Language:

(To survey other elements and author quotes, visit the Elements of Fiction home page)

“Language can be something like home for a writer.” Gunter Grass

“Language is not the dress but the incarnation of thought.” William Wordsworth

“Thoughts rise from the heart on breezes, and language finds its speaker.” Lu Chi’s Wen Fu

“At a certain pitch of awareness of language, one can make marvelous leaps.” Denise Levertov

“Language is an efficient ordering of the world’s enigmatic abundance. Or, in other words, we invent nouns to fit reality.” Jorge Luis Borges

“Language itself is continuously an imaginative act.” Guy Davenport

“When you have made a new sentence, or even an image that works well, it is a palace where language itself has lit a new lamp.” Pat Conroy

“In one yard of silk, there is infinite space; language is a deluge from one small corner of the heart.” Lu Chi’s Wen Fu

“The world of appearances is complicated, and language has only verbalized a miniscule part of its potential, indefatigable combinations. Why not create a word, only one, for the converging perception of the cowbells announcing day’s end and the sunset in the distance?” Jorge Luis Borges

“The misuse of language induces evil in the soul.” Socrates

“Languages construct realities.” Jorge Luis Borges

 “I have a strange and overpowering feeling that it had always been an inherent part of myself. English was for me neither a matter of choice nor adoption. The merest idea of choice had never entered my head. And as to adoption—well, yes, there was adoption; but it was I who was adopted by the genius of the language, which directly I came out of the stammering stage made me its own so completely that its very idiom I truly believe had a direct action on my temperament and fashioned my still plastic character.” Joseph Conrad

“The latent content of all languages is the same—the intuitive science of experience. . . . nothing more or less than a collective art of thought.” Edward Sapir

“Languages are more to us than systems of thought transference. They are invisible garments that drape themselves about our spirit and give a predetermined form to all its symbolic expression. When the expression is unusual significance, we call it literature.” Edward Sapir

“The possibilities of individual expression are infinite, language in particular is the most fluid of mediums.” Edward Sapir

“The artist has intuitively surrendered to the inescapable tyranny of the material, made its brute nature fuse easily with his conception. The material “disappears” precisely because there is nothing in the artist’s conception to indicate that any other material exists. For the time being, he, and we with him, move in the artistic medium as a fish moves in the water, oblivious of the existence of an alien atmosphere. No sooner, however, does the artist transgress the law of his medium than we realize with a start that there is a medium to obey. Language is the medium of literature as marble or bronze or clay are the materials of the sculptor.” Edward Sapir [My italics—UW]

“I write out of greed for lives and language. A need to listen to the orchestra of living.” Barry Hannah

“The language still strikes me as a miracle, a thing the deepest mind adores. At its best, when you lose your arrogance and are least selfish, it can sing back to you almost as a disembodied friend.” Barry Hannah

“Language is alive only by a metaphor drawn from the life of its users.” Jacques Barzun

“Language is either the incarnation of our thoughts and feelings or a cloak for their absence.” Jacques Barzun

“One whose language remains muddled cannot do it; only when held in a clear mind can language become noble.” Lu Chi’s Wen Fu

“Our ideal therefore, must be a language as clear as glass—the person looking out of the window knows there is glass there, but he is not concerned with it; what concerns him is what comes through from the other side.” Elizabeth Bowen

“Language must speak from its essence to articulate reason: verbosity indicates a lack of virtue.” Lu Chi’s Wen Fu

“Literature is an art form which uses language as its tool—and language is an objective instrument. You cannot seriously approach writing without the strict premise that words have objective meanings.” Ayn Rand

“Dagny [Taggart in Atlas Shrugged] regarded language as a tool of honor, always to be used as if one were under oath—an oath of allegiance to reality.” Ayn Rand

“I think that anything that makes you overly conscious of the language is bad for the story usually.” Flannery O’Connor

“The basic elements of language are physical: the noise words make and the rhythm of their relationships.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“Needless to say, most writers who care immoderately about language don’t go to the extreme of refusing to tell a story at all. More commonly such writers do present characters, actions, and the rest, but becloud them in a mist of beautiful noise, forever getting in the way of what they are saying by the splendor of their way of saying it. Eventually one beings to suspect that the writer cares more about his gift than about his characters.” John Gardner

