Which came first? Ideas or words to express them?

As a writer, of course I love words and what they accomplish. On occasion, when no word seemed to fit and I dared invent one, I have been chastised by an editor who pushed me back onto the straight and narrow.

However . . . .

Some time ago Ruth Walker began her weekly column “Verbal Energy” with the sentence, “Our thoughts form our language.” (The Christian Science Monitor, August 9, 2009.) I saved the column.  (She’s an editor by profession, so deals with words intensely every day, often sharing the results of her work in her column.)  In this column on thoughts forming language she gave an example:

“The Viaduck de Millau, in the south of France, is the tallest bridge in the world. German newspapers praised ‘the elegance and lightness’ of the bridge, and the way it ‘floated above the clouds’ with ‘breathtaking beauty.’ French newspapers saw it as ‘immense,’ and a ‘concrete giant.’ Why such a difference?”.  Walker quotes the conclusion of  Stanford University scientist Lera Boroditsky, who explains that the response varied according to the language of the acclaimers. The German language assigns the word for bridge–die Bruck–to the feminine gender. The French word–le pont–is masculine.

Hm. Interesting. Ideas first. (Ignoring the verbal abuse and swearing that we sometimes hear popping out–we suspect–before the speaker thinks, not to mention other instances of speaking before thinking.)

Here’s another example of ideas before words. In his “Rural Life” essay column in The New York Times on July 6, 2009, one of my favorite writers, Verlyn Klinkenborg, wrote about how thunder sounds.  In this example, it seems obvious his ideas, and also the hearing of sounds that gave birth to the ideas, came before words were put on paper.  (Not to mention that it’s obvious Klinkenborg is in love with our language.)  See if you agree:

“It is late afternoon as I write. There is blundering beyond the tree line. Soon the tuberous blunderheads trundle over the horizon; they begin to ‘wampum, wampum, wampum’ until at last they’re vrooming nearby, just down the valley. Or perhaps they’re harrumphing and oomphing, from the very omphalos of the storm. Onomatopoeia is such a delicate thing.”

After another wonderful paragraph, he ends: “And then, just like that it’s over, only a bumbling far to the east, a last snicker of lightning. The sun gloats in the sky, casting a gleam on the pasture where there was so much umbering and ochreing only moments before. The static electricity of the day has been discharged, and with it the linguistic oddness I have been feeling. The storm, I realize, has left me ravenous, hungry as a raven.”

Isn’t that wonderful? I am in awe.

Back to today’s writing assignment. “Snickety, snickety, snickety, Radine.”



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4 Responses to “Which came first? Ideas or words to express them?”

  1. Marilyn Meredith Says:

    Loved the description of thunder. Never thought about actually describing those sounds.

  2. radine Says:

    You can read more of Verlyn Klinkenborg’s essays by going to NYTimes web site and typing in his name in the search blank.

  3. EARL STAGGS Says:

    Very interesting. Writers should assume license to invent or bend words to express themselves. If the meaning is clear, it works.

    • radine Says:

      YES, Earl. And, I have begun to wonder what constitutes “clear.” A conversation made up of drastically misspelled words has been going the Internet rounds, and the point was, if the first and last letters are correct and the context normal, it was easy to read. Kind of a shocker. Not that I’d recommend writing that way! 🙂 But I occasionally make up words and drop them in one of my stories. Otherwise, in the Nehring household, we use quite a few descriptive titles and modifiers in a language known only to us!

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