Writers use words as painters use colors. Wisely chosen and put together, they can create something beautiful or something really bad: no matter if it’s on a piece of paper or on a huge canvas. In fact, both mediums are about picturing something somewhere. The painter’s goal is to pull out whatever he has in his or her mind and to put it on something real, which people will see with their eyes. For a writer, this something should only be enjoyed in people’s minds, with their eyes closed.
Books can deal with of lot of sensations and feelings. For instance smells: they can be described, of course, or left to the reader’s own judgment. Take the leaves on the trees. A very talented author can make their colors so vivid that they will even contaminate your own memories. Once the book read, it becomes difficult to tell the difference between an actual memory you have experienced yourself (you have seen those beautiful leaves in the park yesterday) and a memory induced by a book (you have never seen those leaves, but this memory is so clear and sharp that you can’t distinguish what is true from what is false). They both have the same effect on our brain: those pictures are now inside of us. They stand at the same level of truth.
So yes, words are writers’ colors but… words are not universally understandable. And this last statement could lead to a very frustrating conclusion.
I’m currently reading a book you have probably heard of. It’s called City (Demain les chiens in French, which literally means “Tomorrow, the Dogs”) and was written in 1952 by Clifford D. Simak. I know: as a science-fiction fan, I should probably have read it years ago. Anyway. In City, humans fly from Earth to reach Jupiter, a vast and dangerous planet with toxic winds and spectacular gas storms, not mentioning acid rains and high pressure. In fact, as a human, you have to live under a crystal dome to survive. But a scientist invents a machine to transform human beings into Jovians, which are the native inhabitants of Jupiter, perfectly fit to live in this inferno. And what can be seen, smelt or felt through a Jovian body is absolutely different from our own human experience: for a Jovian, Jupiter seems like a real heaven. Storms become nice winds, sulfuric rivers turn into peaceful and inspiring locations, and more than anything, there is true understanding. Using telepathy, Jovians can reach a state of empathy we’ll never be able to experience with words. No one would ever return into a human body after experiencing such an amazing feeling.
Simak describes in a very inspiring way all the colors a Jovian can see. The colors a Jupiter native sees are more vivid than any of those a human will ever be able to see in his entire life. Of course, Jovians can see all the colors of the rainbow… but they can also enjoy the millions of colors in between: they spread as an infinite palette. It’s as if you had been blind since you were born, and then offered the gift of sight. And here is my point: that is exactly how I feel when I stumble upon a beautiful foreign word on the internet, in a novel or a dictionary, that expresses exactly what I want to write… but is not part of my own language.
As a French native speaker, my English is not as good as yours (and I hope you will forgive the mistakes I make). I’m training though, and I try to learn more words as fast as possible but it’s not easy. I have written all my novels in French. So obviously I need to use French words for my readers to understand me.
French is a beautiful language. Nicely spoken or written, it can be a delight. I love it and I’ll learn it, improve it and defend it until I die. I remember my teacher when I was 9. He was an impressive and clever man who tried to show us the beauty of words, like in eau (“water” in French, pronounced as the long “o” of “tomato”). He told us to hear and feel the word eau as if it were flowing from the tap. In the end he was right: the word really feels like the concept it is supposed to picture.
But as a matter of fact, by reading and learning foreign languages (English of course, but also German, Spanish, and all those tongues I’ll never speak like Japanese, Russian or Chinese), I get more and more frustrated as a writer.
Sometimes I want to describe a very specific feeling. But the word I’m trying to find doesn’t exist in French… only in English or in German. I can’t obviously insert a foreign word in my sentence, so begins the dance of synonyms, byroads and tricks to reach my goal. That’s annoying. I could simply use those foreign words. But nobody would ever understand what I’m trying to write.
In english I love everything light can do: it can shine, sparkle or glow, it can twinkle or gleam, dazzle or glitter, and so on… That’s amazing: we don’t have that many shades in French. You have a word for every intensity of wind, and a person can smile in so many ways. You, English speakers, have an unbelievable collection of adjectives and verbs that really get to the point. In French, dealing with feelings, you have to make compromises from time to time, use adverbs and metaphors to express what you really want to. But if you’re a philosopher, French is the perfect language: when it comes to rational ideas and concepts, words are literally flowing. A perfect tongue to think, but sometimes not so perfect to feel.
In German, it’s even easier. If a word doesn’t exist, you just combine two existing words to create a new one, made to measure. By putting together two, three, four, even five or six words, it is way more easy to reach your point and describe what’s in your head. And in Japanese! There’s a word for everything. Tsundoku, for example, describes this very common phenomenon you have probably experienced yourself: buying a lot of books to put on your shelves, and never read them. Yes, in Japanese, there is a word for that. Some northern tribes have dozen of words to describe snow, but not a single one for the sand. And so on…
In a way, languages are the best way to understand how people think. You only think with the words — and therefore concepts — you have in your mind. A more open language leads to a more open mind. So to truly understand each other, we should either learn every word in every dialect, or begin to improve our telepathic skills. But we’re not Jovians, and Esperanto is not a good solution.
Maybe one day, as in City, we’ll have machines to put on our head to help us write all the colors hidden in our mind. Until then, we need to deal with our own words, and get used to sometimes being misunderstood.