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What Word, Why?

April 8, 2010

In chapter 1 of Biographia Literaria Coleridge shares a lesson he learnt from his “very sensible, though at the same time a very severe master.”  The Rev. James Bowyer was Coleridge’s grammar school instructor.

In the truly great poets, he would say, there is a reason assignable, not only for every word, but for the position of every word.

And then I came across these words by Wendell Berry while reviewing his chapter “Poetry and Marriage” in Standing by Words:

The whole range of possibilities can be exemplified within language itself.  It is possible to speak a language so commonized by gereality or jargon or slang that one’s own mind and life virtually disappear into it.  And it is possible to speak a language made so personal by contrivance, affectation, or slovenliness that one makes no sense.  Between the two are the Confucian principles, dear to Pound, of fidelity (“the man . . . standing by his word”) and sincerity (precise speech: words that can be stood by).

Berry speaks of a language so general that the particular, the individual, is swallowed by the whole.  I perceive this as a style of speech that has lost all character.  It is akin to the typing on this page.  If I were to hand-write this you would see the form, size, and style of my letters.  My character, which I would like for someone to enlighten me, would be displayed by the pen.  But the words typed through a key pad look precisely the same regardless of who is typing.  We talk in the same manner by which we type.  Words formalized without character.

Berry also points to a kind of language that so particular, individual, that the community is neglected.  This sort of speech fails to “make[s] no sense” because it fails to relate.  It fails to make a connection beyond the one speaking simply because no connection is sought.  The individual speaking does not seek to communicate with anybody, but to only speak about the self.

Coleridge highlights that it is not just the words we use, but how they are used–the relations we assign a word in the context of speech.  This, to be rightly exercised, cannot be spoken haphazardly or emptied of personal interest.  Rather, one must carefully attend to the relationships that exist between the self and the other.  Language forms a bridge between the two, and it must be rightly formed so as to honor both speaker and the spoken of.

Qohelet sought to discover words of delight, and to correctly write words of truth.  Ecclesiastes 12.10


From → Language, Literature

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