cherish language

Words Are Radical! (or, How to Cherish Language)

why writers must be the ones to cherish languageYears ago, I was hiking with someone around the Scotts Bluff National Monument in western Nebraska. A bird flew over our heads, black against a metallic July sky. A lover of all things beautiful, my hiking partner was the first to point it out.

I shaded my eyes. “Cool. What do think it is?”

He shrugged. “Don’t ask that. It diminishes it if you name it. If you have to put it in a box to understand it, you limit your understanding.”

He seemed to have a point. His comment was something I considered for a long time after that day—before realizing I completely disagreed with it.

Even today, I’m not sure what that bird was. I remember it as a black blob against the sky. I remember the feeling it gave me, seeing it floating lazily on a thermal. But I don’t actually remember the bird. If I’d recognized the bird as a vulture—or a bald eagle—or a red-winged hawk, then I’d probably remember him.

This is the value of language. Indeed, we might even say language is a value system. By its very nature, it assigns value to all the pieces of our life, and by extension to life itself.

All humans interact with language on some level or another. But as writers, no one is more intimately responsible for cherishing, protecting, and propagating language than we are.

Language Lost

nabokov's favorite word was mauve ben blattStatistician Ben Blatt highlighted some interesting insights when he mated words and numbers in the studies that created his book Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve. Using algorithms to recognize and observe patterns in hundreds of stories—everything from centuries of classics to reams of bestseller lists to entire libraries of fan-fic sites—he examined a number of curious trends within the history of literature.

He looked at everything from authors’ most-used words (hmm, and Nabokov’s was…?) to phrasal differentiation between male and female writers to the prevalence of cliches to the likelihood of authors following their own writing advice.

All were fascinating. But what struck me most was his chapter “Guiltier Pleasures,” which examined the readability level of bestsellers over the years. I doubt his findings elicited great surprise from any quarter. What he found was a distinct trend away from big words and long sentences, toward “easier” prose.

Since reading is a learned skill with decided “levels” of proficiency, it makes perfect sense that the most popular books will always be those most accessible to the broadest reading base. It doesn’t necessarily mean “easy” books are better or worse than “advanced” books; it just means more people are likely to read them. As far as it goes, that’s all to the good.

What, in my opinion, is not so much to the good is the danger, inherent in this trend, of losing our language.

Language lost isn’t just sad for those of us who love words and who want to let rip with a good ol’ “somniloquent”* now and then without having the Flesch readability alarm suddenly go berserk on us. It’s disturbing because when we lose words, we lose more than just the ability to comprehend what we’re reading. We also lose a little bit of our ability to comprehend life itself.

*Is it telling that I just had to instruct Chrome to add “somniloquent” to my browser dictionary?

Hypocognition: A Road Map to Knowing the Unknown

Here’s another word Chrome doesn’t seem to know: hypocognition.

In all fairness, I didn’t know it either until I read Kaidi Wu and David Dunning’s insightful Scientific American post “Unknown Unknowns: The Problem of Hypocognition.”

Basically, hypocognition is simply “all the stuff you don’t know.” If, like me, you didn’t know what hypocogniton was, well, that’s hypocognition. Although hypocognition encompasses more than just an ignorance of terminology, words—or the lack thereof—is decidedly at its heart.

Wu and Dunning shared:

Consider this: how well can you discern different shades of blue? If you speak Russian, Greek, Turkish, Korean or Japanese, your chances are much better than if you speak English. The former groups have two distinctive linguistic representations of blue. In Russian, for example, dark blue (sinii) and light blue (goluboi) are as distinct as red and pink. But in English, we know blue as a single concept. The deprivation of finer-grained color concepts poses a great perceptual disadvantage. English speakers more easily confuse blue shades, not because we have poorer vision, but because we lack the more granular distinctions in the language we speak.

We can see the crossover here with the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, which Alan Bellows explains as the experience:

…where one stumbles upon some obscure piece of information—often an unfamiliar word or name—and soon afterwards encounters the same subject again, often repeatedly.

For example, I need to buy a car. In my research, I discovered that the Kia Soul seems to land on all the top 10 review lists for its class. I’d never even heard of the Soul before. I barely even registered Kia on my radar. But now, suddenly, Kia Souls are everywhere! Three in the same row at the grocery store on the same morning!

