Language is something that fascinates me. I started taking French when I was 11 and then continued all the way through college, spending a combined two years in various francophone countries. Through the process of learning French, I began to learn Latin roots much better than I ever had while learning English–something that helped me greatly with my memorization of the Periodic Table, along with all of those stupid standardized test that require you to know obscure details about the English language and its ridiculous grammar.
More than that, however, learning a second language made me curious about all word origins (aka etymology). It also helped me to be able to express myself even more precisely…at least when speaking to someone who also knows English and French. There are words that in both languages that just can’t be translated perfectly. In French, there are two different forms of the verb “to know” which allow one to be extremely precise when speaking of “knowing” something. In English, we have gerunds…something I greatly miss when I’m speaking French.
I was having a conversation once with someone who speaks both English and French and in the middle of the thought I was sharing in English, I through in the French term chez moi. I then commented on how much I loved that I could use that term knowing he would understand exactly what I meant. Now, I know most of you have seen chez used in restaurant or retail store names at some point in time, and a lot of people know that it means something along the lines of someone’s home. However, in this context, what I was expressing was something akin to “in my skin” or “in my mind”. This was one of those instances where there wasn’t a really good translation for what I was expressing…leading me to comment on my appreciation of the fact that this person spoke both languages.
He then asked me if I knew what the term ideolect meant. From my etymological skills I could derive the word from its parts. Idio- having to do with oneself and -lect having to do with language, but it was a term I had never before heard. The definition of idiolect is “the speech of an individual, considered as a linguistic pattern unique among speakers of his or her language or dialect” and this led us to a conversation about how we all use words to which we attach our own very specific meanings.
Essentially, we each have our own language. Even if you and I both speak English, when I use the word expensive, I don’t necessarily mean the same thing you do when you use the same word. Now, with certain words it’s easy enough to dig deeper and gain a full understanding, but there are some words where it just isn’t. For instance, when I think of the word love, there are so many thoughts and emotions behind that one word and there’s no way for me to transfer all of that knowledge to another person so that he or she can perfectly understand what I mean.
For the most part, this is not incredibly problematic, but at times it can be. Language, after all, is just a medium that allows us to communicate and express ourselves and is in no way perfect. So, when it comes to trivial matters, the precision of our ability to express ourselves is not that important. It’s in the not-so-trivial situations that we really have to be thoughtful about what we say and how we say it.
Yes, I realize that this whole blog post reveals just how nerdy I can be, but really I could spend hours pontificating on the subject, so I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job at keeping this post to a minimum, even though it is rather lengthy and there are no pictures.
Feb. 24 – I love language and communication.