As a writer I sometimes struggle with the idea that words aren’t as important as we think they are. As a linguist, I’m fascinated by this reality of communication. Depending on which studies you believe, anywhere between 80% and 90% of interpersonal communication has nothing to do with the words. Linguists call this meta-linguistics – the parts of communication that aren’t words. Meta-linguistics is broken into two categories – the things that are directly related to the language and the things that are communication unto themselves (eg. Body language).
When I’m not writing, I work as an educational or freelance ASL interpreter. Lately the differences between those two environments has been a minor source of stress in my life. In freelancing, I am sent out by my agency to do a variety of jobs. Most assignments over 30 minutes I’m sent with a team. I get almost no prep materials, and if I’m lucky I might get a few minutes to chat with the consumers (both Hearing and Deaf). In school, I am sent solo to one 45 minute class after another with only the 5 minute passing time afforded to the students to clear my brain and get ready for the next class. On the plus side I do get prep materials and a chance to get to know the students and teachers.
I know that they teach us not to insult people when we are growing up, and that’s good advice for dealing with real people. Really, if you want to get along in this world, insults aren’t going to do it for you. However, when it comes to characters in stories, insults are quite handy. Characters need to be insulted now and then – it adds to the conflict.
We all know the phrase “It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it.” We have all known the sting of an insult born only in the tone of voice. Yet so few people understand what it is about the way that they say things that gets them in trouble. The same can be said about writing. Sometimes it’s not what you are writing about but how you are writing it that makes the difference between the reader getting it or not.
We all do it. Most of us without thinking about it. We change the way that we speak based on who we are talking to. There are the obvious times – when talking to babies. Then there are the less obvious situations. You probably don’t realize that you use different vocabulary when talking to your boss than to your co-workers. And I know you don’t notice the subtle changes in grammar either. But they’re there.
Try this: Go someplace public where you can eavesdrop on someone else’s conversation and listen carefully. I’m not interested in what other people are saying here, but how they are saying it. Listen to how they form their phrases, when they switch speakers, how often the over-talk each other, etc. Now go one step further and write it down – exactly as they said it – and see what you’ve got.
A mess – that’s what. Even your six-year-old nephew would know that’s bad writing. How can that be? It was a real conversation, why doesn’t it read like one?
I’ve had several encounters recently with people complaining about the way that English is changing. When I stop laughing, I feel a bit of frustration. One of the things that is a constant in language is that it changes. Exactly the same way that the rest of life changes.
There are the obvious changes that happen, like when a new technology shows up and we suddenly need new words to talk about it. For example, prior to the invention of the microwave, we didn’t have that word. Now it has transformed from a noun to a verb, as in “I’m going to microwave my lunch now.” Not such a bad thing if you think about it. If language never changed we’d still be talking about every thing in terms of rocks and fire.