It wasn’t, however, the prevalence of the Souls that suddenly changed. It was my knowledge of the car’s existence and my subsequent ability to name it. Of course, I’d seen a Soul before. But because I had no language for it, it slid right through my awareness as if it didn’t even exist.

In short, you can’t notice what you notice until you notice it.

Language is one of the easiest and most powerful ways to notice not just life’s concrete aspects, but also the abstract.

Wu and Dunning again*:

Hypocognition also lies in the muddle of emotional experiences that we encounter but fail to explicate. We are hypocognitive amidst the rumbling moments of frustration when we are at a loss for words to describe how we feel. If there is any consolation, we could look to other cultural worlds to acquire an emotional lexicon that acknowledges these emotions. Ever felt the unspoken but mutual desire when looking into a loved one’s eyes? That’s mamihlapinatapei in the Chilean Yagán language. Ever felt the irresistible urge to pinch a baby’s cheek? That’s gigil in Tagalog.

*Basically, I just want to quote their entire amazing article, so please go read it.

Storytelling as the Art of Naming

I’m a namer. And I don’t just mean naming things like George the spider who currently lives in my desk plant. I mean that if I’m going to be able to understand things, I first need to be able to name them—to explain them.

Partly, this is just how my brain works. It’s a constant battle up there between vague intuitions and loud delineations.

Certainly, this is why I believe true mastery is found in a conscious application of unconscious skill. It’s also why writing this blog has been the single best tool for helping me improve my own writing. Being forced to put my ideas, theories, and understandings about storytelling into words other people can understand helps me understand them better than I ever would otherwise.

This compulsion to name is also, undoubtedly, why I am so deeply attracted to words. In my teens, I kept a folded piece of legal paper in the front of whatever book I was reading. When I found a word I didn’t know, I would save it on the paper. Later, I would look it up, write down its definition in a special notebook, then underline the word in the dictionary. Whenever I ran into an underlined word in the future, I’d always re-read it.

Perhaps regrettably, Kindles and mobile phones now make that all effort unnecessary. (These days, I sometimes find myself wanting to put my finger on an unknown word in a paperback book, forgetting it won’t immediately give me a pop-up definition.) Even still, I’ve always been thankful for the time (and the many notebooks) I used to immerse myself in words. I know what things are because of those words. Not as many things as I’d like to know, but more than I would have known.

If words are names, then writing is the art of naming. Indeed, I think storytelling is perhaps one of the most expansive human efforts to name our experiences and even our very existence.

Walking on Water Madeleine L'EngleIn her phenomenal affirmation of the writing life, Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle talked about how the true danger inherent in losing our words is the subsequent loss of our ability to use our stories to name. From her vantage point in 1972, she wrote:

…I am a storyteller, and that involves language, for me the English language, that wonderfully rich, complex, and ofttimes confusing tongue. When language is limited, I am thereby diminished, too.

In time of war language always dwindles, vocabulary is lost; and we live in a century of war. When I took my elder daughter’s tenth-grade vocabulary cards up to the school from which she had graduated, less than a decade after she had left, the present tenth-grade students knew almost none of them. It was far easier for my daughter to read Shakespeare in high school than it was for students coming along just a few years after her.

This diminution is worldwide. In Japan, after the Second World War, so many written characters were lost that it is difficult, if not impossible, for the present-day college students to read the works of the great classic masters.

Learning to Cherish Language

As even Blatt’s cursory research into the bestseller lists shows, we live in a culture that is not only moving away from “high” language, but even denigrating it. Intricate language and specific words are often discouraged in classes and even in some formal publications. Accessibility is king.

Nothing wrong with that. George Orwell’s “never use a long word where a short one will do” remains sound advice.

But perhaps the better rule is the one that tells us: “Always choose the right word.”

To do that, writers have the responsibility of first learning the right words and then using them. Not only is this good writing, it might even be one of the most poignant contributions we can make to a better world.

Is that melodramatic? Maybe. But I tend to believe it’s true.

L’Engle went on to talk about simple word choice as a radical act of courage:

We cannot Name or be Named without language. If our vocabulary dwindles to a few shopworn words, we are setting ourselves up for takeover by a dictator. When language becomes exhausted, our freedom dwindles—we cannot think; we do not recognize danger; injustice strikes us as no more than “the way things are.”  [W]riters [become] suspect because people who use words are able to work out complex ideas, to see injustice, and perhaps even to try to do something about it.

