An unexpected day off from school… Faculty Research Day they call it. My Chemistry professor says most of them go home and research their pillows.
So, I figured I’d write a bit about something I’ve been thinking about lately. I promise this isn’t just an excuse to quote Death Cab. Language is a strange thing. Besides any grammatical oddities and irregularities (especially in English), language can say a lot about a culture, and dialects about a region, and choice of expression about people.
For example, the French have two words, “rivière” and “fleuve”, for what anglophones simply know as “river”. For some reason unbeknownst to the Window Philosopher, the French think it important to make a distinction between rivières, which flow into other other rivières or into fleuves, and fleuves, which flow directly into the sea. (We may never know…) I’ve been around long enough to know that when people pronounce Appalachia like they’re “gonna throw an apple at’cha”, they’re probably from Appalachia, whereas people who pronounce it… The Other Way, are generally outsiders. And I automatically tend to like people who greet me with, “Salutations!”, although they are few and far between.
While I haven’t much desire to have “river” split into two words for the English speaking world, there is one word, one we use all the time, that we have in my opinion quite misguidedly lumped into one term. That word is love. Seriously, it has become a catch-all term for romantic love, friendship, familial love, affection in general, really liking something, admiration, etc. Some of these just use love as a synonym, but when you tell someone you love them, the only things that distinguish the type of love you mean from the type of love you have for pizza are conversational and social context.
The ancient Greeks had it right. They had four words for what we call love, which makes a heck of a lot of sense. Agape is pure, altruistic love. Eros is romantic love, passion. Philia is loyal, virtuous love towards friends and family. Storge is natural affection, camaraderie. Each of these things is important. Each one needs its own word. Perhaps it says something about our priorities that we only have one word for all of them. Unfortunately I doubt there’s much of a way to change it though.
Written and spoken language in general will never be perfect. It’s so hard to say what it is we truly mean, to find the right word, the defined term, the mot juste. As I’ve said before, I wish we could speak using music and be able to comprehend more than a beautiful but vague emotion. I feel like that’s kind of the message of that Death Cab song when it says “The boundaries of language I quietly cursed / All the different names for the same thing”.
But despite the limits of words, people are able to do amazing things with them. Such poetry has been written as to make the soul soar. The combination of music and words can be intense, uplifting, thought-provoking, sorrowful. Words are something we cannot escape from. Nor should we want to. In this world, really, nothing is perfect. Words aren’t perfect, and we can’t use them perfectly, but they can paint such masterpieces without making a single brushstroke. And that is just freaking cool.