Letter #22: The Importance of Language Pt. 1
Words, Gibberish, and Culture
Post last updated November 19th, 2023.
Hope you’re having a week as lovely as you are! At the time of writing this, I’m currently listening to mxmtoon’s newest album, rising (yup, no capitalization), so I’m in a pretty good mood! :)
I’d like this new series to be an ongoing catalogue of neat ideas, history, and quotes about how vocabulary has changed and shaped our world. I’ll be delving into the immense importance and effect of words on society and history in little random snippets I’ve found. So far, I don’t quite have an order to all this; I’m basically just handing you some tidbits related to the subject.
This post and the next (and maybe the next, I’m not sure how many letters I’ll break this into!) will be a sort of related hodgepodge. I don’t suppose I have a specific thesis in mind other than “as shown in the following examples, we see how words, rhetoric, and language are powerful tools that continue to affect people and society.”
So, here, have some examples of the ways language affects, and has affected, people and society throughout history.
Getting into the Quotes
“These were all choice documents to me, and I read them, over and over again, with an interest that was ever increasing, because I was ever gaining in intelligence; for the more I read them, the better I understood them. The reading of these speeches added much to my limited stock of language, and enabled me to give tongue to many interesting thoughts, which has frequently flashed through my soul, and died away for want of utterance.”
This quote comes from Douglass’s Ultimate Collection: Complete Autobiographies, Speeches & Letters. (Also, it’s available on Google Books, if you want to check it out.)
This spoke to me because this is what reading feels like to me. It seems that Douglass here is explaining the way reading and learning words allowed him to add to his vocabulary and eventually become the brilliant orator he later was known for. And while I’m no orator like this famous figure, I can completely appreciate the way reading builds your vocabulary, your confidence, your imagination, and your voice.
That’s what reading did for me. It’s why I adore words and books and stories. They opened up the rest of life for me at a pretty young age. And now I’m here, writing a little blog about words and stories and all that intersect them.
“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go”
I read this quote from his book, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut! as essentially a boiled down version of the Frederick Douglass quote. Obviously there is completely different context, but similar meaning: when you read, you learn, and when you learn, you can do more with the knowledge and vocabulary you’ve learned from reading.
“Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid, and cruel! One could not escape from them. And yet what a subtle magic there was in them! They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things, and to have a music of their own as sweet as that of viol or of lute. Mere words! Was there anything so real as words?”
As with many Oscar Wilde quotes, I love this one. That last line especially.
Words can do so much. They can tear down kingdoms, stir warriors to action, strike a kid down in one fell swoop, build love stories, create ballads. The list is literally endless.
And really, in one sense, words are nothing but a bunch of mouth sounds we’ve attributed meaning to (more on this theory in the following section). Still, they can turn shapeless, ethereal thoughts into solid, living, breathing characters, landscapes, sword fights, and love scenes. They can lay the heart out bare, showing motives, needs, and wants.
They’re the basis of rhetoric as a whole term, the meat of dictionaries and encyclopedias, everyday communication, and all forms of storytelling.
In short: words are rad.
A Few Relevant Posts
Language and Meaning
I found this post quite relevant and mildly entertaining.
Okay, so I had never heard of Jacques Derrida until this post and tried to do some preliminary research into him and this theory, but uh, that didn’t go well enough for me to explain much. So here, have an article or two.
Whether or not you agree with believe this idea that languages are a bunch of sounds that don’t actually mean anything but we’ve attributed meaning to, it’s definitely an intriguing point. It really brings to light the history of how humans have created language and come to understand one another, which I still find fascinating.
Though I’m not particularly great at learning languages, linguistics really fascinates me. I’d love to learn more languages, or at least be able to get around with enough vocabulary and grammar and syntax to understand and be understood in another language.
So honestly, as soon as we get into the concept of word meanings and languages, I’m instantly intrigued. Whether or not I fully understand the theory surrounding either is another story, but still, I found the concept interesting to think about.
Culture and Language
The following quote in this post really spoke to me because of an exercise we did in our senior year Humanities class in high school: reading children’s books to learn about other cultures.
Our teacher checked out as many children’s picture books from different cultures as she could find from her local library and brought them in for us to read. What followed was a room full of high schoolers flipping through children’s books teaching us about other cultures for the entire class period, and for the next class as well.
Her rationale was this: culture is taught through children’s books. If you want to know about another culture, look at what values that culture is teaching its young children. Pay attention to how the book is written and what pictures are used. Even if you don’t totally get the cultural differences, it will usually be explained in simple terms for children so you will probably be able to grasp at least some of what is being taught.
I thought this was a fascinating concept and this quote just brought all that back!
If you’re curious to read a scholarly paper about the language quote above, this one is the first result I got when I did a Google search for the quote.
If you’re interested in board books from other cultures, I stumbled across this article earlier as well.
Also, in looking for a fitting quote, I found this list of quotes from children’s books. I was pleasantly surprised to find where some quotes had come from, namely this one from apparently Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women: “I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.”
I wouldn’t have called Little Women a children’s book, but it does go through their lives as children as well, so I suppose it is a children’s book. I just always associated it with classics, but a lot of classics are children’s books, come to think of it.
Hope you had fun going through some word history and conventions of language with me! This post was going to be longer, but I had waaaayy too much content for the email length limit, so you’ll see more next time!
Do you have any other tidbits of weird etymology or examples of the way words change us? Feel free to share; I might add it to my research for Part 2 (or more if I have enough for a Part 3 sometime)!
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Hope you have a wonderful week ahead!
Works Cited (MLA 9th Ed.)
Corneal, Devon A. “The 22 Best Children's Book Quotes Your Kids Will Love.” Brightly, Penguin Random House, 17 Nov. 2020, https://www.readbrightly.com/19-best-childrens-book-quotes/.
Frederick, Douglass. “Frederick Douglass Ultimate Collection: Complete Autobiographies, Speeches & Letters.” Google Books, Google, 21 Mar. 2018, https://www.google.com/books/edition/FREDERICK_DOUGLASS_Ulitmate_Collection_C/9w9kDwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0.
“I Can Read with My Eyes Shut Quotes.” Bookroo, Bookroo, https://bookroo.com/quotes/i-can-read-with-my-eyes-shut.
Oscar, Wilde. “A Quote from the Picture of Dorian Gray.” Goodreads, Goodreads, https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/11777-words-mere-words-how-terrible-they-were-how-clear-and#:~:text=How%20clear%2C%20and%20vivid%2C%20and,of%20viol%20or%20of%20lute.
Quote of the Week:
“Actions are the first tragedy in life, words are the second. Words are perhaps the worst. Words are merciless. . .”
Gotta sneak in another Oscar Wilde quote, right?