This is not a challenge to cram as many five-syllable words as possible into your rom-com or historical thriller. It’s definitely not a challenge to shove your impressive vocabulary down your ignorant readership’s throats.

Rather, this is challenge, to each of us, to discover our world through language. It is a challenge to learn the specific names of the things and ideas and emotions that create all life around us. It is a challenge to us, particularly as writers, to share the names we’ve learned and share them rightly and appropriately as the building blocks in the even greater act of naming that is storytelling itself. It is a challenge to push back our own ignorance with understanding. If we do that, perhaps we are then able to reach out and help others push as well.

(By the way, my SEO app tells me, this article has scored 62 in the Flesch Reading Ease test, “which is considered ok to read.” I’m “ok” with that. 😉 )

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How do think being a writer has enhanced your ability to cherish language? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. This post resonates with me so much. May I presume to share an excerpt from the penultimate chapter of my latest work? I think it sums up my feeling on the matter.

    “You keep saying ‘him.’ He has a name.”
    “We don’t use names, William. You know that.”
    “And I’m beginning to understand why,” he said. “When you name something, you’re showing it matters to you, that you have a reason to distinguish it from everything else. Clyde isn’t just another dragon, any more than you are.”

    Words are the same way.They are the names of things we care to distinguish from the background of existence, because they matter to us.

  2. A great article and great comments. I notice a lot of people can’t distinguish between same-sounding words of different meanings, misspelling them. If you can’t tell the difference, it limits your ability to think and understand. A common example is to say someone has been given “free reign”. I have a clear image in my mind of what free rein means (having ridden horses). But what does someone think they mean by “free reign”? Something to do with how a monarch rules? Who knows? On Friday I bought a kit of stakes and connectors which the label tells me is a tomato cage which can be used for beds and boarders. Really? Will AirBnB allow me to rent it out to paying guests?

    But anyway, a great article and I responded to it with visceral pleasure. I am sad there is only a minority of us who take pleasure in being stretched by a new word which is just perfect in its context and tone. One of the few childhood pleasures we can still indulge with decorum.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, I take just as much pleasure in words now as I did when I was a child. I think that will continue throughout my life.

  3. Audrey Caylin says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I’ve spent the last two months reading Homer (poetic translations) and Austen, and just the other day I switched back to a “modern” book. The first difference that struck me was the prose: I didn’t have to pause and think at all while reading the “modern” book, while with Homer and Austen I had to stop reading completely at times to process what they were saying. I think part of the problem is how all the modern conveniences in our age make us sometimes less motivated to even want to think while reading, so we look for books that require the least amount of brain power to understand (mainly in the area of prose). I don’t think we necessarily need to go back to writing prose like authors from hundreds of years ago, but like you mentioned, we should be careful of what effect our “simple” language is having on us 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I relate. After taking a break from the classics for a while, I picked up Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence. I immediately felt my soul go, “Ahhhhhhh” in satisfaction. 🙂

  4. Fitch Williams says:

    Terrific article. So was the hypocognition (which my browser regards as a mis-spelling) article.

    Thank you for enriching my morning coffee. Reading the comments above, I find my self nodding in agreement.

  5. Great post.

    I would like to take issue with the idea that writing is being dumbed down. I have been going back to read some of the popular science fiction that I grew up with. A lot of the writing in this seems very strange compared to more recent works. And this stuff was written in the 1950s and 60s.

    What I think is happening and we can see this when we look at commentaries on how English is evolving (or most often, complaints about how it is devolving), is that the language is changing. With a global audience, the kinds of writing we have seen in the past does not resonate with people who may have English as a second language.

    What might be good for a follow up post is to discuss the whole issue of simple versus complex writing in terms of what it does to tone, narrative and scene setting. My feeling is it is a bit like dialogue. We want it not to come between the reader and the story. I am quite happy putting my prose into a Flesch Level analyser. I want to know how complex my writing is. The last thing I want to do is have the reader struggle with my writing.

    Just my 1/2p’s worth, as they say.

    Peter

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good points. I think, for me, the aspect of language’s current evolution that I’m resisting is simply the comparative lack of richness in vocabulary. This isn’t true in all quarters (science fiction perhaps less than others), but it is true, as show by Ben Blatt’s research. There’s something about the old books, with their rich, complex constructions, that is just missing in many modern books.

