The Emotional Badlands of Language, or, Language is Not Just Data

Leonard Cohen Pic

Photo Credit: Canadian singer Leonard Cohen in Trouville-sur-Mer (Normandy, France), taken 26 January 1988 by Roland Godefroy: Teddyyy/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

If words are the arrow, we ourselves — our interior landscapes, our outward actions, the authenticity of our lives — are the bow.” (Popova, par. 1)

As many of my blog readers know, I write a certain type of literary fiction, a subcategory of the genre – psychological fiction. This type of fiction isn’t just about characters’ outer reality (their struggles, their dreams, their desires, etc.) but about how their outer reality is informed and changed by their inner reality (what I’ve referred to often as their psychological reality). Within this realm, then, it’s not only character actions, thoughts, and emotions that matter but also words — what words the characters choose to use (and what words they avoid), how they use them, when they use them, why they use them, and what meanings they attach to them.

A while back, I ran across this article where one of the world’s leading writers and musicians made clear his perspective on language in art which differs from mine. Leonard Cohen, it seems, believed words were a matter of logic rather than emotion. “‘Think of … words as science, not as art,’” he declared. “‘They are a report’” (As quoted in Popova, par. 6). This point of view isn’t necessarily off. In fact, it gels with what I learned in graduate school in an introduction to linguistics class — that language usage, on all levels from paragraph to sound — is confined to rules and guidelines. The Linguistic Society of America defines linguistics in terms we would find on the home page of an organization dedicated to biology or chemistry or physics. The way words work and how we use them, therefore, is open to factual interpretation.

But I don’t believe this is the whole story. True, language does work on a system that seems sometimes mechanical and, for the most part, logical (or, in the case of English, sometimes breaking off into “exceptions to the rule”). But when we look at language as a means of communication, the primary means humans have, the story becomes much more complex. Language doesn’t exist in a vacuum. We use it convey meaning and as such, it opens itself up to personal and subjective interpretation from all sides — those who are using it and those to whom it is directed.

What complicates the picture even further is that, since we are emotional beings, we attach significance to words or read into them more than what they were intended to convey. It’s kind of like passing by a bakery and smelling the bread baking beyond its doors and this triggers a memory of your grandmother baking bread in the kitchen on a hot day. I can’t smell honey cake without remembering the way the kitchen smelled when my grandmother had just taken her honey cookies out of the oven. With the memory flocks emotions that we associate with it, some good, some bad, some indifferent.

It’s the same with words. One word might have a very different connotation for one person than for another because of the emotions that person associates with it. The word “monkey” or “chimp”, for example, might be indifferent to a lot of people or maybe bring up funny images of watching these animals at the zoo when you were a kid. For me, the word triggers a much deeper and more ambivalent emotion because my mother used to tease me by calling me a “kof” (the Hebrew word for chimp) whenever I did something she thought was silly or stupid. To her, it was just a joke, but to me, it became a word embedded with shame and guilt and embarrassment. I’m sure many of us have words our parents used that bring up emotions for us whereas they are neutral to other people.

There are words that not only have emotional associations but metaphorical value for us as well that again depend on our own personal associations. Cohen uses the example of the word “butterfly” and advises

“‘[d]o not make so much of the word. … The word butterfly is merely data. It is not an opportunity for you to hover, soar, befriend flowers, symbolize beauty and frailty, or in any way impersonate a butterfly. Do not act out words. Never act out words.’” (As quoted in Popova, par. 4)

But words aren’t merely data when you get right down to it. I recently signed up to be a judge in a contest of women’s fiction writing. One of the entries I read had the ingenuous title of “The Concrete Womb”. I had no idea what the title was referring to though it intrigued me. As I read the entry, it became clear the writer was using the word “womb” to mean many things, literal, psychological, and metaphorical. The story dealt with prison life and the womb is a symbol of the prison cell for the main character. She befriends her cell mate who turns out to be not only a friend and protector but rallies to get her an early release. In addition, there are references to maternal love and maternity related to this main character which bring up the image of the womb. So in this story, the word “womb” became not just data but something infused with all kinds of meanings.

My current work-in-progress is a historical mystery (you can read more about where I’m going with this on the Coming Soon page of my website) that uses the word “gold” literally, psychologically, and metaphorically. The word also has historical significance. The story takes place in the early 20th century when the Gold Standard was in place and this made gold both a literal and political hot button issue. In my story, it also becomes infused with more personal and psychological meaning (I don’t want to give away too much here, since the story is a mystery).

On one level, Cohen was right — language does have a set of rules and in order to be coherently understood, we must know those rules and follow them. Thus, his insistence that we think of words as science and not art holds true from that perspective. But as with everything human, once we delve deeper into both words and art, the picture becomes more complex and, I would argue, more interesting.

Works Cited

Popova, Maria. “The Constitution of the Inner Country: Leonard Cohen on Words and the Poetry of Inhabiting Your Presence in Language”. Brain Pickings. Brain Pickings. 1 March 2018. Web. 13 June 2018.

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