A Personal Journey Through Language
Sometime last year, I was cornered at a party by a man wearing a monocle, who asked me what exactly I did for a living. The target demographic for monocle manufacturers having shifted since I was a kid, the man in question was not a kindly old fellow in a waistcoat, spats, and a white mustache. Monocles, you may recall, enjoyed a recent Brooklyn-hipster resurgence, which has now trickled down to a certain breed of hip-yet-affluent creative-class suburb-dweller.
This guy had had a decades-long career as a visual artist. He was just getting bored with that (“Sure, I have work in the MoMA, but who does it impress, you know?”) when he’d lucked into a job renovating an old coffee bean warehouse, converting the space into some upscale lofts. They’re ridiculously overpaying him, he told me, even though he has no idea what he’s doing.
It’s been a while since I lucked into anything, let alone a lucrative job, so he had me a little bit on the defensive from the jump. I told him—defensively—that I’m a writer. His face lit up with interest. He leaned toward me, lowered his voice a bit, one creative class professional to another. “Tell me,” he said, “how did you come to join the world of letters?”
There are many kinds of writers, including those who refer to writing as “the world of letters.” For me, though, becoming a writer was nothing so exalted. A brutal divorce coincided with a devastating life event: my daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. It was bad timing, a sort of event cascade, and it meant that in the midst of panic about where to live and what to do for a living, I also needed to keep my schedule flexible for my daughter’s endocrinologist appointments; needed to work from the free WiFi in the lobby of her school sometimes; needed, like a lot of women these days, to somehow fake giving 100 percent to a career while simultaneously giving exactly 100 percent to being the best possible Mom.
I can sum up that time in a few neat phrases, but living through it was another thing altogether. It was a year and a half I spent in a fog. Writing is something you can do from anywhere, and, it seems, something you can do in a fog, if you have to. It’s something you can catch up on in the middle of the night while your daughter is sleeping in between blood glucose checks.
When the fog cleared, I was divorced; and I was a writer. I’d been writing for publication, and for pay, as a sideline for many years, so it wasn’t such a stretch to start freelancing full-time. For me, it wasn’t about joining any “world of letters.” It was survival. I was writing for my life.
Every writer gets asked why we write, and I think we all have various levels of honesty when we answer; that’s common courtesy, just as you try to get a sense, before answering, how much detail about “how’ve you been?” your listener really needs or wants to hear. For me, beyond the shipwreck that landed me here, in a sporadically paid career I may not be all that great at, it comes down to the words themselves.
Words—spoken and written—have always hit me hard. Some people seem to be wired that way. We remember song lyrics, we replay conversations on a loop in our heads. As a child I read early and often—so often that I was disciplined for reading: reading ahead of the class in the textbook, reading under the covers after dark, reading at the dinner table, sneaking a book into the gymnasium to read when it was supposed to be PE, trying to read a book while walking to the bus stop. I would sit and read the ingredients on a cereal box or a candy bar, if there was nothing else to read; I couldn’t, and still can’t, look at words without reading them. One thing that sometimes reassures me that I haven’t actually stumbled into the wrong career path is that lots of my fellow writers seem to share this trait. Lots of us grew up being that kid with his or her nose in a book.
On the path from reading to writing, I remember a little notebook someone gave me for a birthday early on, when my age could still be counted in single digits. It was the kind of notebook you give to little girls: leather-bound, with a flimsy aluminum lock that opened with a small, shiny, stamp-cut aluminum key. I can’t swear to it, but it probably had the word “Diary” in large loopy script on the front. It may or may not have been pink.
Writing daily entries in a diary didn’t come easily to me. For one thing, I was my own worst critic—or, anyway, so I imagined, until my brother found the notebook, pried open the lock, and left scathing critical remarks in the margin with a red ballpoint pen. (In fairness, in one entry I’d referred to him as an idiot: the worst word I knew at that age, which I’d picked up from reading a Hardy Boys mystery).
After that, for a while, I hardly wrote in it at all; I was too self-conscious. Anyway, I’d already noticed that if I wrote down the events of my daily life, the account seemed trivial. My days were the days of a little kid, and it just wasn’t good enough. There was nothing to record. I had an Adam Ant album on cassette (Desperate but Not Serious), and it disappeared: stolen! That was the most noteworthy thing that happened during an entire semester of school. I remember writing a brief lament on the topic that I hardly knew anybody, any people—the only people I hung out with were a bunch of other little kids.
The other problem with my writing was that it wasn’t good. And I knew it. Being the obsessive reader that I was—being one of those kids who reads instead of having a life—I think I must’ve also known, or been on the way to learning, what good writing sounds like. How it lands, how it hits the ear, how it draws you in and wraps you up. I don’t think I had ambitions of creating anything really good, but I did know that what I wrote in the dairy was not that.
