Notes on the Journey

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Beauty of Language

I went to a reading at the Bookworks bookstore last night.  It is my favorite Albuquerque bookstore and they regularly have readings and events.  The person reading was a friend of a friend, and I wouldn't have known about it if my friend hadn't called to tell me, and  I'm really glad I went.

The author is Amy Shea and the book is a collection of twelve of her short stories and is titled "Defending Happiness."  She read two of her stories, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  She was a good reader and put a lot of life into the stories as she read them.  She's also a very funny person and a very funny writer and the audience in attendance laughed a lot.  It was a very good turn out and seemed to be about as many people as could fit comfortably into the space.  I bought her book and had her sign it for me.

Hearing her read her stories really made me think about language and our use of words.  I love language and so appreciate a clever turn of phrase.  A large vocabulary so improves the enjoyment of both written and spoken material.  I recently got an email from a friend with a video of a comedian who was doing a very well-written parody of Shakespeare.  Before he launched into his Shakespearean monologue, he talked about how our vocabulary has shrunken drastically since Shakespeare's time.  I looked for this video--which I've managed to lose--in order to check the statistics he quoted as to the number of words Shakespeare had a working use of compared to the number of words we currently use.  So, since it's gone, I'm just going to take a stab at it from memory.  I THINK he said that Shakespeare had a working use of 54,000 words and that we currently only use about 3,000.  I could be wrong about those numbers, but what I do remember specifically, is that the difference was huge between then and now, even if not those exact amounts.

I wondered how our use of language had changed so greatly as to diminish our vocabularies so drastically.  We do speak more directly than people did in the past, which does away with words associated with pleasantries and politeness to a large extent.  We're more in a hurry now and our language reflects that.  Conversation used to be an art, but now seems to be an art that's largely gone by the wayside.  I think we're less specifically descriptive than we used to be, and we tend to use a lot of words over and over instead of varying our word choices.  We also use profanity more commonly than was used in times past.  But, I also think our diminished vocabularies reflect a lapse in education, a lack of reading, and some laziness.

It's easier to use words we're familiar with.  They come to mind quickly and most of the time do the trick.  It isn't that we're not understood by others, or that we don't understand what's said to us or written by others, but it would all be much more interesting and engaging if we used more specific descriptives and were able to turn a clever phrase.  I'm as lazy as the next person and catch myself using the same words over and over, or not being specific.  I'm trying to be more conscious of my use of language and broaden my vocabulary.  It's more interesting for me and I'm sure would be more interesting for my listener or reader as well.

I find the lack of basic English skills in our current younger generations to be disturbing.  And, one of my friends mentioned that her child's school is no longer teaching cursive writing.  What?!  When I asked why not, she said that the school didn't find cursive writing useful anymore now that computers were used so extensively.  I think it's a tragic loss.  Young students are taught to print, but mostly type on computer keyboards.  Books and time spent reading also seems to be largely falling away.  And, when reading happens, it's often done electronically.  Spelling skills are also seem to be going downhill.  For someone like myself, who finds great pleasure in reading and language, the loss of, or maybe I should say change of, our use of English is sad indeed.

I've switched over to reading a lot of the time on my iPad.  It's so convenient for traveling and downloading books onto a Kindle or iPad or similar device is less expensive than buying books.  But, given the choice, I still prefer to read a printed book.  There's something so enjoyable about holding a book in one's hands.  I love turning the pages and seeing how far I've gone and how far I have to go.  Reading electronically doesn't give one the same sense of passage as one gets from watching the pages pile upon themselves after they've been read while the unread pile of pages gets smaller and smaller.  I love flipping back to previous passages and reading them over sometimes, and that's more difficult to do when reading electronically.  I still have a good-sized set of bookshelves filled with books I've read and those I still hope to read.  When I finish reading a book electronically, I often just delete it.  Gone.  Not to be loaned or given to a friend to read, not to be opened and enjoyed again.

I don't like to be the one lamenting change.  I like to feel that I'm open to change and am able to change easily.  But, often that's an illusion.  I've seen so much change in my life, and so much has been irretrievably lost.  It isn't to say that what we used to experience is necessarily better, but some of it was.  And, I mourn the loss of the things I've loved, books and language among them.  It makes me appreciate them all the more.  I treasure a good book.  And, I am excited by precise and creative language.  I give deep thanks to all the writers still out there wrestling with themselves to find the perfect word, to unfold a detailed and engaging story; to take us on new and exciting journeys of imagination and creativity.  Thanks Amy Shea for your stories and all the reflection they've triggered for me.   

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