It’s fitting that I should write this post on National Grammar Day. Choosing and arranging the right words with the right endings in the right order with the right punctuation isn’t even close to the most interesting thing I could tell you about language.
I recently had the opportunity to guest “lecture” for an Interdisciplinary Expressive Arts (IDEA) class at Kwantlen. I use the term lecture loosely; what we actually did was meditate upon, collect, and play with words.
Words are how we come to know the world. Though unable to speak intelligibly, infants begin to understand what spoken words mean at around six to nine months. Before we can do much of anything besides eat, poop, sleep, roll over, and turn towards sounds, we are picking up on the complex and consensually constructed language we’ve been born into.
Language has no inherent meaning; in a process that is almost magical, we imbue it with the concepts and objects and actions it comes to represent. Apart from onomatopoetic words like coo and screech, spoken words in no way resemble the ideas they represent. It’s a quality of language called arbitrariness. Look at that word: arbitrariness. Stare at for a little while, whisper it to yourself, until it unyokes from its meaning and begins to look weird and sound foreign. Neat, huh?
The wonder of words is that our creations are viral. Words enter language because we invent them to represent a particular thing, and then enough people must use them for the word to spread. It tickles me to think that words like boustrophedon — which refers to writing that alternates left to right and right to left, like an ox (bous in Greek) plowing a field — and aglet — the cap on the end of a shoelace — filled such a need to describe an idea or a thing that they were coined, they caught on, and they still exist. And the process of adding new words never stops. Want to see it in action? Visit Wordspy.
Not only do we come to know our history and our culture through words, we come to know each other. We are the sum of the words in our vocabulary and the frequency and manner with which we use them. Our idiolects, dialects peculiar to just one person, betray our worldviews and our personal histories. If you can forget politics for a moment, President Obama’s English charts a fascinating life.
That we can string words together into near-infinite variations within the bounds of grammar, an attribute called generativity, allows us to share with another the vicarious experience of our personal histories and imagined futures.
Words make us, we make words, and our words make the world.