But—again, like a lot of kids who grow up to be writers—I love a good blank notebook. And I don’t leave blank pages if I can help it, not in a notebook that belongs to me.
So, in the drought that followed the plague of my brother’s marginal notes, in an agony of wanting to fill pages but not wanting to write, I wrote words. Words instead of sentences, words instead of phrases, words instead of paragraphs. Words by themselves at first; followed by words arranged in lists.
I arranged them by category. I remember lists of words with good vibes and bad vibes, of masculine words and feminine words, tough words and weak words, warm and cold words, of comforting and exciting words. I listed insulting words and words of praise. I remember a list of words of four and five letters, of words with two ‘i’s, of words with two ‘o’s. Maybe I was kind of a weird kid.
I moved on to journals and sketchbooks when the word “diary” started to sound too childish, but I still listed words for a long, long time. One list, the shortest list, survived that transition: the list of my five favorite words.
I don’t recall quite how it took shape, or how old I was when it did. I know that I was too young to have heard of etymology, or to have any interest in it even if I had; I don’t think I thought of words as having history, then. It might have begun as a list of words that didn’t seem to belong on any of the other lists. After a while I didn’t write it down anymore, because I knew it by heart: bistro, kiosk, kayak, coyote, pagoda. It was decades before I realized that etymology—the study of the origin of a word and the way that its meaning has changed throughout history—was the thing they all had in common. My favorite words in English all come from somewhere else; and most of them have complicated origins, filtered through and influenced by more than one tongue.
To wit: “Bistro” comes to English from French, with a contested, folkloric etymology—some say it came from Russian taxi drivers, or displaced Russian aristocrats, calling out “hurry” (bistrot) in Paris cafés; others claim it comes from bistraud, a word in the Poitou dialect which has something to do with wine merchants. “Kiosk” comes to English from Persian by way of Turkish and then French. “Kayak” is the simplest word on the list, derived from an Inuit word, quayaq. And “coyote” comes from Mexican Spanish by way of Nahuatl. “Pagoda” comes from Portuguese pagode, and possibly also has roots in Persian (butkada, “temple of idols”) and Prakrit (bhagodī, “divine”).
When I first realized what my five seemingly random words had in common, it seemed cool, in a fun, uncomplicated way: like I’d collected five power-ups in a video game, or five charms on a charm bracelet. White America, of course, is steeped in unapologetic and rapacious cultural colonization. Until you learn to question it, it’s as natural as breathing. The cartoons I grew up on —Scooby-Doo, Looney Tunes, Hong Kong Fooey, Jem and the Holograms—were full of racist caricatures, tokenism, exoticism. I probably first heard the word “pagoda” on Scooby-Doo, or read it in a Hardy Boys mystery—and latched onto it as something novel and neat.
It wasn’t until much later that I learned more about Nahuatl – the source language for coyote. It was the language of the Aztec Empire, and is still spoken in Mexico. With only around 1.5 million speakers, it’s considered an endangered language by the Linguistic Society of America. I knew that languages sometimes die, leaving the odd word or phrase behind. Neat isn’t quite the right word for that phenomenon, once you really consider what it means: A language is said to be dead when its last living speaker dies.
Once you look at it that way, loaner words no longer seem like cool charms or trinkets, but gruesome trophies collected on the field of battle—a battle for dominance that renders some languages mere casualties of war. I started to wonder if English, at least sometimes, collects these things like a predator collects skulls and bones in its nest: remnants of a thing devoured.
As the lists-of-words phase was coming to an end, sometime in my teen years, I started reading William Safire’s “On Language” column in the New York Times, and it had a bit of the same effect on me as my brother’s caustic marginal remarks in my first diary. Safire wrote in a condescending, insidery, know-it-all tone that still influences the way lots of people approach language and grammar to this day. He was politically conservative, and a prescriptive grammarian, and those two things go together: conservatism is often based in fear. Fear that if we don’t defend our borders—even mere linguistic ones—our culture will be overrun, will cease to exist.
This, of course, is farcical. American English can’t be kept pure—because it was never pure.
And, as John McWhorter, author of What Language Is and many other books on language, has said, once we had Walter Cronkite talking to all of us; now we’re all talking to each other. Language has always changed, but now it’s changing faster than ever. That’s one reason why I’m always surprised by the number of writers who still gleefully correct people’s grammar, or take sadistic joy in things like pointing out misuse of the Oxford comma. We, who have to memorize and navigate various style guides and editorial preferences, can’t remain blissfully unaware of how capricious and changeable the rules are. As June Casagrande put it in a brilliant takedown of grammar cops called “Grammar Purity is One Big Ponzi Scheme:” “underneath all discussions of grammar propriety is a struggle over who gets to call the shots.”
