The words that make or break

Take a few moments to fill the gap in your mind:

‘Language is…’ (what?)

I’ve discussed here a few of the possible answers:
…action, …a system,  … a means of getting information across, …a means of profiling ourselves, … a world in itself, …a learning experience, … an interactive experience (like a computer game) etc.

But today I’m thinking of yet another perspective. My German friends have recently played me recordings with a cabaret comedian: ‘you must hear this, he’s absolutely incredible!’ I immediately asked ‘but will I understand?’, knowing that my German is not so advanced. ‘Yes, of course you will, he’s got a regular accent and he talks in quite simple words.’

Of course I gave up listening after the first 2 minutes. They had to stop the recording every other sentence and explain a word; for example, I knew the word ‘jump’, but he used the word ‘hop’ – which meant the same, only added more colour to his story. But another problem was that sometimes the language was clear, but the message wasn’t, or it wasn’t necessarily funny – while my friends were rolling on their backs with laughter.

I then remembered a one-to-one lesson of Romanian I once had to do with someone who was already quite fluent in the language. I thought, he’s quite fluent, so I can improvise a bit. I was covering for a colleague, and I was too lazy to work with her materials, checking where she had stopped, what came next, and so on. That’s why I decided that on the way to the language school I’d buy a newspaper and choose an article to read and discuss with the student.

I was uninspired enough to buy a satirical magazine, thinking that they use the regular, everyday language, and that I’d make the lesson more special by bringing in the fun element. The fun, however, was only mine – but I didn’t laugh much: I was too busy explaining the jokes. My student was very intelligent, and he could express himself remarkably  well in Romanian, but it was too much for him:

  • take the example of  ‘hop’ and ‘jump’: some words were simply more than just a meaning – they created an image or an effect. Learners of the language may well know the word ‘jump’, but most probably not ‘hop’.
  • ‘life goes on’ is a cliche, but change it into ‘life crawls on’ in a context of social unjustice or poverty and it will be loaded with satire; a language learner however, needs explanations about the cliche (this is a cliche) and about the word ‘crawl’ (crawl means…). Even then, the comic effect may be lost, like any joke that you may try to explain.
  • a speech may be completely unfunny but may imitate a certain attitude or behaviour. An article in that satirical magazine copied the style of a TV reporter that specialised in disasters and domestic crime, but the article reported in that case on a violent row between two parties in the parliament. The comic was made up of a) how well the article imitated the reporter’s style, and b) the image of the parliament as a crime site for sensational news. My student was supposed to recognize a speech style and enjoy the irony.

The German cabaret comedian was too subtle for me. Not just by using a few words I didn’t know. With his (verbal) shows he built on assumptions and cliches that Germans typically have and that I was not aware of. He imitated verbal styles I wasn’t able to recognize. He relied on the audience knowing certain events that I didn’t know about.

Words create new worlds. It’s not just that a language mirrors the world in its specific way, as I wrote in a different post. Words, taken from the dictionary and planted in a specific context, trigger ever new associations and reflect ever original perceptions.

In the last 80 years we have learned that the infinite is all around us: in the macrocosm of endless galaxies, in the microcosm of atoms and cells, and in the endless combinations of time, space and god knows what other dimensions. Well, our words build an infinity of worlds: the microworlds of us as individuals, the macroworlds of us as societies and nations, plus the endless combinations of stories we tell and meanings we imply, meanings we produce without knowing, meanings we produce without wanting.