A creativity blog - including reviews, photographs and discussion on a variety of things; such as dragons and other things almost but not quite completely entirely unlike tea.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

A wordy essay

"Words have the power to both destroy and heal. 
When words are both true and kind, they can change our world." 

One of my main research interests is the way people use words to create and imagine. I need to give a morning talk in the school I work at soon, and I decided to make it about words - about how all words have power, and how they can be used in good or bad ways in human interaction. The point of all this is to, hopefully, make the teenagers think a little bit about how they speak to each other and to us teachers, but more likely, they're not going to listen to anything I say, so it'll be more or less pointless. However, as I'm myself still deeply intrigued by words, being a student and a teacher of language, I thought I'd write some of my thoughts here in this blog.

Not so long ago, I read this comic strip, which got me to thinking about the power of words. (The mouse-over reads: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can make me feel I deserved it.) Also, I watched a documentary by Stephen Fry about swear words and taboos, which was most enlightening when it comes to learning swear words in English, as well as about the general nature of swearing and swear words themselves. My thesis, which led to my graduation from the university, studied the context and cohesion creating words, such as deixis and reference words, in a fantastic narrative text and attempted to show how people's interpretation of what they are reading is affected by words the author has chosen to use. 

In Finnish, we often call swear words 'power words' - a loose translation. Also, as in English, we have something called magic words. The concept of the freedom of speech is called 'freedom of the word' in Finnish, and we also have something called 'power of a word', which basically means that someone who has it has the final say in matters, the final decisive power. For propaganda, we use the same word as in English. So even with the names we give to (some) words in our everyday speech give some sort of indication about how we feel about the subject itself - words are powerful, they can bring something into being and we appreciate the freedom to choose the words we want to as much as other types freedom. Words also define laws and rules for us, which make the society work - and all sorts of things in society can be affected by both the choice of words as well as the amount of words used to give it attention. (I won't go into the vocabulary the Nazis used during their reign, as it is discussed more completely in so many other places, but that is one good example in the use of propaganda.)

We humans are - as far as we know - the only creatures on this planet with the power of language. We use words to create and to destroy, we make art with them, we make science with them, we make love, war, peace, science, math and pastime with them. In the film Inception  Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character says at one point: "Don't think about elephants. (pause) What are you thinking about?" Just by uttering the word 'elephant' he makes another person to think about them, even if they are no elephants around at the time of the utterance. This is because the word triggers an image in the addressee's mind - and this happens with other words too. What I find most interesting, is when this happens with words like 'dragon', 'hobbit', 'fairy', 'werewolf' and 'mage', to name a few. Unlike elephants, these words have no referents that exist in the physical world, although many of them have already been immortalised on the screen in productions such as Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. The words I chose to write here are typical for any sort of fantasy, but there are also much more words like them, some of which make no sense whatsoever to the reader, viewer or player of novels, films or games even, with a fantastic subject matter. When I say "make no sense" I mean basically that there is no previous point of reference the addressee can access and assign for a word, but has to interpret the word only through the context it appears in and from the collection of his or her own background knowledge of similar contexts. So, each and every interpretation of a new word is necessarily a new one, as no one possesses the same background knowledge as someone else.

So if I were to invent a new word and write the word like this: tinGurs'mo. I'm pretty sure there exists no word like that before I put some random letters after one another. tinGurs'mo now, it is an ancient city, hidden from the modern world in the far reaches of uninhabited Siberia. It is covered in snow and ice and does not show up in any satellite pictures and it is the most guarded secret of the now broken up Soviet Union. They conducted a lot of genetic and biochemical experiments there, in order to find ways to make things grow on a frozen tundra, and managed finally to create a plant that, although not edible, blooms only during the coldest winter nights under the starlit sky of Siberia. tinGurs'mo's abandoned avenues are awash of this plant, which opens its lilac leaves during the nights, keeping them closed at daytime. No one ventures to the ruins of tinGurs'mo anymore, although it would be an archaeological wonder of the day - the Soviets didn't build it, you see, only appropriated it as a suitable environment for their experiments. No one knows how or why the city came to be in the beginning, or indeed, who built it there. All that remain are the stone buildings and winding avenues and alleyways of those who were there before the modern Russians.

No, actually tinGurs'mo is a name of an alien race, who inhabit some far away galaxy. Or it is the word for "passion" in draconian. Or it is a stone that can be found in the seabed after very stormy evenings. The list is endless.

An author can make what they want of the word they choose to use. They have their aims and their ideas, but when they let their word out into the world, it is the receivers, i.e. the readers, players, viewers, listeners and what-not, who make the word what it is. Some words will receive a rather unified interpretation, still others are given an image by artists and film makers alike, while in the minds of people, some words will always invoke several different kinds of images.

This aspect of image creation, which I also like to call world creation, is what interests me with words. Especially with those associated with the fantastic.

They say in the beginning there was the word.
Which word, everyone seems to disagree. 
In the end, there shall be no more words, except for one. 
And that word is special and unique for each and every one of us.
I shan't tell you mine.

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