Language and Context–Say what?

I was sitting in class. It has been a long week with all I’m juggling in life currently that has seemed rather overwhelming. This particular class has done a good job of thoroughly confusing me. It’s a graduate French literary criticism class which contains about eight of us sitting in a semi-circle facing a very French-looking professor. This particular professor has an amazing knack for calling on people out of the blue to respond to a question or give an impression of something we’re reading. I promise I had read the articles for class, but I cannot tell you what exactly I read or what it meant. I basically saw words on a page which had little meaning to me. So, essentially it was language lacking a context in my mind.

100_1253I was sitting there staring at a poem. First of all, poetry and I have a strange relationship. I both love and hate poetry. I love poetry because it sounds beautiful depending on the poem, and it often conveys a deeper meaning other than just the words on the page. The latter is part of the reason I hate it other than how confused I get trying to analyze the rhyme scheme and rhythm. Poetry really seems like a mirage. You look at it thinking you know what it is, but upon closer inspection, it isn’t that at all. I had stared at this particular poem for quite a while without having an epiphany as to its meaning. First of all, the title “Les Chats” was disappointing because the poem really had little to do with cats. I love cats. Someone said it was a reference to women based on some of the descriptions. I was sitting in my desk staring at the poem with images of Cat Woman going through my mind thinking “Nah, that can’t be right.” cat

I looked up and the professor was pointing his pen at me and then said my name wanting my impression. About three other students had already given some really great analyses of the poem. I stared at the poem almost as if I thought staring at it would give me the words to say. None came. I looked back at the professor and said half-laughing that I agreed with what so-and-so had said and left it at that. Thankfully, he left me alone with a look which came across as “I’ll come back to you later” and went to the next person.

Have you ever really thought about language?

My teachers and family used to always tell me during my negative statements about math that you can’t escape it because you use it every day. That’s true, but I’d like to make the argument that you use language every day and every moment without probably even realizing it.

My native language is English. I rarely think about how I’m constructing a sentence or if I’m using the correct tense. Not a day goes by without my using language to convey a thought or establish meaning. Even if I’m not verbalizing it, I’m typing on a computer, I’m thinking, or I’m listening to others use a language. It’s inescapable! I’d even go so far to claim that you probably use language more than you do math though mathematicians would probably argue that your brain’s way of constructing sentences and establishing meaning is mathematical. But, you still have to use language to even voice that thought!

What the heckWhat has gotten off with me lately is trying to establish a context with language. The articles I’ve been reading have put forth the idea of the arbitrariness of language. For example, in English we say “tree” but in French, one says “arbre”. There’s no rule that states that a tree has to be called a “tree” or an “arbre”. It’s just that way. We call things by a certain name and establish meaning based on comparisons with other things and with other sounds. The trouble is learning this and then trying to establish the meaning of a piece of work or a poem. I can analyze the language itself, but what it means and the context seems to come from a different part of my brain. The disconnect is severe right now probably partly due to sleep deprivation. Oh, sure, based on context clues, I may be able to tell you something about what I’m reading in a poem, but the guy next to me probably has a completely different idea based on his interpretation.

After last night’s class of staring at the board while another student was writing out words like fabula and syuzhet and wanting us to use these concepts to analyze a work by Flaubert, I was questioning whether I even knew what language is or how it is used. Oh, goodness, why did someone have to come up with theories of formalism anyway!

As I left class that night with a “I’ve had it!” storm cloud over my head mostly due to stress, I noticed my little brother had tried to call. I called him back, and it turned out he was right outside the building and wanted to see where I was. He walked with me all the long way back to my car and listened patiently as I blabbed in a French-English mix about how stressed I was and how nothing was making sense. He came back to the apartment with me and I fed him all the while using a language to convey my frustration and stress. Oh, he was taking part in the conversation too, mostly making me laugh while he was consuming some taco soup. I think he got the better end of the stick really.

After visiting with him and a friend, things started to not seem quite so bleak. But, I couldn’t help but think of the irony. Language had caused my frustration but was also helping me move past it. It all depends on the context, I suppose. I still don’t understand half of what last night’s class was about and I can’t guarantee that I’ll understand next week’s class either. However, it’s okay. I’ll just have to keep trying to construct a context for this new language of literary theory. Hopefully, it’ll click soon, but for now, I just need to use what words and context I do have to try to push past the finish line with my thesis…written in French. Oh, joy,….I think I need another cup of coffee and a vacation.

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