  6. Somniloquent isn’t in my Webster’s Collegiate dictionary either. But I’ll remember it because it applies to my father. Expressions are disappearing, too. I used “beyond the pale” in something I brought to my critique group. Not one of the 4 had heard of it and they said I should not use it. I was stunned. At first I took it out, but it’s back in now. My little backlash against dumbing down.

  7. Oh to have a voluminous vocabulary (that no one appreciates).
    I once used a nautical term that I knew instead of it’s layman terminology because I simply forgot the common word existed. Some of my beta readers didn’t understand it, unfortunately, so it had to be changed.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Or maybe your readers will take it as an opportunity to look it up! One of my favorite things about Patrick O’Brian’s wonderful nautical novels is the foreign nomenclature.

  8. Wonderful article. Touched so much of what I believe. Actually, I would love to have this article read in every high school English class. I, too, have loved words for as long as I can remember.

  9. Snapple Pumpkins says:

    This is the sort of article I’ve been hoping to find lately. Less theory, less advice, more ideology. More ‘meta’ (in this case, topics in writing with relevance beyond writing). It was a joy to read and consider.

  10. I really enjoyed your essay. You gave the best argument for increasing one’s vocabulary that I’ve ever read or heard.

    I find it disconcerting as a writer when others tell me I shouldn’t use certain words because most readers don’t know what they mean. I enjoy writing, but some of the joy is lost when I have to censor myself.

    One of the pitfalls of writing is using the same word over and over again. When this happens writing becomes unexpressive and boring and one needs a new word.

    Another thought comes to mind. A good writer has a voice and words give character to that voice. Without original and nuance words and/or expressions that voice becomes common place and lost in a crowd of jibberish.

    I understand that the English language has over 800, 000 words. We should use them.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      At the end of the day you know the word, right? If you know it, it’s worthwhile for others to learn it too.

  11. As with anything in life, balance is key for me. I fully appreciate your thoughts, especially on that one of finding the “right” word and then using it. I have sometimes, however, seen the fulcrum tip toward that mountain of five-syllable words strung together that causes me to trip up and forget what I was *feeling* in a particular moment. For me, words and emotions have a symbiotic relationship inside a story. There is a marriage between the two that works best when both cooperate and work alongside each other in a complementary way.

    But, with that being said, that’s also why there are so many different books out there. Some like to read complex prose and get lost inside the language. Other enjoy only feeling the story without having words “get in the way”. And, then there’s me, who likes both in moderation. Where one falls on that broad spectrum varies from reader to reader.

    Incidentally, I found your story about the Kia Soul interesting. Leaking over from the construction of prose into author marketing, this thought helped me realize (in a slightly different way) how having other prospective readers see our name and presence helps us get noticed in other venues and at later times 😉

    As always, stellar and much appreciated thoughts and viewpoints, Katie. Enjoying a cup of morning coffee while taking in the autumn colors of Vermont is perfectly accompanied by your arrangement of cherished words 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree about the “mountain of five-syllable worlds.” I read a self-published book once that was the Mt. Everest of five-syllable (and seven-syllable words). The prose was well-written and absolutely gorgeous–but after the first chapter, I started to get that same feeling you got as a kid after eating too much cotton candy.

  12. Great article!

    Apropos of Ben Blatt’s research – have you read anything by Lionel Shriver? Thought I’d mention her as an example of a modern writer who does not simplify her language. Though most of her books don’t make the bestseller lists and her prose certainly wouldn’t score high on any accessibility test, I love her writing precisely because it’s so rich, sometimes to the point of being challenging, and because it manages to convey complex emotions with a great deal of subtlety.

    Anyway, thank you for sharing your thoughts and for teaching me this wonderful word: hypocognition. It’s hard to believe I had gone all my life without it 😉

  13. The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.
    – Letter to George Bainton, 10/15/1888 (Mark Twain)

  14. Love this!

    Some words that go with hypocognition: Numinous–that which is real but cannot be sensed, as opposed to phenomenal, which can be sensed but is not exactly real. And tonal (the knowable, nameable reality) and nagual (the unknowable, that beyond which we can name.) The latter two are from Carlos Castañeda’s series, about a Yaqui sorcerer from Mexico, or thereabouts.

    Don Juan–Carlos’ shamanic teacher–said that the key was to build up a sense that what we see and know are not the totality. While the universe (Juan called it the Eagle) has decreed that we must make this inventory of reality–as you are speaking of–we need to understand that, as Hamlet said, “There is far more in heaven and earth… than is dreamt of in [our] philosophy.”

