Monthly Archives: July 2015

7 Things Every Writer Should Know about Linguistics

It’s a big, complicated word, “linguistics,” stuffed with technical concepts and broad theories. If writing is your craft, though, this particular study could well be your best friend.

1. Linguistics is the study of language structure and use. It is not full language acquisition.

Don’t ask a linguist how many languages he or she speaks, because you’ll get the stink-eye in return. The purpose of linguistics is not to learn multiple languages. It is to study and define the patterns that occur within a language and across multiple language families. This makes it is the perfect discipline for any writer who wants to get elbow-deep into the craft.

2. Linguistics is a descriptive discipline, not a prescriptive one.

It never ceases to amaze me how prescriptive “creative writing” can be: Don’t use this. Don’t do that. Write this way, not that way. These days, creative writing instruction seems to focus on the “how,” the rigid application of language use. In contrast, Linguistics focuses on the “why,” the doctrine. It teaches the underlying principles that govern language use and, as such, can cue a writer on when it’s appropriate to ignore prescriptive counsel or to flout a general rule.

3. Linguists are not Grammar Nazis.

Again, linguistics aims to describe language use, not prescribe it. Because of this, linguists might exude a somewhat smug moral superiority over the petty grammar “advocates” that pepper the Internet and elsewhere. Linguists know the rules (quite intimately, in most cases) and love to observe when and why those rules get broken. They don’t want you to check your grammar usage around them, which is probably the most convincing reason that you should.

Where a Grammar Nazi will correct your every little flaw and dictate which words you should or should not use, the linguist’s outlook is more a “live and let live,” stress-free state of mind. And because no one, not even the most stringent of Grammar Nazis, gets language 100% right all the time, the laissez-faire approach is much more logical.

Besides, who doesn’t love exuding smug moral superiority? Put down your brickbats, Grammar Nazis, and delve into true language proficiency.

4. Linguistics has multiple fields that can be useful to a writer, especially a fiction writer.

  • Phonology/Phonetics: the study of the different sounds in language. Every language has its own phoneme inventory, and phonetic environments create variations called allophones. This field includes regional and foreign accents as well as speech impediments and slurring, and can be an incredible tool to show characterization. Additional writing tools: stress, alliteration, assonance, metathesis, onomatopoeia.
  • Morphology: the study of the smallest units of meaning in language, called morphemes. These are the building blocks for word creation and include affixes, roots, and grammar markers (such as the ‘s on a possessive noun). Writing tools: wordplay, portmanteaus, nonce words; J.R.R. Tolkien uses an aberrant morphology pattern in Gollum’s speech to reinforce his disconnect from society; Louis Carroll combines morphemes from separate words to create new ones (e.g., “chortle” from “chuckle” and “snort”). Morphology can also serve well in world-building, particularly when it comes to place names.
  • Syntax: the study of sentence structure and parts of speech. Seriously, what can I say about this? You can’t write without syntax. Writing tools: verbing, word order, parataxis vs. hypotaxis vs. embedding, fragments and run-on sentences. If you’re a writer, syntax is your bread and butter, and you’d be well served to delve into its depths.
  • Semantics: the study of meaning. Writing tools: metaphor, ambiguity, malapropisms, double-entendres. Semantics takes nuance into consideration and helps create the atmosphere associated with any work of literature. Is your narrative dry or lush? Purple prose or objective sparseness? Semantics can introduce multiple layers of meaning and set the tone of the piece.
  • Pragmatics: the study of communication. Writing tools: the big word with Pragmatics, insofar as I’m concerned, is DIALOGUE. But it’s not just character-to-character dialogue. Writers create a dialogue with their readers. Pragmatics includes intent vs. result, whether a message was properly received, and whether the speaker even meant for that message to be properly received. Politeness, deception, relevance, the meaning behind a certain intonation or inflection: all of these fall into the field of Pragmatics. This is the garden path where all aforementioned fields come together to play. I cannot say enough about the usefulness of pragmatics in creative writing.
  • Typology: the study of patterns across multiple languages. Writing tools: foreign language structures and features; those really ambitious writers who want to create a new language entirely can look to typology as an apt starting point.
  • Language Acquisition: the study of language learning. Writing tools: speech patterns of children (first-language learners) and speakers of other languages (secondary-language learners), including phonetic approximation and vocabulary acquisition. We’ve all read that story where the supposedly normal 2-year-old speaks with unnatural distinction, or the foreigner stumbles with simple vocabulary but pulls out complex verb tenses. Don’t be that writer. Language acquisition is systematic and predictable.
  • Historical Linguistics: the study of language change over time. Writing tools: etymology, archaic case endings and speech patterns. This is my favorite field of linguistics. It provides such a nice template for creation, and it softens one’s inclinations toward prescriptivism. It’s difficult to demand that language use be kept to one specific pattern when you’ve glimpsed all the other cycles it’s passed through to get there.

