Sunday 26 May 2013

The Physics of Words - Andrew Strong

Don’t you love words? I love words. I love words so much I use them all the time.  My favourite words are slippage, anthracite and funicular. Although that’s only what sprung to mind when I wrote the last sentence. Dennis Potter’s Singing Detective’s favourite word was elbow from whence the band got its name.

Elbow is a good word. It seems to suggest the joint in two ways. First, of course, there is the ‘L’ – no doubt where the word came from in the first place, but there’s also the sense of second syllable going off at an angle to the first.  Or maybe you don’t see that.  Maybe it’s just me.

With so many to choose from it’s really quite ridiculous to say that any one word is your favourite, but, come on, we all have them.  When I was young my favourite word was ‘adapter’.  I have no idea why.  More recently I’ve come to fancy Blorenge, the only word I know that rhymes with orange.  (The Blorenge is a mountain in South Wales.)

I like words for their sounds, for what they suggest, as well as what they mean.  I also enjoy the hidden poetry of words.  I love the metaphor grasp – as in to grasp an idea – there are so many connotations, grasping on to a branch of a tree, a baby grasping a parent’s finger, and the hidden gasp when the grasp is released, or when the idea is grasped.

I adore words, and sentences, for their rhythms and textures, as in Manley Hopkins’ Pied Beauty:

Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chesnut falls; finches wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow and plough
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

But when I read Steven Pinker’s utterly wonderful book The Stuff of Thought I realised there was an element of language that revealed something of the world I had never considered.

Why do we talk about things being underwater when they are in water?  Or underground when they are in the ground? Do we describe ourselves as being ‘under the air’?  The words refer to surfaces, of course, not substances.  Ultimately, Pinker suggests, the way we use words has something to do with physics.

Why can we say he poured water into the jug but not the jug was poured with water?  We can say he daubed paint on the wall and the wall was daubed with paint. So why is the daubed sentence interchangeable, but not poured

Physics, says Pinker. It’s physics.  Verbs that describe something coming into contact with something else (e.g. daub) are more flexible than verbs that involve the work of gravity (pour). Because gravity goes only one way.  Pinker suggests that words and syntax have a logic of which most of us are unaware. 
When we read our brains are subject to a huge variety of conscious and unconscious messages and patterns.  Pinker has shown that syntax can describe the world in he same way that Freud revealed how words can betray our thoughts.  Words can contain everything from the fizz and spill of our synapses to the music of the spheres, and we, as writers, or our readers, may not be aware of a fraction of what is going on.  It’s all pretty miraculous, don’t you think?


Penny Dolan said...

Certainly do! A very interesting look at words - am now off to look for a jug and some water . . .

Joan Lennon said...

This is great - thanks, Andrew!

A Wilson said...

Lovely blog. I go through phases with favourite words and find myself using certain ones over and over until I tire of them and move on to others. I particularly like "specious" and "shambolic" at the moment. Thank you for your insight and also for the recommendation of Steven Pinker's book, which I shall now have to read.

Lari Don said...

This is my second attempt to leave a comment (and if it doesn't work, I'll be very nervous about my second attempt to put an ABBA blog up this week...) But this is a fascinating post, Andrew, which had me reading out loud most of the way down, just to feel the words in my mouth. If you enjoyed the Steven Pinker book, you might also like The Tell Tale Brain by VS Ramachandran, in which the author theorises that the shapes our fingers make when we think about an object might influence the shape our mouths make when we communicate about it - and therefore what words we use for that object or related concepts. At least, I think that's what he's saying - I'm only halfway through the book! Great post.

Andrew Strong said...

Thanks all...and Lari, thanks for the recommendation. Shapes of fingers...I play Irish fiddle, and have always been intrigued by how much the shape of my fingers often means more than the sound I make. (If you heard me you'd understand why).

Andrew Strong said...
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