The Magic of Language
There is a certain kind of magic around language that we don’t realize very often since it is so much a part of our lives.
On one hand, language is a way to transmit all the deep things inside of you to other people. There is nothing else that can do that so well and so precisely. For this, we need to have standard words and rules so that we all know that the message you are getting is the same as the one I am sending.
But on the other hand, language is magic because it belongs to you and you can do whatever you want with it. You can change it or twist it as much as you like since it is an expression of yourself. In that sense, there are no rules to what is possible.
This tension between the two sides of language is what I want to talk about today, especially in the context of fiction writing.
Language, as it belongs to everyone
If we want other people to understand what we are saying, we need to make sure the message is getting across. I am perfectly free to use Korean or French words when I speak, but if I am speaking (or writing) English, I can’t expect others to understand them unless I explain what I mean.
This is the reason why grammar, spelling and punctuation are important. They are tools we use to express our meaning. Here is an example I would give to my Korean students on why plurals were sometimes very important:
I like cats (I like cats, the animals)
I like cat (I like eating cat, the meat)
This is a huge difference, I think you’ll agree, almost as much as the comma in this famous example:
Let’s go eat, Grandma. (A nice meal together)
Let’s go eat Grandma. (The horror, the horror)
Language, as it belongs to you
It is easy to forget that any language you know, but especially your native language belongs to you. Literally. There are no limits to what you can do with it. You can make up new words, you can use words in different ways, you can make up new grammar, even. You can do whatever you want because language is an expression of yourself.
What this means for fiction writing
In fiction writing, this means the difference between standard language and non-standard language. Fiction is about not only telling a story, but creating art with your words. That does not mean that you have to use experimental or non-standard language, but it does mean you can. If we take the analogy of painting, there are many types, from ultra-realistic paintings to very abstract ones.
Here are some guiding points when you are navigating this tension between using standard and non-standard language in your writing
1. Make sure your meaning is clear.
This is most important for any kind of writing, including fiction. You want the story you are sending to be the same as the one the reader is receiving. For this reason, start with standard language.
2. You need to know the rules before you can break them.
It is fine to break the rules but it is important to know how and why you are doing it. Picasso could not have drawn cubist art women unless he knew how to draw a realistic woman. You don’t have to study grammar books for this: it is usually enough to read a lot and see how other writers use the language.
3. Context is everything:
If you are going to use non-standard language, the way you use it can make the meaning clear without your having to explain it. In the book, A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, Burgess uses a lot of Russian words. He does not define them, but through context, it is easy to figure out what they mean. Take this line from the first paragraph:
There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, this is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening…A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
In this sentence, we have two unknown words: droogs and rassoodocks. From the context, we can guess that droogs means “friends” or something similar. Rassoodocks probably means “minds” since that word would be the only other one that would fit in the sentence.
Let’s say you write the sentence “The air smelled red.” This is not standard since colors don’t have smells and the meaning is not clear. Does it smell like blood or dust or strawberries or something else? However, if we add context, it is easier to get the meaning: “The dust swirled into the room as soon as the door was open, stinging their eyes and clogging their nostrils. The air smelled hot, and red.” This gives a better picture of what the writer means, a dusty, rust smell, perhaps.
It is not hard for people to remember that language has rules so we can understand each other. That is drilled into us in every language class we’ve ever had. It is an important foundation to have. However, it is important to also remember that when you are writing fiction, you have more freedom to make the language your own. Try using words in unusual ways or create new words if the story would benefit from it. See what impression that creates. The worst thing that happens is that it doesn’t work and your meaning isn’t clear. The more you try, the more you will improve.
Here is a great quote about using non-standard language. It’s by James Joyce, who used a LOT of it (almost nothing else sometimes).
“One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot.”Finnegan’s Wake, by James Joyce.
If you have any questions about writing or other topics you want me to talk about in Writing Corner, just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.