Thursday, 26 April 2012

Words Matter

Welcome and thanks to my last guest of the challenge, Cathy Dreyer, the award-winning story writer who blogs about all things writing at writeanovelin10minutesflat. This post is a dedication to the tools of the writer's trade - words. 



Words matter. This was never more clear to me than when I was trying to learn Spanish. About 15 years ago, I went to Guatemala, to its beautiful second city, Antigua, and took lessons. I’ve always felt I had an affinity for learning languages. So after just a few days I was striding around town flashing my new words like wads of dollars.

‘I’m feeling a little bit ill today,’ I said to my landlord. 

He looked a bit puzzled for a few seconds, then nodded and looked sympathetic. A few days later, I realised I’d told him I was a small illness.

When two friends joined me for a while, they were gratifyingly impressed with my new skills. In restaurants I would order their food and drink very much to the lingo born.

‘They fear your water may upset their stomachs,’ I explained to one waiter. ‘They do not want any ice in their Coca-Cola.’ 

That puzzled look again. And again, the realisation, a few days later, that I’d asked the poor man not to put ice-cream in the fizzy drinks.

Being on a Creative Writing course (at Oxford University’s Department of Continuing Education) I’ve learnt to consider not just the precise meanings of words, but also their sound and how that relates to meaning and storytelling. The poet Andrew Philip has a wonderful extended essay on rhyme on his website which goes into illuminating and erudite detail about how writers can use sounds.

Using linguistics, he examines the positioning of tongue and lips and the passage of air in making sounds which are words. I have found his stuff invaluable in considering my own work. I am not just talking about poetry. When I started to think about literature, about what it is, I quickly ran up against the arguments that it is what we say it is; that its definition simply reflects current cultural and political power; that it is not possible to define. I think that’s probably true. Cleverer, more educated people say it’s true anyway.


I’m not that interested in academic definitions. I like writing which ‘gets me there’. That’s my short-hand for text that I find enjoyable, text which delivers some kind of sensual experience. (For anyone who is interested the novelist and critic James Wood discusses this in his book How Fiction Works which I almost know off by heart.)


My internal short-hand for literature is writing that comes from playing with words, from people who enjoy playing with words, who like putting them in interesting sound or page or narrative patterns, even if only at a very subtle level. It seems to me the more games and patterns and general embellishing there is on a text, the more admired it is for its literary qualities.     I am really not talking about anything esoteric or overly academic. Anyone who uses alliteration is playing with words, surely. On this definition, AA Milne counts.


In her 1982 bestseller, Brother of the More Famous Jack, Barbara Trapido clearly uses sound to reinforce meaning, to get readers there, as I would have it. Early on in the novel, Trapido writes about a heavily pregnant character. The text becomes full of the  soft, not to say gestational, ‘g’ so stretchily redolent of the late stages of pregnancy, including the words ‘bulge’ (twice), ‘engages’, ‘hugely’, ‘strong’, ‘pyjama’, and ‘Burne-Jones’.


This is a novel which definitely got me there and still does when I regularly re-read it. Writers also think about the derivation of words. Some writers, notably Seamus Heaney, have made an effort to use words from our Anglo-Saxon past which tend to be more gutteral and back-of-throat, compared with the Latinate front-of-mouth language of the Norman Conquest.


There’s a suggestion that Anglo-Saxon is more authentic, less elitist and closer to the way language originally formed, possibly with words which sounded like what they were. Say the word ‘dig’, for example, and your tongue digs into the bit of your mouth before your teeth and then expels the air your mouth is holding like a spadeful of earth thrown out of the way.


Heaney’s poem Bone Dreams has been taken to be explicitly about this. He sets his wonderful phrase ‘scop’s twang’ against ‘Elizabethan devices, Norman canopies.’ Say the words out loud, see what you think. If you’re interested in further reading then I found Stephen Dobbyns’ next word, better word, the craft of writing poetry (Palgrave Macmillan) rewarding.


Meanwhile back in Guatelama I had all this and more to learn. What happened when I made the common mistake of telling a group of young jungle guides that I was ‘on heat’, when I was just feeling Guatemala’s punishing sun, is a story for another day.





16 comments:

  1. I can remember my French teacher explaining how to say you were hot (feeling the heat) in French and if you said it the wrong way it meant something completely different and was a very sexy phrase!!

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    1. Yes in Spanish I think I'm right that the two words concerned are 'calor' and 'caliente' but I can't remember which is which! Even worse is the word 'pajero' which I think means bird, and then 'parejo' which means similar and there's another word or it might just be a slang meaning of one of those two words which refers to solitary pleasures of the flesh! Lots of scope for embarrassment all round. Thanks for your comment. Cathy x

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    2. Ha ha - can you remember the phrase? I'd like to sexily confuse some people! This also made me think of my post about literary terms and malapropisms!

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  2. I loved reading this - especially the sentence about flashing words like wads of dollars. When I learned how to say 'I have a caraway seed stuck in my gum' in German I lost no opportunity to show it off at every opportunity! I've never, alas, been a creative writer, only a hack, but I love the sounds and shapes and patterns of words. One important thing, whether it's a novel, letter or a feature, is rhythm. Sub-editors often don't 'get' this and will add or remove an adjective and ruin the symmetry of a sentence.

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    1. On the other hand, subs can save your bacon, not to mention preventing law suits etc. I know what you mean though. I don't know if I accept your distinction between writers though. IMHO fiction writers are the ones with the freedom to tell the truths journalists can't - I write as an ex-hack. I love the idea of tasting words. Cathy x

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  3. Well, as long as no one tried to mate with you I guess it all turned out okay.

    Very entertaining!

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  4. Your post really makes me think about your "gets me there" and how words matter. Thanks for the inspiration. Holly

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    1. Thanks Holly. I find the whole subject completely fascinating so I'm glad my brief foray into 'words' gave you something - means a lot. Cathy x

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  5. I think it's 'que caliente' but I'm really not sure. It could be either. Eeek. We need a spanish speaker. Maybe try twitter? Cathy x

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  6. Tremendous stuff! I love anything having to do with words, word choice, and, of course, linguistic snafus (having made more than a few myself). A great read!

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  7. What a wonderful post. I loved hearing about your experiences in Guatemala, LOL, and your relationship with words. Thanks for sharing x

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  8. What wonders of the writing world brought me to this curious and fulfilling post about language, the formations of words, differing views, those who scorn the addition of ice cream to fizzy drinks? Cathy, I'd follow your words, phrasings, sentences anywhere and this is quite a posh place to find you having out in (love the blog and just subscribed) . . . I love this sentence too: So after just a few days I was striding around town flashing my new words like wads of dollars. This captures everything about an experience. Love that.

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  9. Thanks Justin, so much. Enjoy Amanda's blog - I do!

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  10. Thanks Cathy! Justin - its not that posh around here but I will try to keep the tone upmarket!

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