What a nice beer. The great thing about speaking is that it shares a lot with drinking – we have a wealth of bodily functions that we can use to make the point that we are trying to make clearer, anything from a slight change in tone to swinging a mighty, nuclear hammer that mysteriously deposits us face down on the floor. For writing, though, once we lift our pen from the page and depart from the room, our words lose their essential physicality and become mono-coloured, two dimensional shadows on the page.
Ghosts of our presence.
Many cultures have shown a distrust of mirrors of cameras, accusing them of stealing part of their soul. And perhaps it is true, in a way, since everything we see in a mirror or a camera arrived there by light that earlier interacted with the surface layers of our body, and every interaction results in an exchange. I myself am more concerned with the interactions we have with books; as soul stealers I believe they have much greater potential than mere mirrors and cameras. Think about it. A mirror or a camera is made try and show you what is there. A book is created in attempt to change what is there. You.
That is not to say there are not people out there who will misuse cameras and mirrors, there are, just as there will always be publicans who store their beer badly, or water it down. However, whenever we pick up our pen there is usually something we wish to change – ourselves or others. If we keep on reading then we must keep on changing. If we keep on reading what other people are reading, then surely we and they must steadily become more alike yet different from what we were. Reading steals our soul, a piece at a time.
Writing itself does give a certain permanence to our ideas, without demanding that the reader maintains our pace of monologue: the thoughts will not be lost if the reader chooses to linger over one particular phrase, or abandon them part way through. This shadow world has less to engage our senses, leaving us more opportunity to consider other aspects of the message, and one of these is the repetition of vocabulary and structures. ‘This is a nice book, it is nicely written, and has quite a nice cover’ could be spoken successfully as we distract our audience’s attention by waving around the gaudy block of printed pages we have firmly grasped in our hand, but it loses its essential now-ness once it becomes a shadow on the page. Rather like a freshly emptied glass, which we have to picture full by using our mind rather than by using our senses, although if it is someone else’s glass our imagined brew may not match the former occupant of the glass.
Another aspect is that of patterns. If we were to step into an unknown bar we would have to be specific in asking for what we want, because no one would know what we wanted. When we become more acquainted with the bar, we can arrive and order our usual beverage with no more than a raised finger, relying on the barkeep’s finely tuned brain to spot and learn patterns. While writing has evolved how we think about language, and how we share those thoughts, it has not really altered the way language works. Sometimes the idea of writing causes people to wander off course, into believing that the idea of story was born on a page, or that present day European languages are all the bastards of a true Latin parent – to me a sure sign that these people have sold their remaining souls to the dark letters of the page. Writing is like the foam on the top of beer, in that while it might look different to the rest of the beer it is nothing more than beer with a few more bubbles in it.
In terms of learning a foreign language we need to explore what is considered acceptable and what not in the various uses of language. One significant area involves speed words, those multi-meaning packets that we can pick from our memory with little effort and know that the listener or reader will fill in the gaps.
Nice – pleasant, good…
Big – large, significant…
Spot – location, dirty mark, seek
Keep – maintain, continue, hold…
Get – receive, obtain…
Fuck – oh no, whoops, copulate…
Whether we are asking for a drink or jotting down a note these short forms are a brilliantly effective way of expressing ourselves, and deserve great respect. Yes, some of the boring bookworms of this world do tend to drone on about an imaginary world in their head where the worst thing that could happen would be a girl having her pigtails pulled, but language has many important functions that are not worthy of belittlement. One cannot fairly judge their usage as being a lazy, simplistic form since formal language is nothing more than the replacement of speed words with a set of stock phrases. In terms of language, comparing speed words with formalisms is like trying to describe one sandwich as being better than another based on a list of ingredients used for the filling, forgetting that the major part of both sandwiches is the bread.
When we write all that many of our readers know about us is contained in those few words, leaving us as a mere shadow in their minds. What is more, we cannot be sure that their understanding of what we describe is any more substantial than the ghost of our presence, and so we must be careful to use description that attempts to prevent the reader from forming mistaken assumptions. This requirement for more care does tend to make writing appear more formal than the spoken language.
Our use of shortcuts can be problematic due to their multiple meanings. When we say ‘get’ do we mean ‘receive’ or ‘obtain’, for example, as these have very different meanings: when we buy a beer the barkeep should not be obtaining our money (by taking the money out of our purse or wallet) but be receiving it (we take the money out). Shortcuts work well in writing when we can be sure that the reader will have the experience or training to follow the instructions, or we know that the reader may have reading difficulties or a limited reading vocabulary. A simple ‘Get milk’ on a scrap of paper is still writing, and since we are hardly likely to give it to a stranger, then who does receive it should be experienced enough to interpret its meaning.
Finally we have a special one, aside from its use in relation to speech, that we use in place of ‘for example’ when we are estimating or suggesting something for something we are having to guess. “Let’s get twenty people, say, and see if we can…’. For some strange reason, some translator schools seem to teach it as meaning ‘precisely this value in words’, as in: “2,000,000 (say: two million)” instead of just using the precise phrase of ‘in words’: “2,000,000 (in words: two million)”. ‘Say’ is an informal shortcut, rather than a formal phrase, which is what makes its use seem strange.
Well, that’s enough waffle for now, it is time for me to put away my keyboard and do something useful – like dozing in front of the TV.