I drove home safely from Omaha on Friday, and I listened to several more episodes of the History of English podcast along the way. One of my favorite things about listening to this show, and learning about history in general, is the feeling I get when I learn a new fact that suddenly resolves a mystery. It could be something I’ve wondered about for a long time, or it could be a question that I didn’t even know I had. Either way, the effect is magical. My brain must be wired to dose me with a massive amount of dopamine any time this happens, because it feels addicting. Is this what extraverted people feel when they enter a crowded party, or what thrill-seekers feel when they jump out of an airplane?
While driving, I also reflected on what makes this particular podcast so enthralling for me, and what that might say about the creative projects I choose to pursue. Before discovering this show, I already knew that I enjoyed writing and manipulating language and that I loved learning about history. So it makes sense that learning about the history of language would be an exciting way to tie these things together.
I want to go deeper, though. What is it about language that I love, and what is it about history, and what is it about the particular combination of them? It’s true that I have definitely speculated about and explored these questions before. Still, these are clearly questions that I could spend my entire life working on in different ways—primarily, I hope, through doing projects. Because it’s more important and fulfilling to express one’s nature than to understand it. However, they’re both nice, and both very human, and trying to understand oneself seems to be a pretty compulsive activity for an introvert like me. On that note, here’s some more speculation!
Language is the medium for expressing all ideas. That intertwines it with not just history, but also with culture and politics and everything else. Language is one of the most simple yet powerful forces in existence. It takes a few symbols and a few rules and with them creates infinite possibility. It delivers more bang for the buck than anything I can think of. Maybe an atom, when split, releases a more potent form of energy than any utterance could, but nuclear fission would have never been possible without language.
Language can even make machines move. On a small scale, I do this every day at my job. And on a much larger scale, we can use it to maneuver a helicopter through the Martian atmosphere. I used to draw more of a distinction between my writing and my computer programming, but it’s essentially the same activity. I imagine what I want to happen, and using language, I try to explain what I mean. If I do it right, I’ll activate something in the world, whether that’s making a certain pattern of light appear on a laptop screen, or helping another human to feel a specific feeling or connect a specific thought.
The prospect of gaining more and more control over this force is intoxicating, in part because there are no limits. I’m pretty decent at stringing words together, but there is so much I don’t know and so much room to grow. Knowledge of history is an efficient engine of becoming a better writer. The etymology of a single word, where it came from and how it has been used before, can unlock new possibilities for an entire piece of writing. Words pass in and out of common usage for reasons that only history ultimately knows. To understand the word “dodo” is to understand something essential about the history of the human species.
Language, like anything else, also has a history. Why is it the way that it is? How did it come to be that way? We can ask those questions about anything we encounter. But language also contains history, embedded inside of it. My example last week about the names of our days of the week, and how they come down to us from the names of Roman and Germanic gods, only scratches the surface of this. We can use the language that we speak today to learn so much about (what we consider to be) the distant past. But we can also use the changes of a language over time to understand profound changes in the ways people have lived across time.
To take a couple examples from the podcast:
Astrology is still practiced regularly, but one could make a good argument that as a culture we’ve gotten so far away from it, and so out of tune with the world and universe around us, that we can stand to re-incorporate some of these ancient ways of thinking into our lives. In writing about modern astrology, then, it’s nice to know the origins of words like “auspicious” and “disaster” and “constellation,” especially when using them in the figurative or metaphorical sense. You can pull some cool tricks that way—and as an Aries I find that very exciting.
There is probably a lot more to say about this, but it has been a bountiful week and weekend for me, and I am ready to draw it to a close. I’d like to wish you all a fantastic final week of April; and here’s hoping the May flowers have sprung up early in your neck of the woods. Thanks for reading!
That’s all I’ve got. Please take care, write back if you can, and I’ll see you next week.