5. Linguistics can shine light on the otherwise nebulous “Show, don’t tell.”

In fact, it can do so from multiple angles. In Syntax, “showing vs. telling” involves the theta-roles assigned by verbs. Pragmatics highlights “showing” through manner and relevance of communication. Instead of the narrow, “do this, not that, use this verb not that one” instruction that occurs with creative writing classes, these linguistic fields provide the inner workings of the language, thus allowing writers to self-identify “tell” prose and “show” prose and strike a balance accordingly.

6. Linguistics has a steep learning curve, but it’s worth the climb.

The discipline is rife with jargon, a “restrictive code” to talk about restrictive codes (among other phenomena). This is nothing more than language used to describe language. Terms and usage will be unfamiliar at first, but don’t get discouraged.

Syntax is probably the easiest place to start, because most people are at least familiar with parts of speech. Hardest place to start would be Pragmatics, where “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” And yet, from a creative standpoint, Pragmatics is probably the best field to tackle, simply for how it broadens one’s concept of language and its endless possibilities.

7. As a writer, you’re already using linguistic principles. You’re probably using many of them subconsciously.

Ultimately, as language users, the principles of linguistics are already written in our brains. It’s just a matter of identification. Do you have a character that spouts off $5 words to assert personal authority/intelligence? That’s Pragmatics with a dash of Historical Linguistics. Foreign accents? Phonology and Language Acquisition. Deceptive double-speak? Syntax, Semantics, and Pragmatics. None of these fields exists in a vacuum, and no literature exists without them.

In closing, I leave you with this quote from the wonderful Ludwig van Beethoven:

Beethoven_quote

 

Also, as an apology for the click-bait title on this article, a bonus!

8. Linguists love puns and other corny language jokes.

It’s true. The worse the pun, the more they adore it. Check out the Linguistics Llama for undeniable proof. If you think that’s clever, or you want in on the jokes, Linguistics might be the discipline for you!

 

Writerly Confessions

SpellcheckConfession

This post has languished in my draft file, in one form or another, for well over a month. It’s not meant as a pity-party post, but more as a State of the State of Mind. Honestly, I hesitate to admit to any of it, but here goes.

Confession #1: I don’t have a reliable computer of my own right now.

Sometime back in mid-February, the left hinge on my laptop cracked, which made the screen tear apart every time I went to open it. Just leave it open then, right? Yeah. The next day, the computer itself started acting like it had had a stroke, and the day after that, it gave me the fatal blue screen and claimed not to have a hard drive when I tried to restart it.

Thanks to a timely prompting, I had just backed up all of my writing files to a thumb drive. The laptop did restart on subsequent attempts, but my confidence in it was shot and I’ve only turned it on three times since then. Basically all of my work relies on Word and Excel documents. With the impending Windows OS update on the horizon, I have been borrowing computer time elsewhere and working off of file-sharing software. (And yes, I know I could get an Apple instead, but Office for Mac has a horrible reputation, and I can’t justify shelling out that amount of cash when my main program would be subpar.) Which means,

Confession #2: I haven’t started any new writing projects since finishing a manuscript last January.

In some respects, this is okay. I’ve been editing The Legendary Inge and prepping it for publication. I’ve worked on various freelance projects, which have provided me with actual paychecks. I’ve also started into a second-draft edit of a book I wrote 4-ish years ago. So it’s not like I’ve been totally delinquent in the writing arena. I just haven’t committed to any new projects (aside from one, brief foray that lasted for all of a page before I decided I can’t write on someone else’s computer, even if the file is saved elsewhere).

