My language love affair

I only speak English.

I feel that I should get that over and done with from the outset in case you’re hoping this will be some gorgeous long love letter about my relationship with all the languages of the world. I speak a little French (GCSE level, so essentially none at all) but it’s hardly enough to warrant a mention. I feel bad for saying I ‘only’ speak English, because to me it could honestly never be an only. I do understand the importance of language learning and it is something I will work on when I have the time, but the rich, robust character of English makes it perfect for the writer.

I still feel very uncomfortable calling myself a writer in any capacity. I know I’m trained to write and I write every single day but it feels like there’s a gravitas associated with the writer label which I couldn’t possibly bestow upon myself just yet. I’m not sure where I have placed this arbitrary line or if I will ever allow myself to cross it, but know that when I refer to myself as a writer here it is in the sense of ‘one who writes’ and not A Writer.

I am well aware that this is probably going to be a massive cringefest for anyone without this love so I honestly wouldn’t bother reading on if you can’t tolerate that thought.

I find, and have always found, words to be very tangible entities. As I just said on Twitter, I see long, Latinate words as being things I can hold. They are cuboid in shape and tend to be heavy and metallic and reassuring to the touch. You can put those words on shelves and you know they will always be useful when you’re in any doubt. A word like ‘procrastinate’ or ‘inordinate’, something like that feels like a gold bullion and I really feel like you can feel the weight of those words in the air in front of you when you use them.

Another word group I love is monosyllabic nouns which make use of plosives, especially the k sound. Dusk and dark and crisp and crunch and pluck and dust, words like these are genuinely a joy to use. They are so sharp and evocative and you can layer so many of them and they are so poetic and perfect for prose. I (over)use them an awful lot in my own creative writing as you can paint such a picture with these little words which sound big because of their spitty, guttural presence. You can’t miss ‘dusk’ in a sentence.

Liquids and sibilants are always popular choices, and it’s easy to see why. Graceful swimming sibilance sweeps softly through sentences and weaves a very tranquil property into everything. I think that while the softness of s tends to make itself known in a very quiet way and generally as the underdog, you can also use it for something pretty powerful. S is a very hypnotic letter and it shouldn’t be underestimated. The strange inconsistent friction is surprising and a little disconcerting so you feel as though you have to put your faith in s if you want to stay safe. And if l isn’t the letter of seduction, what is? There is such a rolling, purring quality which can only be created with that flick of the tongue (which evaporates when the l darkens, at the end of ‘hill’, perhaps), while r is so delightfully precise and neat. Ending a word with a rhotic r gives it a little polish that means it can leave the factory with its quality control seal proudly on display.

There is something so dainty about light little words like ‘soliloquy’ and ‘ubiquity’ and ‘intransitivity’. I love the multitude of tiny syllables which run after one another on tiptoes. It’s the linguistic equivalent of little frolicking footsteps, and even when the word means something very dry and tedious (which many words of this kind seem to), it gives them an accessible airiness which makes them less intimidating. They feel very efficient and easy and friendly and if these words were people they’d be popular and probably full of life.

However, all words are not made equal. As someone with such strong views on what makes a good word, I have equally strong views on what makes me want to avoid a word. ‘Vigorous’, for instance. It’s the g. It makes everything clumsy around it. I feel like the g joined the word and every other letter had to move up to make room and they’ve all been sitting uncomfortably ever since. I don’t like ‘bond’ because it’s too dense and heavy and chewy. There is no motivation to say that word. The burst of the b is followed by one of the most lifeless vowel sounds, and then this awful heavy cluster that makes me feel very sluggish and irritable. ‘Wonder’ is such a disappointing word for such a whimsical concept. When you look to the sky in wonder, it can never convey the true sense of the notion of wonderment. ‘Wonderful’ has the same problem. The word is too practical for the concept. It is too basic. It needs drama and life.

I love the word ‘frigate’. ‘Harlequin’ perfectly embodies the entity it denotes. ‘Ink’ is deliciously dark and secretive.

Maybe this post doesn’t explain anything at all about why I love language. I hope it does and I hope you understand. I hope now it makes sense why I get so much joy from writing a list of seemingly tedious items and news stories and product descriptions and greetings cards and passwords and fiction and emails and everything. It’s just the words, and it’s never ‘just’ the words.

Does anyone understand this in any capacity at all?

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Abby says:

    /s/ is a fricative, not a liquid.
    But I do like the way you think about words and sounds; it’s easy to get caught up in the technicalities of phonetics and forget about the feelings that they can evoke, so that’s refreshing to see.

    1. I was thinking of liquid as a descriptive term (I find /s/ very fluid and flowing, much like /f/ in fact) rather than the technical phonetic term as it seems to carry so well through a sentence. I think of all these sounds as having the ability to seep through words and become absorbed and they’re perfect for acting like a vein which connects everything… hence liquid 🙂 I should probably make that clearer though – despite the fact I did Linguistics at uni I still can’t help but use these terms as if they belong to my own mental framework! I have edited to include ‘and sibilants’ for clarity.

      I actually wanted to write my dissertation on something along these lines; about ‘beautiful language’ and the sounds that people enjoy and the vivid imagery language can conjure even with the semantics removed. I suppose this was my outpouring of word-love I was dissuaded from writing last year.

      Thank you for taking the time to read my post and comment 🙂

      1. Abby says:

        Ah, I see- after the talk of plosives I was in linguistics-mode, I didn’t think you might be using it in a descriptive capacity :). Sorry for being anal about it, I really did find your post really interesting as it’s not a perspective you encounter very much in linguistic circles, which can often be a bit soulless. It’s a shame you never got to write your dissertation on it!
        Thanks for replying/editing :).

      2. No problem! I’ve largely blocked out swathes of linguistics now – I saw the word ‘adjunct’ for the first time since 2012 today and shuddered!

        It’s a shame the fire seems to be missing from linguistics. Analysing sentence structure is all well and good, but I think there’s a big untapped area which is very organic and dynamic which is largely ignored!

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