Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Sommelier of Semantics - in search of the perfect language

There was a time when I was always from somewhere else.

In Denver where I live, I used to open my mouth and people made a wide range of guesses at where I might be from: Australia, Massachusetts, South Africa? Close, but no cigar. In my native land of England, when I visited from my home in the States, they wondered but often could not place me – maybe Newfoundland? On either side of the Atlantic, I felt like I was always from somewhere else. And maybe I was.

That was a decade ago. Now that I’ve been an emigrant for twenty years, my spoken English is firmly on the American side of the water. I’ve forgotten some of the British colloquialisms I grew up with and I’ve been speaking like a Yank for some time now. I even noticed myself using the adjective “good” in place of the adverb “well” the other day. Crikey! My haughty boarding school English teacher would be turning over in his grave. Have I really replaced “Terribly good show, what, old sport!” with “You did good!”?

One of the advantages of being a classically educated Englishman in cowboy country is that I occasionally sound like I know what I’m talking about – even when I don’t. But I’m fascinated to think how differently I sound depending on whom I’m talking to.

My nine year old came into the bathroom this morning, still half asleep, and lapsed into baby talk. Never one to encourage my girls to grow up too fast, I went right there with her. Like all families, mine has all kinds of words left over from the toddler years. My two favorites are hep, which is what my older daughter used to substitute for except and ambliance. No one can park in the hospital parking lot, hep the ambliances. This is the stuff of family legend.

When I teach my graduate students, I use entirely different language. When I speak to my class of third graders, different again. I choose a wide range of vocabulary, cadence, tempo, and tone depending on my audience: my hard of hearing neighbor, my children, the jerk at the post office, my buddies at the bar, my boss, my wife. Imagine using one form of our spoken language in place of another. What if I whispered sweet nothings when I’m trying to return a salad shooter at the mall. Ugh!

The same goes for written form: e-mails and letters to friends, job applications, school reports, sticky notes left in the kitchen to remind my kids to take out the trash. All with a very different purpose and I adjust my language accordingly. As an essayist, my written language varies according to topic and intended audience. When I am trying to inject humour into my work, I tend to write in a more conversational tone. I like to imagine my essay as a speech, my audience sitting there before me, guffawing along with me. When my subject matter floats towards the more serious and emotional, so does my language.

When I was thirteen, my Welsh grandmother gave me a paperback copy of Roget’s Thesaurus. I still have it and use it frequently. It’s dog-eared, bent, and falling apart at the seams. That amazing volume of vocabularious lexiconality (okay, I just made those words up) has got me through many a stumbling point in my writing adventures. I don’t know who Mr Roget is or was, but his store of knowledge will always be more meaningful and beneficial than the electronic versions they have nowadays.

As I writer, I love to ponder the nuances of meaning, selecting just the perfect word or phrase at the perfect time. I imagine myself as a sommelier of semantics, an owner of a vast array of delectable flavors, savoring each old friend, trying to discern exactly which one will hit the spot with each course. I don’t always find the right mark, but I enjoy the game immensely.

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