Last week I started reading a new book and this line caught my eye, “The dictionary is where language goes to die.” The book is Intertextuality (The New Critical Idiom) by Allen Graham. I bought it for a little light reading to relax before bed.
I found the quote interesting because earlier in the day I had gone to my dictionary to look up the meaning of a word. Don’t remember the word, but trying to find the meaning of a word got me thinking about how we know what things mean – how do we find meaning and ultimately, the Truth (note the capital T – the real truth, the truth that sets the world free)?
Normally I just try to watch old WWII movies to keep myself from thinking about such things, but our copy of “Saving Private Ryan” got a large scratch on it and I couldn’t watch it so my mind started to wander. Then I went and started looking up things. Using google, I searched Wikipeda for stuff, then found a word I didn’t know and went to the dictionary on my computer to get a quick definition.
Then it hit me that we define words with other words and the meaning of a word like say, “tree” is dependent on my ability to describe what a tree is with words you know the meaning of. That in turn got me to thinking about the lessons in language that I learned while getting my BA in English and the reason way I was drawn to the noble study of literary criticism.
Literary criticism is an often misunderstood academic study and discipline. It isn’t about witty remarks on how horrible the last novel I read was – rather it is about how we derive mean from a literary work. In this case the criticism part really refers more to “critical thinking” than “criticizing that horrible movie.”
There are a number of ways to do that which are referred to as “literary theories,” that is to say ways of viewing a text. One of my favorite theories is the notion of intertextuality. So once I let my mind start drifting towards literary theories I remembered that I didn’t have a book to read and went to look at my “to-read” list on Good Reads.
What joy to find that top of my list was Graham’s book on Intertextuality. The Kindle version of the book was about the same price as a 12 pack of beer so I figured I could afford to buy it.
Well, if I’d bought the beer, this post would have been a lot shorter.
I could go into great lengths to explain the theory to you, but the three of you who read this far would now be clicking to a different website. So here’s the short version: How do you know what I am talking about in this blog post? How can you understand its meaning? Simple, you’ve read other texts that use the same words – language – and assume that I am using the word or phrase in a similar way and then in your brain you construct a mental picture of what you think I am saying. Then a meaning is formed for you. Each reader of my blog approaches it from a different set of experiences and therefore each reader is likely to understand my words differently.
Makes more sense after the second beer.
But here is my problem as a writer – I don’t want you forming your own meanings to my words. I want you to see what I am trying to say.
Let’s take a simple example. Let’s say I use the word, ‘tree.’ What picture does that bring to your mind. Think about it for a minute. I’ll wait……
Okay, now let’s finish the game. I was thinking of a tall redwood tree – specifically a sequoia semperviren (or coastal redwood) that inhabit the California hills near where I live.
Chances are the tree you thought of and the tree I thought of were very different. Once I tried this exercise with a group of software engineers and when I went around the room, each engineer described a tree from where the grew up. However, one engineer had a puzzled look and said, “I thought you were talking about a file directory tree.”
I am consistently amazed that we humans have any level of mutual understanding. It’s no surprise that people misunderstand each other. After all the only way I have to understand you is to relate the language of you to language that is me – a language stored in the dictionary of my experiences and knowledge.
The only way for you to get the same exact meaning out of this blog post that I intended, is for you to have had all the same experiences as me – that is to be me. But you aren’t me so you’ll discover a different meaning (or none at all).
Makes one want to give up writing altogether – what with readers having their own minds and all.
But despite the challenge we writers persist – either looking for common ground or throwing words to the wind, hoping that someone will find something worthy in our words – whatever it might mean.
Or we could just get a beer and watch a movie.
Till next week,
What about those of us who think in two languages? In two cultures? Right now it would be a horse chestnut tree for me, because I am in Germany. At home, in California, it would probably be a fir tree. And there are those things and concepts that can’t be translated, because there is no real translation for cultural phenomena. In California we walk. In Germany people “spazieren.” I can see all kinds of walking, but “spazieren” is leisurely but determined. Yesterday I found a man who runs a “Spazier-Theater.” He takes people on a tour of Weimar while he uses puppets, cut-outs, different hats etc, his modified bicycle, and his great knowledge of Goethe to entertain while guiding us from one spot to the next. I haven’t found the proper word yet to explain this on my blog.
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That is something we have to consider when we look for common ground in language. It many ways it is how the language grows and becomes richer. Think about the American language we speak – large portions of it started out as words in other languages. I like to think of multi-linguistic folks like yourself as gateways to richer more interesting discourses. There is a larger more complicated literary theory too but far too much to write in a single comment. I have had other people mention a similar thing to me before – the word meaning shifts depending on which language they are thinking in at the moment. In terms of the theory, you could say that each language you master has a different set of experiences behind it. Hope you’re enjoying your trip!