Friday, February 12, 2010

Four Tips to Punch Up Your Word Power

by Kris Kahrs

Four Tips to Punch Up Your Word Power

--It’s Alive!: Language is a living thing because the people who use it are living. Like all living things, as it grows, it changes, so it doesn’t look or sound the same from one century to the next. The speakers of a language themselves change words and how they are used. It’s easy to wring hands over our misused native tongue, but if language doesn’t evolve with the people who speak it, we would all still speak the first language invented.

Words are frequently corrupted through mispronunciation and mis-usage. Current corrupt pronunciations of “sword”, pronounced as “swored” and “comptroller” as “comtroller” are common. In the future, these mispronunciations may well become standard.

An example of contemporary mis-usage is the confusion of weary and wary. It is not unusual to hear speakers in conversation or the media say they are “weary” of trying a new item, when the context of the sentence indicates the speaker means either “wary” or “leery”, and has confused them into one word meaning “tired”.

What all this means for writers is that it’s o.k. to create new words while writing. In fact, writers are responsible for creating quite a few new words. William Gibson coined the terms, cyberspace and microsoft among others. People create new words everyday, mostly by accident, but that’s how language grows. “Incenting” wasn’t a word until business writers needed a verb in the early nineties that described motivating people with an incentive.

A YA writer will benefit from listening to high school age speakers for up-to-the-moment vocabulary, idioms and usage. Writers of historical fiction can get a feel for period dialog either through reading appropriate periodicals, letters or books or, if writing about a period of antiquity, studying the linguistics of the language at that time. Challenge: Historical fiction writers read up on Grimm’s law. Named for the older of the Brothers Grimm (of the fairytale fame), it is an elaboration of the first systematic sound change discovered in linguistics.

--Le mot juste. Creating powerful, expressive writing is, much like selecting the right tool for the job, finding the words that create a sentence Gestalt. The words of a sentence Gestalt create more impact, more emotion, more enlightenment together than they do apart. Hear the difference in these sentences: “an eye for an eye and soon the whole world is blind” and “hitting someone doesn’t do any good”. The meaning of both sentences is largely the same, but the former, a quote from Gandhi conveys the eventual folly in repaying an act of violence with violence.

Exercise: Read Winston Churchill’s speech to the House of Commons delivered on the eve of World War II. Here’s an excerpt. “This is no war of domination or imperial aggrandizement or material gain; no war to shut any country out of its sunlight and means of progress. It is a war, viewed in its inherent quality, to establish, on impregnable rocks, the rights of the individual, and it is a war to establish and revive the stature of man.” He sums up in 2 sentences why Britons are fighting. The first sentence says what the war isn’t. The second sentence says what the war is. Churchill’s word choice is precise. Even 70 years later, these words are eloquent, simple, clear.

--Listen to the sound of words: rhyme, alliteration, rhythm, onomatopoeia. Every chosen word offers the reader potential sensory transport. The sound transport of a word can be especially fun to play with for a writer. Exercise: Experiment with the assimilated foreign words in English. What is more ear-catching than the shooshing and shushing sounds of Yiddish words like schmaltz, shmata, schlemiel, schlep, kvetch. Sometimes, English doesn’t have the right word and needs to borrow one that sums up an idea that takes a whole sentence or phrase to convey. For instance, Schadenfreude, (also a whole lot of fun to say, like its Yiddish cousins above), means to take pleasure in another’s misfortune. Exercise: read any book by Dr. Seuss. Notice the “mouth feel”.

--Get Back to the Roots: The English language is roughly half French and half German depending upon who was invading Britain at a given point in history. Word roots can tell you anything you want to know about a word. It’s called Etymology. Etymology can be fertile ground for a writer. Let’s use Etymology to help us choose a name for our characters. Names typically have meanings associated with them, such as, “Susan”, is generally believed to come from the Hebrew word for Lily. The current trend in child naming extends to using last names as first names, such as “Cooper”, “Chandler” or “Sawyer”. Using Etymology, the writer discovers that these last names were created to indicate a person’s profession. Knowing this, the writer may have second thoughts about calling a 5 year old character a Barrel-maker, candle-maker or someone who saws wood and may opt for a name that reveals more about the character’s intrinsic qualities instead. Resource: A Brief History of English by Richard Lederer.

We all agree. Language is probably one of our best inventions. It doesn’t matter if it’s English, Swahili or Mandarin; prose, poetry or song lyrics. The right words at the right time have the power to incite people to action; move audiences to tears or transport a child to a world down a rabbit hole.

Happy Writing!

1 comment:

  1. "--It’s Alive!: Language is a living thing because the people who use it are living."

    So true. Language is alive. I was bitten by the word "hexagon" last night while walking home. Now I can't stand to look at circles.

    Mr. Squaresville


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