Like McWhorter, I embrace linguistic change. I can’t help it; it’s an optimistic mindset, and I still love words that come from somewhere else. I love that the global rise of K-pop has brought new words with it: oppa, maknae, saranghae. A recent hit, “Chicken Noodle Soup,” had Korean star J-Hope and Latina singer Becky G trading verses in Korean, English, and Spanish; fan translations hit the internet within hours. Fan translations are unpaid labor—literally a labor of love—that changed the face of pop music.
Thinking over all of this—thinking of English as a lover at best, a thief and a murderer at worst—took me back to 2016, when, at a writers’ conference, I heard a lecture by Benjamin C. Kinney, a neuroscientist who is also a science fiction author and editor. I recalled him saying something about the relative unimportance of language; that language as it exists now, written and spoken, is a sort of bizarre evolutionary tangent, a needlessly complex series of elaborations on an initially useful innovation.
I e-mailed him, and he kindly replied, with a link to a published version of the talk and a clarification of what I’d remembered. In the lecture, he said, he’d posed the question: “What did the brain evolve to accomplish, versus what’s been hacked and bootstrapped atop that core function?” Language, it seems, falls in the latter category. As Kinney explained to me, “All evidence points toward the brain having one core function, one purpose that drove its evolution: movement.”
“Sometimes,” he explained, “cognition and movement are inseparable: movement planning and cognitive decision-making are so deeply interconnected that moral uncertainty can introduce movement uncertainty. More often,” he continues,
our often-shoddy “advanced” capabilities are built atop a solid foundation of movement systems. Conscious memory is an unreliable reconstruction, but movement and skill memory can last for years, exactly like riding a bike. Many optical illusions highlight the makeshift pliability of conscious perception because they reveal a division between vision-for-perception and vision-for-action.
Movement is where the rubber hits the road of evolutionary fitness, the unavoidable step before the brain can affect survival and reproduction… For any problem a human might encounter in the world, there could be a dozen ways to solve it through consciousness and emotion, memory and social coordination—but the back-end mechanism doesn’t matter unless you implement that solution through action, whether it’s throwing a spear, speaking a loving word, or typing on a keyboard.
Language is there for both halves: it aids movement planning by allowing us to learn and teach skills; it aids movement selection by allowing us to decide which things we want to do, including coordination between people and groups and nations.
When I was young, I’d imagined English as, at best, a benign collector of oddities; at worst, a vigorous hybrid, thriving in challenging conditions because of its ability to stay open, to discard outdated notions of purity.
When I grew older—when I learned about the definition of a dead language—I saw something more sinister. I saw all the things that people do to each other to survive, all the dark scenarios that lead to a language spreading out or dying: war, refugees, colonization, exploitation, subjugation of local peoples, genocide.
Kinney’s talk redeemed my collection of linguistic souvenirs somewhat; it made me think of language as it must have evolved, way back when early man had to communicate to live. Humans are social animals; language is a tool that, through constant use, has become both more bent and deformed, and more elaborate, more decorated, more ornate. Yet, more or less, it still serves the purpose for which it was designed.
And language spreads through love, too; there’s a saying about that, I believe, in at least a few different cultures. Language spreads not just through love between individuals, but through cultural exchange. It’s not all hell, the things humans do to one another; things move in the right direction, sometimes. In February, a Korean-language film won four Academy Awards, and Bong Joon Ho, the director, gave most of his speech in Korean. That’s never happened at the Oscars before. When change happens, at least sometimes, it bespeaks not rapacious cultural colonization, but something kinder: appreciation, even if belated; or openness; or even genuine, respectful cultural exchange. The K-pop fan translators who made my favorite songs more accessible to fans forged that path, and the stuffy old Academy of Motion Pictures followed suit.
“World of letters,” then. It sounds ever so refined. Maybe it’s an optimistic phrase, if a stuffy one. I didn’t react well when my monocle-bearing friend used it to describe my profession; I wasn’t feeling optimistic just then. I was feeling tired, and poor, and envious, and like I was at the tail end of a long line of bad choices—choices made out of necessity, made out of fear.
But what else is human evolution if it isn’t just that: bad choices made out of necessity and fear? We wouldn’t have language, written or spoken, without it. If some guy in a monocle wants to call all of that a “world of letters,” well, who am I to argue? Maybe, at this late date, I’ll even decide to join.