Leonard is an alumnus of Victoria Junior College and an incoming English Literature Undergraduate at the University of Cambridge. His interests span a range of time periods and continents, from Bashō to Tolkien and dystopian science fiction, while his non-academic preoccupations include writing and missing deadlines. He is also an editor at Unseen the Magazine- a quarterly literature magazine for students and ex-students.
We speak, as a rough measure, an average of fifteen to seventeen thousand words a day.
Here, we consider them just as ‘words’ for the purpose of quantification. They are units of measurement, so we can put a definite number and value on how many speech sounds we make in twenty four hours.
The underlying truth, however, is that a word is never a passive unit. It’s a vocalization that carries meaning, and when strung together with others they become the way we communicate. Fifteen to seventeen thousand words let loose into the spaces around us – to be received, understood, exchanged in conversation; to impact and be impacted on. Every day.
Imagine all of these thousands of words interacting with each other and it becomes difficult to think of them as individual elements. They make up a wonderfully complex system of interdependence and connection, so it’s even more difficult to talk about them as if they were only words. What they are, instead, this confluence of meanings – is language.
Language, as a vehicle for communication, is staggeringly multi-faceted in the course of human life. We need language for the highbrow, the mundane, and everything in between: to order roasted chicken rice add egg add chicken having here at your downstairs kopitiam there, or to momentously announce the birth of a child to loved ones and friends. Sometimes these things happen within mere moments of each other.
Such a spectrum of scenarios begs the question of how language shifts. How do we adapt from the solemn register of a tragedy to sardonic Saturday afternoon banter? The focus, therefore, also shifts. Beyond a method for outright communication, it’s helpful to understand language also as a vehicle for expression.
The beauty of language lies in its ability to be moulded to fit the gravity of any context. The way that we manipulate this malleability, whether for writing or oration, is called nuance – the subtle variations and distinctions we make in our language that can express ideas in a very specific way. Effectively, masterfully doing so is the art of language.
Take, as an example, the way that the 19th Century English poet John Keats employed language in his poem Ode to Autumn. Keats waxed lyrical about the beauty of Autumn descending upon the countryside, urging us to consider how “clouds bloom the soft-dying day / and touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue.” His use of language here is incredibly specific, curated to carefully produce a certain effect. The melancholy of autumn is shown through the tableau of a sunset described as a ‘soft-dying day’. The metaphor is an acknowledgement that the leaves will fall, and the earth will turn barren, but for now there is a grace and gentleness in such a death – gentleness, as expressed by the light “touch” and caress of the dipping sun; grace, espoused in the elegance and softness that the evening’s “rosy hue” bathes the land in.
Keats’ subtle and careful manipulation of language allowed him to capture the solemn beauty of an entire season in only two lines.
Language can also be rough and unsubtle when it needs to be, sometimes shockingly so. Keats and his ilk loved to write about the beauty of an Arcadian idyll, but the advent of the First World War brought about an unparalleled scale of death and destruction that shocked a world used to the illusion of peace. Confronted with the harsh, sudden realities of blasted mud and corpse-strewn trenches, poets now used language to put a name and meaning to the sights that haunted them so.
Consider Herbert Read’s My Company. The British officer wrote of how “A man of mine / lies on the wire; / and he will rot / and first his lips / the worms will eat.” Read’s language is a garrote that strangles and forces us to acknowledge the horror of war as he himself has been forced to. No mention of celestial sky here – no calm seasons, no pastel colours of the day to delight in. His words instead wrench our focus to the constituent body parts of what was once a man under his command, and who now decays in the twisting mess of barbed wire above the trench.
It is a visceral, violent image, and shows us the versatility of language as the key to expression. From lofty ideals of romance, heroism and beauty, to the traumatic grit of death and war, there is a way to bring out the essence of any situation through the usage of language.
What does this mean for us as everyday users of language? For one, it’s a call to recognize the potential of language to be intensely meaningful and impactful. There’s a certain degree of responsibility that we need to adopt in using language, and that means saying the right kinds of words for the right scenarios.
Beyond that, as writers, orators and people in the business of rhetoric, it’s also a challenge to pay closer attention to the utilization of language in our craft. For the public speaker, structure and delivery are always important facets of the speech – but sometimes it is just as vital to remember to focus on what is actually being delivered. The most resonant voice projection and engaging charisma will mean nothing if the words being spoken are mere fluff.
The ‘sweet spot’ for rhetoric therefore lies in the symbiosis between the act of delivery and the material to be delivered. It’s tempting, but don’t leave out the content of your speech in your haste to practice how to give it. Choose and curate your language with surgical precision – your words do not just capture the core meaning of your subject matter, they are also the aperture through which your audience understands its essence.
Just as important as knowing your voice is also understanding what it is saying.