Language as Definition

The other day I was having a chat with a very good friend.  She is a real linguist; she speaks Korean, Japanese and English with equal fluency and has great insight to the nuance that each one presents.  Because I’m taking Japanese lessons, the intricacies of the language are often a topic of conversation.  In Japanese, she explained, people define themselves by the way they use language.  They take on a role via their usage of language.  For example, the big boss of a department at the bank would not speak the same way his underlings might speak.  There are separate words and phrases that women use that men do not.  School children use different language than older counterparts, but all children are taught the language of respect when speaking to elders.   I’m not explaining the fine nuances nearly as well as my friend did.  She gave an example using the word “funny”.  In Japanese there are different words for ha-ha funny and funny meaning creepy.  A boss would want to be ha-ha funny sometimes with his employees to lighten the atmosphere, but never creepy-funny.  Of course then she had to laugh; maybe the example wasn’t the best because especially in Japan, being a boss is serious business, she said. But I got the gist of what she meant.

As a writer, this concept of language defining a person fascinated me.  The characters we create, whether we work in fiction or even non-fiction have to somehow differentiate themselves from each other and then jump off the page for the reader.  What better way to do this than with language? One person might talk with one type of words and another character might employ a different set to convey a similar idea.  If a writer is clever, the cadence of speech is discernible to the reader.  And the biggest way for this to happen in English might be through dialect.

In graduate school, one professor had us write out a conversation without any “he said” or “she said.”  We had to differentiate between the two speakers via their dialects.  The lesson in there was that the dialectical language has to be carefully placed and not overdone so that the words become incoherent to the reader.  When doing it, I used a conversation between my aunt and myself – my aunt having a pretty thick Long Island accent (though she’d deny it to the hilt!).  “Sweethawt, you’re not listening tah me,”  I wrote as the first line.  Line by line I worked and in the workshop oriented classroom, my peers were careful to point out where I had done well and where I had gone too far.  I used the words and the dialect to build tension between the two speakers – my sixteen-year-old self was arguing with her at the time – but then had to cool it down as the voices were lowered.  I’m not sure how I succeeded, but it sure was an interesting experience.

I’ve written a few short pieces about speaking with this particular linguist friend, with whom I’ve been close for a long time.  She says that when she dreams, if I’m in her dream, the dream is in English, but if she is dreaming about her father, she dreams in Korean.  The subconscious use of language transcends even our cognition sometimes.

What I have learned from knowing this friend and from writing, is that language can be a defining piece of a person and if used properly, is the strongest tool that a writer has regarding his characters.  I look forward to many more discussions on the subject.

2 thoughts on “Language as Definition

  1. Hi, Aimee,
    Not sure if you remember me, but I was Sydney’s after-care teacher at Aquinas. I met you and Marc at one of the many school concerts. It sounds as if you all are well and enjoying life in Tokyo. Please tell Sydney that I said hi and think of her often. I enjoy drinking from the beautiful cup she brought back from Japan several years ago. The cup has a place of honor on my desk at work and it still has the Japanese sticker on the bottom. How is she doing in school? I enjoy your blog and your literary style. Today’s entry, “Language as Definition,” was a delightful read. As an editor, I certainly appreciate good grammar and a well-turned phrase. Please e-mail me, if you wish, and I can catch you up on Aquinas and such.
    As ever,
    Mickey Trimarchi

  2. Hi Aimee
    Our book club yesterday discussed The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa. Your blog post was really timely, thank you! We also talked about how a translator has to be so skilled in order that the true essence of an author’s work is translated from one language to another.
    Thanks again

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