    This blog post really excited me. Thanks for another great article!

  15. Devils advocate:

    Beauty is inherently subjective. Based on feelings, it is felt; rather than read. It cannot be objectified; or easily acquired by describing the precise nature of a moment and/or object – (bird!).

    Expressing something that is inherently abstract in concrete form; not only takes away its capability to be perceived as beautiful, it murders the elegance of the surreal emotion ingrained.

    Is it not shortsighted? To believe that Naming a spider George will yield a greater sense of empathy, as opposed to the trials and tribulations of George, on his big adventure living in your desk plant.

    Fantasies, are someone else’s dreams that other people read. While it is sad that many authors adopted a simplified vocabulary. It creates opportunity for others to shine.

    Thank you for your words.

    They are as elegant, as the falling deluge, on a mid-winters day. Crisply held & delicately pondered, by a smitten mitten; beaming bright. “George!” she said, “I’ll name him; George”, and off she went; running effortlessly into the warmth; her heart beating; racing to find her monster.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Oh, I hear you. I definitely here you on this. As with so much of art, there is a great dichotomy here, in that we will never truly name things–and yet, I believe, there is in a great beauty in trying.

  16. I love this article on so many levels! I love that God programmed such a charming and life supporting gift into our brain stem known as the RAS, or Reticular Activating System. The Bader-Meinhof label, (a German urban guerrilla group!?), just describes one outcome of perhaps the most vital complexity of the human body. A small bundle of nerves at the brain base that simply controls and filters all sensory information. Without this filter our brain would implode from over-stimulation. So Reticular Activating System is the reason Kia Souls were suddenly everywhere… the reason I will likely see the word hypocognition again this week. Thank you for that. Truly we are fearfully and wonderfully made by “the only wise God, our Saviour.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The brain is an amazing thing. There’s so much information in there that we aren’t even aware we’re remembering and cataloging.

  17. I love that you used the example of colors. That’s always been something that fascinated me. You can even see the effect of this within a culture. In general (of course there are exceptions), men seem to be less able to distinguish between colors than women. And this is because boys aren’t usually taught or expected to know words like lavender, mauve, puce, sage, saffron, coral, etc. They therefore tend to see colors in broad strokes like blue, purple, yellow, and red.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Color is so important for writers. I would argue it is the single greatest tool we have for evoking visual scenes in our readers’ imaginations.

  18. Imagine having your first baby. You’re at the hospital holding your newborn and the nurse comes into the room with some papers but instead of asking “Have you decided on a name?” she instead says “Have you decided how you’d like to diminish your child?”

  19. Great info. Also a great reminder that I need to increase my vocabulary…

  20. One of my favorite books currently is my Word Finder. It’s a dictionary and Thesaurus in one. Also, the online Merriam-Webster does this: taking a word, then delineating it’s finer points into other similar words. Example: SCOFF, JEER, GIBE, FLEER, SNEER, FLOUT all generally mean the same thing, yet have finer meanings that differentiate them. Turns out I needed jeer rather than taunt.

    Your article makes me feel like turning things up during the edit (after I finish this first draft). The opportunity for an occasional “hard” word shouldn’t be ignored.

  21. Hawk Leigh says:

    I’m absolutely ecstatic right now! This is exactly what I needed in my life! I’m 3/4 of the way through my first serious novel. And 283 pages in, gaining ever nearer to the climactic moment of my story, the strangest feeling has crept from my brain to my typing fingers:

    I feel I’ve ran out of words.

    I, like you, have always adored new words, loved writing them down and looking them up, even before I considered myself a writer. I constantly pursue new words. They delight me!

    But I’ve never written so continuously for so many pages on the same topic/story ever before, and I find that intimidating, as if somehow that’s as far as my bank account of words (and writing techniques, descriptions, ways to explain a character’s feelings ect…) can take me.

    Now, I know that’s not true. At all.

    But this constricting fear has gradually slowed my pace, (along with the intimidation of messing up my climactic moment of this novel I’ve worked so hard on). I feel like I’m repeating myself, like there’s only a dozen or so ways to “show not tell” my character is afraid or happy or whatnot.

    However, this blogpost and podcast was certainly helpful in returning to me my hope in the endless opportunity of words.
    Thank you so much!

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