Monday, February 09, 2009

the World Words create II

I. The word

We need new words to express love. Love the emotion (if that's what it is), love as the stuff we read about in Romantic fables, but also "love" as a way to express the way we feel about certain non-human things. I try not to say "I love that movie" or "I love that book" because it trivializes the word, in my view, since it is a wholly different thing from what we mean when we say "I love you" to a person and really mean it. There are no words, at least not in English, to express what it means to love a person and also to express what it means to "love" something like a work of art. The Greeks had the right idea.

Many years ago I wrote a terrible poem which expressed my dissatisfaction with how the word 'love' had become trivialized. The poem took place over the course of a day in the home of a married couple. It started with them eating a meal together. The man said: "I love this food!" There was no response from the woman. Then they would go somewhere and the man would say: "I love this car!" No response. He went through the day performing various activities: "I love this song!" "I love this television show!" "I love this book!" etc. At the end of the day his wife finally turns to him and asks: "Do you love me?" He replies: "Sure, why not?"

I feel like -- even in trying not to use the word myself so as to not trivialize it -- I feel like it has still lost all meaning because of how it's constantly thrown around without thought. This probably starts in childhood where we are taught to repeat I love you to our parents until it finally becomes a habit, long before we know what it means. In our culture the word 'love' does not have a special value, and words themselves are defined and contextualized through their culture.

II. Role playing: the love as object (or: the role of love, the love of role)

My mother's boyfriend, Bill, sometimes refers to her as "honey" and "babe." Originally I thought I found this off-putting for the obvious reasons: it's hokey, and I don't want to hear my mother referred to in that way (I suppose because it sexualizes her). But when I heard the two of them arguing in the car and noticed that Bill was calling her "honey" throughout -- using a term of affection when he was showing anything but affection for her -- it was then that I realized that not only is this word a form of meaningless habit but that terms of endearment in general are not terms of endearment and familiarity at all, but terms that place people into roles. This is obvious enough on the surface, but I don't think most people give the implications much thought. By calling my mother "honey" -- which I assume is the same thing he called his previous girlfriends (likely every single one) -- Bill reduces her to a concept/abstraction (girlfriend) where she is no longer an individual. (This only reflects his point of view of course and is no doubt completely subconscious.) It is the reduction of a person to a role, an individual to a group. (I think this is why these generic terms of endearment always sound patronizing to me.) In this sense, (re)using a term of endearment can be a very subtle way of objectifying someone. Do his past "honeys" and his current "honey" have any real distinction in his mind? If so, why has he called them all the same thing? Perhaps on his deepest level what matters most to him is their role, their function. By using language in this way, there is a real possibility that this viewpoint has been (or will be) planted somewhere in his mind over time. And simply by using the word "honey" Bill has reduced himself to a role, consciously and willingly performing it just as he's seen on television and in the movies. (This might even serve as a better (read: more accurate and precise) way to filter everything I mentioned above.)

I find it interesting that the word "dear" has been stolen from its place as a term of endearment (it still works for starting a letter, though rarely used) and is being held hostage as a form of resigned contempt. When a husband says "yes, dear" to his wife around his male friends to "appease her," his male friends know that what "yes, dear" really means is closer to "shove it, nag!" His wife knows this too, but they must both act out their roles. (I choose to blame this -- all of it! -- on Everybody Loves Raymond.)

III. To have and to hold: possession

The following excerpt from The Ecology of Freedom provides insight into how language grows around (and helps to create and reinforce) ways of life. Language changes, adapts, and forms to express the world around us in terms of whichever system is in place. Not only does this system come to define reality, but language itself grows from this system like a vine, often strangling us.

"The absence of coercive and domineering values in organic cultures is perhaps best illustrated by the syntax of the Wintu Indians, a people that Lee studied very closely. She notes that terms commonly expressive of coercion in modern languages are arranged, in Wintu syntax, to denote cooperative behavior instead. A Wintu mother, for example, does not "take" a baby into the shade; she goes with it. A chief does not "rule" his people; he stands with them. "They never say, and in fact they cannot say, as we do, 'I have a sister,' or a 'son,' or 'husband,'" Lee observes. "To live with is the usual way in which they express what we call possession, and they use this term for everything that they respect, so that a man will be said to live with his bow and arrows.

The phrase "to live with" implies not only a deep sense of mutual respect for person and a high regard for individual voluntarism; it also implies a profound sense of unity between the individual and the group. We need not go any further than an examination of American Indian life to find abundant evidence of this fact. The traditional society of Hopi was geared entirely toward group solidarity. Nearly all the basic tasks of the community, from planting to food preparation, were done cooperatively. Together with the adults, children participated in most of these tasks. At every age level, the individual was charged with a sense of responsibility for the community. So all-pervasive were these group attitudes that Hopi children, placed in schools administered by whites, could be persuaded only with the greatest difficulty to keep score in competitive games."

1 comment:

Simone Bataille said...

i always cringe when i hear people using "baby" and "babe" as pet names. like they want to reduce their partner to a cognitively + physically undeveloped child. hrmph!

why would anyone want to date a baby?!