Thoughts on Meaning Making

When words cannot convey, sounds and gestures may remedy what’s unintended. Words can be nuisances. They can do whatever you want them to do, but sometimes they might be rendered just the opposite. A single word alone emerges at the crisscross of multiple realms and settles itself into the psyche. Exactly when and how to use them is at the discretion of the speaker, but there are times when they may be greatly inadequate. The most extensive vocabulary may well fall short against everyday wordplay. My daily chatter is full of awkward pauses, repetitions, silly hums and sounds that mean nothing but make perfect sense when rolled into conversation. They’re not obvious recurrences in the English that I’ve learnt to speak growing up, as with the standard forms valued so widely in our society. Clarity and confidence inhered in two dominant voices. Sometimes the tenacious, ‘cultured’ manner of British English enjoyed pride of place, at other times American urbanisms showed the relative agency one might have in expression. These are all just casual interpretations though, whoever said that everyone speaks the same language?

I recognize that my daily speak comes from very formal sources, where much attention is given to performance. Correction was initially more grammar, less context. A sixth grade English class was an hour-long crack at converting simple past tenses into the present perfect tense, disentangling messy subject-verb agreements, filling in the gaps with prepositions. But was it really that important to know something as small as whether the book was on or at the table? Even the few chances we had to act out our words on stage could not raise this question enough. To be a tree or a river in an improvised play instead of a human with capacity for utterances was a disagreeable option for most eleven-year-olds like myself — and neither was it encouraged — but there was more to it than we realized.

Gestures were unconsciously subordinated to the designating power of the word, and this is the language with which I saw the world. It didn’t occur to me that it wasn’t necessarily my own. I’m often unsettled by the question, how did I ever really learn English? Why does it all make so much sense to me? But mostly, why do I feel a little apprehensive about losing grasp of it? I seldom speak in my mother tongue — Urdu — even though it was a major part of my education alongside Hindi for years. Delhi lingo is more recent territory. You’ll still find confident spurts of English in my conversations with my grandparents. They don’t mind it, even if the occasional ‘Tum ne toh intermediate level tak Urdu padhi hai, kya abhi bhi likh sakti ho?’ pops up.

Situations where I’m at a loss for English words are still not very welcome. When unable to bind down scattered memories into coherent thoughts, a huge sense of frustration descends into my mind. I love being able to fuse different languages and concepts, playing fast and loose with wording, the ease and emphasis of various tones. But not getting that perfect word is where the burden of language weighs heavy. Sometimes I think I’ve inherited not just a language, but the occasional yet enormous need to truly master it.

We read, write but mostly speak in a language daily. It is a way of seeing. We sink deeper into its oceans through dreams, by singing in it, or understanding day-to-day practicalities like direction, motive, cause and effect in different ways. Every language doesn’t build these ideas the same way. What is the mind of a polyglot like then? What do they do when something is still found lacking, despite a world of languages at their disposal? Recounting something in a special way becomes a little tricky, since it’s unclear if the right words haven’t struck us just yet, or if they wouldn’t do our experience justice. The scope of our thoughts feels diminished, and our thought process is negatively impacted because the instrument of expression is also jeopardized. Is it possible to be a seasoned user of language? What kind of proficiency is the goal here?

I would imagine linguistic aptitude to be something that’s more about the sense of a language as against grammatical capacity. It’s about the sounds and visuals of language, its cultural associations, and how its elements find their way into situations without mirroring its prescriptivism. A translator, whose job involves intuitive guessing and a methodical process all at once would vouch for this in the matter of recreating an original text. You don’t simply track down lexical equivalents to beat a new narrative into shape. You might as well be forging a new language altogether. There is choreography of text and sound at hand; every word rolls into sharp and faint echoes, movements leaping off the pages to make that percussive tale.

Being accustomed to grammar logic has its cons. You know it because it’s so deeply embedded into the way you think, but you’re compelled to ask yourself why you know it this way, and how that could be experimented with without affecting delivery. I come back to this time and again when I’m editing something, when no justification other than “this just sounds more right” allays the jittery appetite for answers. No rule book or blueprint to go by, and for a good reason. The only way to diversify an entire body of literature would be to acknowledge some of these gaps, silences and repetitions — all these seeming shortcomings are actually the strength of a work, just as they are in speech.

Learning a new language can really shake up these assumptions about the way you receive thoughts or whether you build them from ground up. Spanish became the threshold to my curiosities about language, knocking down my faiths in it on a whim. Part of the job was gradual separation from my own thoughts since they were always in English. Sure, it’s no coincidence that Spanish and English have some blaring similarities, but could I hustle into this world unaided by the latter? I was about to find out. Things got interesting when I learnt that Spanish tenses are different, as is their concept of time. As if all that wasn’t enough, I learned later that “it” doesn’t exist here either, at least not in the way we understand it. My life had hilariously deceived me until that moment. The task of transferring and retaining meaning was possible only at a big cost — it was always lost somewhere. It’s why I feel now that the sense of a language can, and perhaps should be felt in the products of its culture.

Why I’m so engulfed by the English language is something that has become apparent with time. It is a status symbol, it carries an unshared prestige, a firm grasp of it makes job prospects greatly promising — to think of a few right off the bat. Perhaps part of the way I’ve come to understand it has very much to do with all of that and more. Surely the way I express myself has been influenced by what carries cultural value. My thought processes succumb to its allure. Having willfully hitched myself to the literary world, the goal was not simply to carve out something that is stylistically innovative, but sensitive to what it represents. As I thought about all of this recently, I realized the possibilities of self-expression. Any time I caught myself going about the cracks and fissures in my thought process — an experience which often feels like the inability to conceive of a new colour, because the existing shades just don’t fit — the idea that meaning could be strayed at any given moment had some cold comfort about it. But it sparked flames.

It’s pointless to think about the arbitrariness of language, or the fact that opinions may just be recycled and repackaged ingredients with the label of originality slapped onto them. Fractures in thought have made people engage other faculties, to add new dimensions to their understanding of material. It’s one thing to put something in writing, and another to draw it on paper. Combine the two, and the interacting mediums will create magic. When words fail you in conversation, visual cues and silences may do the trick. Describing emotional experience is ultimately complicated, but it is not something that demands explanation. It may be felt in everything that is left unsaid. There is, still, great discipline in sculpting out your personal language, but taking a step back and letting other mediums speak in the thick of it can also lead you well.



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