In other words: A brief commentary on the irony of language

An illustration of a girl holding a book in front of a bridge made of words
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There are stories that make us laugh, there are stories that make us cry and there are stories that make us feel some other emotion in between. But very few stories move us, demanding, “Remember me.” In my literary repertoire, Markus Zusak’s “The Book Thief” is one of those stories, and the reason for this is effectively illustrated by the last words of the titular character, Liesel:

“I have hated words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.”

In terms of language, The Book Thief is ultimately a story that explores the effect of words in Nazi Germany — one of many periods in history in which all communication was subject to intense scrutiny. But across all time, whether it’s during the era of World War II or Berkeley in 2020, words have always existed as the foundation of human civilization. They have power because they move the story of human history along, for better or for worse. Naturally, our words, even if they don’t speak louder than actions, matter. Speaking, hearing, reading, writing — these are all actions in which words are the building blocks. But what is it about words that makes us both love and hate them?

Upon closer inspection, it seems that words present a peculiar and unexpected kind of irony. We rely on them to communicate effectively in a variety of situations, but countless times over, they confuse, frustrate and fail us. Some languages fail more spectacularly than others; English, with its many idiosyncrasies, is a top contender for miscommunication. If English is second to anything, it would be Latin, and only because the latter is now a dead language that is, somehow, still baffling humans everywhere since sometime around 700 BCE.

Fast forward almost 3,000 years: Words have now entered the digital world. They are unaccompanied by not only the emotion of a physical voice but are even stripped of the small yet still personal kind that’s expressed by a hand on paper. In the absence of a human presence, words born on a virtual screen are still expected to convey the same sentiment (a conundrum often solved with emojis, but alas, those might not perform well in an email to, say, your professor). So, the same ironic chaos ensues: These words connect us by virtually shrinking the space created by physical miles. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 20 years, however, it’s not difficult to notice the disconnect that has complicated the resulting virtual bridge.

Still, while technology has certainly revolutionized communication, is it solely responsible for how words themselves have transformed? After all, a choice is made every time we use our voice, in speech or in writing, no matter what medium we use. With the promise of a faster turnaround in response time, we have also chosen to take less time to think before we speak. In doing so, our relationship with words has become even more complicated.

Though words connect us, they are also the middleman between our minds and the minds of others. And like any representative, words often don’t do the original complexity of their author justice. Technology, then, simply makes that metaphysical relationship harder to see.

Considering this irony, it seems words across all languages can be two things: A blessing if we master them or a curse if we don’t. They are completely within our control because we created them, after all. Yet, we still come to hate them and love them because they both limit us and look nothing like us. Words are merely a simple symbol for the world we live in — a world that’s impossible to process and transmit without them. We need words in order to carry our experiences, not only so we can understand the world, but so that we can connect to the people within it.

So, despite what Kanye West says, I don’t think words will go away anytime soon. While they can be absolutely awful at communicating the most complex ideas concerning the human spirit, when mastered, words can also be art in and of themselves. Just ask any writer, for whom words are their paint: They create something that produces a necessary change in the relationship between artist and audience, a change that renders them no longer strangers. In every human connection made with words, something new is born, countless times over. Thus, history moves.

In other words, while they are the fabric of modern society, words are also that one child who will always be a disappointment because they can’t consistently live up to your experiences. After all, how many times do we try to describe a particular smell that we don’t know how to express, or the times we always say, “Well, for lack of a better word …”? Nevertheless, even if words themselves may not ultimately be much more than ink on a page or sounds swallowed by the vacuum of human forgetfulness, they change us and they resonate with us because they hold us together when they come together.

And eventually, like that child, they do grow up, even if sometimes reluctantly. All we can do is hope we raised them well. So, like Liesel, when we put our words out into the world, all we can really do is hope that we made them right.

Jordan Harris is a deputy night editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @jordxnhxrris.