconventional phrases obliterate tired, meaningless cliches, and we experience the world with greater vibrancy than ever before. However, sometimes language evolves in a less than beautiful or expressive way in favor of any number of cultural priorities which supersede expression and beauty: brevity, humor, edginess.

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