Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Fresh Starts | Fiction | In Which I Attempt To Swap The Word 'Baby' With The Word 'Nazi', Then Forget All About It And Start Talking About Amazonian Tribes Instead

I’ve often tried to figure out in my fiction whether words can ever get a fresh start; whether they can ever escape from the weight of their associations. So, if, for example, we were to attempt to reclaim an ugly, tainted word like ‘child’ by switching it out for a more innocent word like ‘Nazi’, how long would it take for the reader to not only have their expectations subverted, but to change their understanding of both terms more permanently?

As soon as I typed 'Nazi Baby' into Google, I knew this would exist. I just knew.

I mean, obviously a newborn Nazi has no word-associations. Or does he? Do we, in the Jungian sense, have a genetic reaction to certain words, in the same way that certain sound pitches can instinctively cause sensations of fear in us? The subjectivity of language is too often taken as a given. While it’s easy to imagine a world in which ‘dog’ is ‘cat’, could there ever be a world in which ‘howl’ could signify ‘full frontal lobotomy’ without having the fleeting sense, every time the surgeon said ‘full frontal lobotomy’, of a howl? If I took one of the Amazonian Piraha tribesmen - who remain isolated from civilisation, their own obscure dialect only very recently translated - to Notting Hill, pointed to a happy Nazi as it laughed, and said, “laughter”, would he have a vague idea of what I meant, or would he think I was saying, “Did you know Notting Hill was filmed here?”

Because, speaking of the Piraha, I’m reminded of the story in Daniel Everett’s excellent Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, when a junior researcher who was trying to decipher their language in order to discover whether it was really true that the tribe had absolutely no creation myths accidentally mistook a Piraha warrior’s excited request for Everett to pick up some shopping for intense spiritual affirmation. That’s more interesting to me than Yucatan or the other, mostly apocryphal tales of colonists who mistook natives’ descriptions of ‘I don’t know what you’re saying’ or similar for a place-name, because the gap between the spiritual and the mundane is such a fascinating one. There’s that idea that even the emotion behind the words can be completely lost. Hell, even Brian Friel, so cynical about the gap between languages in the first act of Translations, turns sentimental when his lovers Maire and Yolland get together, echoing each other’s words in English and in Irish with a sort of subconscious harmony. So can we ever gain words that have an innate, objective meaning, or would they simply have meaning in their delivery, in spite of themselves?

The Piraha have never seen Translations. They prefer Tom Stoppard.

And how would one go about creating such a genetic reaction, anyway? Innocent terms that have become tainted through saturation, through their being used in the media in an unfairly negative context (I’m thinking “Islamic”, or “Segway”) are only tainted culturally. The unfair weight they’ve accumulated will dissipate in time. But how many languages and how many cultures would you have to go through before a word like “joy” becomes, in itself, actually joyful? What is the oldest word in the world that still retains its exact meaning?

According to Mark Pagel of Reading University, it’s the 20,000-year-old “who”, though other sources seem to think it’s “I”. (Good old Oedipal English, killing off its forebears.) Terms of identity, of defining the self. Interesting, especially as their nearest competitors are all numbers. The most intriguing entry lower on the list is “tongue” – after we define ourselves, we then wish to define our method of defining ourselves? Then comes “star”. I have no explanation for “star”, frankly. Is there something in the word “star” that perfectly defines a star?

No, you’re quite right; I don’t have any of the answers. Words almost certainly don’t have any innate meaning, nor is it plausible that they could be made to do so. You’re probably also quite right to call this pointless navel-gazing when the experiment itself would take several civilisations to chart and could probably only ever exist as a hypothesis. Cruel, but right.

Childish bastard.

Jon Ware
Fiction Editor

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