However, the creative valve has been in its “off” position for long enough that it leads me to

Confession #3: I often wonder if my well of creativity has run dry.

Is this a common concern among writers? I don’t know. When I first started writing, I never thought I had it in me to finish even one book, let alone 12, and I grapple with a near-constant fear that as I progress, I’m really just writing the same book over and over and over again. I see parallels in my characters, my plots, my themes. They each have their different quirks, of course, but I wonder how one book would stand under close scrutiny with another, whether I’m wearing into a “you’ve read one, you’ve read them all” sort of rut. What’s the point of treading across the same grounds again and again? And then I go and look at the list of 7 original plots and I just… I don’t know. Give up? Because, really,

Confession #4: I often struggle with whether to give up writing entirely.

By “often,” I mean basically every day. I look at what I’m doing, what I’ve done, and what lies ahead, and I think, “Okay, Kate, you’ve had your fun. Maybe it’s time to abandon ship and go live in the real world. Get a real job with a steady paycheck and give up on this pipe dream.” And my Id adds in a whisper, “You were never really that good at it anyway.” And I’m not. Most of the time I’m a mass of writhing insecurities cobbled together with apathy and cynicism. The apathy is what whispers back to that insidious Id, “And your point? No one gives a rip.”

Oh, Apathy, my dear friend for all these years, how much heartache you’ve spared me!

Ever since I started writing, I’ve wondered if I should stop, if it was a waste of time, if I was capable of producing anything of quality, how writing fiction fit into my worldview and my goals in life (or lack thereof, unfortunately). When I was in high school, I thought, “I’ll quit when I start college.” In college, it was, “I’ll quit when I graduate.” After graduation, “I’ll quit when I turn 22” and then “…when I turn 25” and then “…when I’ve finished my Master’s.” And every time, I reneged.

When I finished my MA I finally decided to give writing a fair shake, but 7+ years down the road, I don’t feel like I’ve hacked very far into the bush at all. Mostly because I haven’t. The path in front of me is clotted with obstacles, and I can still see the easy way behind me. I can also see others hacking their way through the overgrowth in front of them, and I admire them for it. I’m just still dithering, but without a specific deadline to renege on anymore.

The past 2-3 months have been pretty difficult, insofar as my writing struggle goes. I attended a writer’s conference (also in February, when the laptop fizzled) and saw the energy of the other attendees, and their enthusiasm, and their renewed determination to go out and create. I just wanted to go home and burn everything to ashes. (Thank you, Apathy, for intercepting that desire.)

In general, crowds drain me to a soulless husk anyway, but attending class after class of, “Hey, this is how you should write!” and “You need to do this but not that,” instead of motivating me to hone my craft simply instilled in me the message, “Hey, stupid, you’re doing it wrong.” And that created inner conflict, because I’m not doing it wrong, and some of the well-meant advice was poorly wrought, and most of it consisted of guidelines or suggestions rather than hard-and-fast rules. But that inner conflict churned up doubts and hopelessness, and I had to stay quiet for some time afterward as I sorted it all out.

On some level, it’s hard not to feel like the broken laptop and the dormant creativity and the vast alienation I feel in a crowd of writers aren’t a combined message from the universe that it’s time for me to give up and move on.

But I can’t. I can’t let it go. I don’t know why. I’m far enough removed from the process right now that I’m not going to claim something poetic, like that it’s etched into my soul, or that I would wither and die without writing. I think I could live just fine on that easy path. I really just don’t want to. And as much as it feels like the universe is giving me the perfect opportunity for a graceful exit, I haven’t actually received that message from The Only One Who Matters.

We’re tight. I think He’d tell me.

In short, forgive me, Dear Reader, please. My faults are many. I will continue to struggle, to dither, to haphazardly post (or not). I know I should be better, more committed, more aggressive, more routine. I should be, but I’m not.

And really, that is cause for gratitude, not hopelessness. A work in progress, after all, still has endless opportunities to improve.