A Profound Love of the English Language – August 2009

A Profound Love of the English Language

By Bob Harwood


shakespaearI have always had a profound love of the English language. We engage our senses and our minds when we deal with language. Touch is engaged when we write or type. Sight is engaged when we read the written word and even he who cannot see can, via the medium of braille, read the written word. We speak and another hears the spoken word. If she cannot hear we call her deaf. And her very deafness may make speaking difficult. One who cannot read we call illiterate. But literacy is not a simple yes or no phenomena. It is a continuum.

The adage ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ expresses a basic truth. But it took words to convey the power of that metaphor! We use words to create pictures that will engage the mind of reader or listener and the level of engagement will be a function of their respective language skills. Winston Churchill’s oratory rallied a nation on the brink of invasion and contributed significantly to victory in the greatest war in human history. The writings of Dickens create the richest of canvasses portraying another era, another milieu engaging our minds and hearts but also our social conscience.

How might we depict a man moving from point A to point B? If our vocabulary is limited to he walks or he runs we can draw no more than a two dimensional figure, black on white. A richer command of language gives us a broader spectrum of colors, permitting endless subtle variations in the images we create. To bring movement and mood to the figure our brush can spread somber shades of grey or even black, suggestively sinister, that he might slink or sidle or slither. The vibrancy and pomp of primary colors might have him parade, or march, or strut. The delicacy of pastels can portray softer themes that he might saunter or stroll, meander or wend his way. Each word triggers unique images. As we incorporate elements of time, habit, or condition we further refine the word pictures we create—he walks, he walked, he must walk, he used to walk, he will walk, he may walk. The possibilities are open ended.

These daubs of color from our pallette of verbs are but a beginning. Texture can be added as brush strokes fine and bold refine the initial images. He may furtively slink or proudly strut, but what of the man himself? Is he wrinkled with age, bent with his years? Or is he a youth, a lad, a mere stripling? Is he lithe, agile, vigorous? Scale and perspective are achieved as we strategically place the figure in context, perhaps as Pissarro was prone to do, on the curve of a path that leads the eye through harvest fields to this focal point and on to ever more distant mist shrouded hills distinguished by subtle variations of hue. But not all works of art are literal portrayals. An Impressionist, a Monet of language, may soften the sharp edges of literalism with simile and metaphor, or personification to create a more subtle image—as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean (Coleridge: The Ancient Mariner) or—Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care (Shakespeare: Macbeth). An author of the Abstract School, a Picasso perchance, may embark on the intricacies and subtleties of satire and allegory. Thus Jonathon Swift in 1726 bitterly attacked the injustices of his day in Gullivers Travels, a volume that, read on another level, is the most beguiling of children’s stories.

Or to invoke a more contemporary analogy—in computer terms the human mind is the greatest of all processors. Our ability to formulate thoughts to write or speak, or to understand the work of others, must utilize language and our degree of fluency in it as its raw material. Words are the bits and bytes with which our mind, our in house computer, functions. The greater the language skill, the greater the vocabulary, the greater the memory on which our mind computer may draw. Computers can do marvelous things. They can respond to instructions from the human voice. They can translate from one language to another. With scanners and optical recognition they can regurgitate an existing printed passage. But computers, limited by their sequential binary natures, cannot begin to compare with the human mind and its massively parallel ability to formulate and express, to receive and interpret, the infinite subtleties of language. It is the essence of our being if we are to live other than in isolation. This love of the English language has formed a powerful, consistent thread through more than eight decades of my journey.

Ojo Del Lago
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