How People View Language Differently

The other day in class we were discussing Adrian Blevins and how he “praises the sentence.” This has made me think a lot about whether or not I believe in the sentence or the line. I think the answer is both–how can I chose one over the other? I create sentences in poetry all the time–not necessarily as much as “lines” per say, but sentences do play a part in poetry. While lines allow for more creativity and format, sentences can be considered lines–can’t they? I feel like I’m not making much sense. But aren’t both of them essential to writing poetry? In my opinion, all sentences are lines but not all lines are sentences.

Later in the article, Blevins talks about how sentences are given meaning every single time we read them, ”
[sentences] take on a whole second, third, or hundredth life, saying many things at once in a multitude of shapes and forms.” Yet in my “Understanding Poetry” class with Doggett, we talk about how words are signifiers in a semantic system. Words don’t actually carry meaning because they signify something different for each person. These conflicting views have made me think a lot about how I view language.

As a creative writer, I like to think that words have meaning. One day in class I believe it was Christy who said the words “molasses sludge” run together. I was questioning that statement–according to Eagleton’s pov–how could the words run together if they don’t actually mean anything–they are just signifiers for a universal “sludge” that no one has ever seen? But in my opinion, they certainly do. I agree that words conjure up different images for different people, but I don’t think words are meaningless.
My AP US teacher always would say “Remember kids, words mean things.” And while that memory brings a smile to my face, I agree that they certainly do.

3 Replies to “How People View Language Differently”

  1. I think the meaning of words is separate from the sound and image the sounds conjure when you say the word, and that the actual meaning is very experiential. There are words that have seen their meaning change drastically over time. For example:
    Naughty: Long ago, if you were naughty, you had naught or nothing. Then it came to mean evil or immoral, and now you are just badly behaved.

    So the word itself does signify/mean something, and we know that what it signifies is not inherent to the sounds strung together because that ‘meaning’ has changed over time. So the meaning is separate from the word, and can be different for different societies or eras. Sometimes it’s not that the denotation is different (the actual definition) but that the connotation is different. Especially many offensive slurs had different connotations in society years ago than they do now, so using those words in a poem would have seemed natural as opposed to abhorrent back then.

    But – there is something inherently tied to the letters themselves in molasses sludge, right? Something in the sound, beyond what the words mean to us in this day and location. And I think that’s the third layer of ‘work’ that words do – denotation, connotation, inherent sound work. Molasses is a slow word, which happens to fit with the viscosity of molasses, but even separate from the meaning the sound is slow. And the sound is also almost chewy, isn’t it, with molasses sludge – it sits heavy and thick on our tongues and gives us that extra layer of imagery beyond the actual visual of molasses-y sludge.

    So I think what I’m trying to say is:
    1. Words have an actual dictionary denotation meaning, that can change over time
    2. Words have a particular emotional/evocative connotation that can change per person, society, era, etc.
    3. Words have an inherent meaning in their natural sound that may be separate from the denotation and connotation, that does not change. Or perhaps changes when read in a different accent/voice – what do we think about that? If you and I read the same word aloud, can it have a different sound-meaning? Oi vey; my brain hurts!

  2. Meghan (and Arianna),

    I really like the way that you broke this problem down, distinguishing between a word’s denotation, connotation, and “sound-meaning” (is there a word for this?). It’s a really great way to try to understand what goes into the way we read and understand words, and thus read and understand poetry. I wonder, though, which of these becomes the most important to our reading of poetry? The words’ denotation, connotation, or sound-meaning? I think it probably varies with each individual. I’m inclined to say that for me, it is connotation. I image, partially subconsciously, that my experiential understanding of a word influences most my reading. But then I feel like denotation must be most important– it is what allows us to have standard meaning for words that enable us to communicate at all. I don’t know; this is a tough one. Thanks for getting me thinking, though!


  3. Language is funny, especially the English language. That’s how I feel about language–I feel like it’s a running joke that no matter how hard we try we will never understand. And that’s the best thing about language.

    I agree with what Meghan said in her comment and Oi vey my brain does hurt. The third point that she gave is interesting to me because it made me think of colors. Is the blue that I see the same blue that she, Chloe, or you see? Do we have our individual blues? So then that made me think; do you guys see words the same way that I see words? Or do you hear words the same way that I hear words? Or do you think of words the same way that I think of words? For example, is Meghan’s phrase, “Oi vey; my brain hurts,” the same as my phrase, “Oi vey my brain hurts?” Or are they different?

    Woah calm down brain.

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