Perusing Poetics: All the World is Speech (and Humans are Really Strange Creatures)

When I was born, my parents got one of those dumb baby book things. Under family resemblances, my father wrote “Worf from Star Trek.” I HAVE A BIG FOREHEAD, OKAY?

This has absolutely nothing to do with this blog post, except for the fact that this week I’m talking about Benjamin Lee Whorf’s Language, Thought,and Reality and I keep thinking of Whorf from Star Trek instead of this really smart linguist. So now you know something really weird about me.

How I arrived at my topic for this week’s post is also kind of weird. It’s a convergence of three things, really. Firstly, there’s Whorf. One of his essays in this collection is titled “On the Connection of Ideas,” and it’s basically him writing to this compiler of psychological terminology asking for a better term for connected words and ideas than “association,” which he finds lacking for a multitude of reasons. The takeaway here is that he, a linguist, is asking for help not from another linguist, but a psychologist. Kind of weird, right? (Not to me, as you’re about to see.) Then, there’s this craft class I had today with poet Li-Young Lee. He said today that he thinks that art is really just another version of psychology, since all art comes from an inner psyche. Finally, there’s me, and my now three-year-long maintaining that if I wasn’t an English and Writing major, I’d be a psychology major.

When I first had a little wonder, as a freshman, if I should major in psychology (preferably educational), I threw it out of hand almost instantly. “I’m not science-y!” I said. “I’d never survive. The connection makes no sense!” So I continued on my merry English-and-Writing way. And I’m glad for it.

Me. Doing science.

But the thing is that there is a major connection between art and psychology. A BIG ONE. I’m going to focus on writing here, because I can’t art in any other way, but I’m sure an artist or musician–for example–would probably have a connection to make as well. What is a writer, but a creator of character? When you’re in a writing class, one of the major things you are told you have to figure out is “What do your characters want?” Writing–especially, for me personally, fiction–is simply accessible psychology. (The good stuff, anyways.) You sit down, you read a story, and you understand step by step why a person or a group of people do what they do within the story. You learn how people change, grow, fail or succeed through story arcs. To me, it’s pretty bloody magical. It’s why I write. The human brain fascinates me. Psychology is only one access point to the crazy questions humanity poses about WHY. Writing is another.

Whorf, however, is a linguist, so we have to break this down a little bit further. Sure, the connection between stories and psychology might make sense, but Whorf is operating on the word level. He’s seeing a connection to humanity through not just whole stories but single words and syllables. He suggests this hypothesis about how someone’s language is a major part of how they understand reality and behave within it. This collection basically admits that this hasn’t been proven, but it hasn’t been disproved.

To me, what he’s saying just makes sense. (Okay, well, not some of the time. But what I can understand from him, I like.)

It’s why I still wish I’d gone into psychology sometimes. It’s why I want to find some way to get a PhD where I can explore the links that Whorf talks about, between language, society, culture, etc. It’s because when I engage in my area of specialty (the young adult book world), I see the connection between cultural norms, young adult reception of these stories, and society at large. YA novels work in massive trends, but it’s fascinating how the slightest shift in language can make or break one vampire novel to the next.

At the reading by Li-Young that I attended tonight, he said that he was currently engaged in a massive back and forth with a minister friend of his because Li-Young is trying to convince him that all the world is speech. Well, that’s the world I choose to see, too.

speech-bubbles-world-map-vector-306917

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3 thoughts on “Perusing Poetics: All the World is Speech (and Humans are Really Strange Creatures)

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