Category Archives: Language

The Linguist as piñata

Noam Chomsky

From Scientific American:

Noam Chomsky’s political views attract so much attention that it’s easy to forget he’s a scientist, one of the most influential who ever lived. Beginning in the 1950s, Chomsky contended that all humans possess an innate capacity for language, activated in infancy by minimal environmental stimuli. He has elaborated and revised his theory of language acquisition ever since.

It’s a great article, and includes an interview with another accomplished linguist, Steven Pinker. Pinker concludes that even after decades of brutal examination and criticism, Chomsky’s famous thesis best explains how children master language. The alternatives boil down to arguing that language is an artificial construct of the rational mind that children, starting from a blank slate, must learn.

This vindication of Chomsky’s universal grammar theory is interesting on two counts, and both impact my writing. First, I’m fascinated by language. More important, scientific support of language as an inborn capability bolsters the view that people are naturally social, as opposed to the atomistic, rationalistic view of humanity pushed by both Hobbesians and Marxists.

We’re not plopped on this planet to enrich ourselves and consume; we are born to experience the world and find ourselves in it. That’s the worldview that animates everything I write.

The Power of Body Language

Yojimbo2

Are you frustrated with your characters? Are they slowing down what should be a gripping, page-turning story? Maybe it’s time you got them off their rear ends and put them to work.

In my re-writes, I search the text for characters who THINK rather than ACT. When I spot a cerebral, lackluster character, I start re-staging the scene like a director, deciding how the characters should approach and look at one another. When I’ve done my job, every character will be in motion. His tone of voice, eye movements, expressions, and stance will reflect and amplify his emotions and attitudes. THEN each character can tell a compelling story.

Body language is one of the most powerful tools a writer can use. When we express our characters’ emotions and thoughts in concrete, physical terms, we pull the reader deeper into the story.

In my sci-fi short story Aquarius, the protag, Joni Lingg, leads a shadowy organization within NASA through intimidation and the power of her personality. But why TELL when it’s more fun and intriguing to SHOW:

I once saw her chew out an Air Force major. I was in the next room, and could hear nothing, but could see them clearly through a window. Joni, a short brunette with the face of a child, was enraged, jabbing her finger and thrusting her tiny chin at the major, her blue eyes blazing in fury. The major took it like a confused, whipped puppy.

In Aztec Midnight, I could have had the first-person narrator just say he hits his low point when he’s thrown into a Mexican jail and feels like giving up. But this is more emotionally engaging:

In the dark, drunks with slouching shoulders gave way to grim-faced men with dead eyes and scarred forearms. I found myself being swept along with the drunks. The lone bench in the back was filled with Cuernavaca’s meanest residents, and I didn’t feel like another fight. I leaned against the unyielding bars and shut my eyes. The pressure of the cold metal against my throbbing head and back barely registered. There was no fight left in me, no strength. I had no idea of the time or what I could do next.

Hazy minutes passed by while I propped myself up against the bars. There was no clock. I guessed I’d been in the hole at least two hours. My eyes burned when I shut them.

The reason body language is so evocative is because we are social beings. Long before the invention of language, our physical reactions communicated to others vital information about what we were experiencing. Facial expressions, gestures, and posture came long before the invention of language. The ability to “read” body language is more fundamental, and therefore more moving, than reading written language. So the more physical we can make the story, the more real it is to the reader.

Recent research in neuroscience tells us that when we think about an action, we activate the motor area of the mind that controls that action. Magnetic resonance imaging scanners show that when a subject reads about kicking, for example, the area of the brain that controls kicking “lights up.” There’s an exciting new theory of language called “Embodied Cognition,” which can be summed up as, “We understand language by simulating in our minds what it would be like to experience the things that the language describes.”

That’s why other researchers have found that the brains of those who read powerful stories are changed by those stories. Indeed, reading vivid stories actually creates “muscle memory” in the brain as if the reader had actually lived the events in the story.

No wonder my feet hurt after reading Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. That was quite a trek.

Psychology Today offers a useful introduction to body language. If you want to rev up your stories, learn the basics of body language and, like a stage director, guide your characters’ movements so they reinforce what your characters feel and think.

I Don’t Need An Editor!

Said the copywriter who wrote this for the Beverly Hills Hotel home page:

“Many of our bungalows have interesting histories as well: Elizabeth Taylor honeymooned with six of her eight husbands, Marilyn Monroe and Marlene Dietrich, among others, enjoyed them as well.”

Unclear pronoun reference, improper punctuation, confusing repetition — it’s almost everything you could ask for in bad writing.

Tolkien, Trees, and Tradition

TreeRoots

Joseph Pearce explores Tolkien’s reverence for language and heritage:

This deep understanding of language is analogous to an understanding of history. If we want to understand where we are now and where we are going, we have to understand where we have been. And what is true of history in the broader sense is equally true of the history of words. In order to really speak well, write well, or think clearly, we need to use words correctly. We need to know linguistic tradition. We need to be linguistic traditionalists. We have to be in touch with the language, its roots, and its heritage. We need to become linguistic tree-huggers! We do not necessarily have to speak very quickly; we have to speak well. We have to speak accurately, with a precision of meaning. Contrary to Peter Jackson’s tragically abusive presentation of the Ents in his film version of Tolkien’s epic, in which they appear to be dim-wits who are outwitted by the smartness of the hobbits, we know that when Tolkien’s Ents come to a decision it will be the right one, because they have been absolutely precise in the way they have used their words. They think and speak definitely, in accordance with precise definition. They define their terms and they know their meanings. They are the opposite of postmoderns and nihilists who see no meaningful roots to the cosmos because they see no meaningful roots to words.

Modernism, argues Pearce, is vandalism that fancies itself to be liberation from a constraining  past. Indeed, it celebrates the murder of authenticity, as it demands that all heritage chains down the individual. Of course, what actually happens is not a glorious jail-break from nature and history, but alienation from those things Charlene Spretnak has identified as the prime Modernist targets: “the knowing body, the creative cosmos, and the complex sense of place.” If we lose those things, then we are unshielded from today’s manipulators of language and value who profit by convincing us that our identity is discretionary, and can be as sleek and desirable as the Gap jeans and Zappo shoes they urge us to buy.