“It is true that one of the great pleasures afforded by good books is the writer’s fine handling of language.” John Gardner

“Shakespeare fits language to its speaker and occasion, as the best writers always do. In the work of Shakespeare, brilliant language always serves character and action. However splendid it may be, Shakespeare’s language is finally subservient to character and plot.” John Gardner

“Language colors and helps determine events throughout. Calling the bear and man ‘ancient creatures’ commits me to implications different from those involved in ‘old man and old bear’.” John Gardner

“I am describing only the way in which one choice of words leads to another, the way language actively influences the progress of events.” John Gardner

“Bellow’s self-indulgence takes various forms. On occasion it appears as stylistic fiddling—as language designed mainly to show off Bellow’s gifts as philosopher, poet, mimic, or Jewish humorist—not aimed, as it should be, at clarifying action and character or at controlling the reader’s attention and response, heightening his pleasure and understanding. When Bellow is feeling self-indulgent, his language, instead of sharpening effects, distracts the reader, calls attention to the writer and thus away from the story unfolding like a dream in the reader’s mind.” John Gardner

“All passionate language does of itself become musical. The speech of a man even in zealous anger becomes a chant, a song.” Thomas Carlyle

“The novel is also a very important ‘nature reserve’ for language, and encourages the pleasure uses of language—being able to create images from printed symbols. What terrifies me is an increasing lack of ability in children to do this . . . words losing their colors, their histories, their echoes, their emotive values. The metaphor is the miracle of higher civilization.” John Fowles

“Language to me is sacrosanct. I won’t accept the argument that one must write for the common man. In countless things in life, I’m all for the common man. But I think, with language itself, there really are not let-outs. You have to make it as rich as you can because you’re preserving the richness of language.” John Fowles

“I’m all for richness in language, and if people can’t understand then they can bloody well go elsewhere. Buy a dictionary or something.” John Fowles

“I adore language, and especially English with its incomparable richness. I think of that richness less as a doomed attempt to impose order on chaos than as an attempt to magnify reality. I have no time for the old socialist belief that you must avoid all rare words and communicate by lowest common denominators alone. As well say you must use inferior tools.” John Fowles

“The English language is the greatest single tool of man’s long history.” William Sloane

“The age-old question of whether language is more important that content is actually unreal. A writer’s language has to work on the reader.” William Sloane

“Learning language is not simply a matter of learning words; it is a matter of correctly relating our words to the things and happenings for what they stand.” S.I. Hayakawa

“A writer with an ear for language will reach for fresh imagery and avoid phrases that are trite.” William Zinsser

“Like bread and love, language is shared with others.” Carlos Fuentes

“Language is the writer’s medium, used by him as the painter uses form, line and colour. The attribute of language should be livingness—that is, not a word should be so employed as to give out a dull or dreadening ring or seem to have exhausted its significance.” Elizabeth Bowen

“Language is a mixture of statement and evocation: the test of its livingness, for a writer, is the extent of its power to conjure up.” Elizabeth Bowen

“The one certainty about slang is that its life and its connotations are unpredictable to a degree not found in the use of the standard vocabulary.” Jacques Barzun

“The line that divides slang from colloquialism can never be sharply drawn, but one can hazard the generality that the colloquial is well-established and therefore clear at sight; slang, thriving on novelty, needs interpretation. For slang when first launched expresses an attitude much more than a novel expression. ‘Get down to brass tacks’ is a colloquial metaphor; whereas ‘cluck and grunt’ for ham and eggs was invented to show off and puzzle a little, and it has to be explained. Accordingly, novelists who want to seem true by recording current talk, and who also want their work to survive somewhat longer than the season following publication, have the difficult task of guessing which pieces of slang will outlive the year. Oddly enough, at the same time as they choose slang, the will avoid using most colloquialisms, because they have very likely become clichés. If by good luck they pick a slang term with a future, it, too, will in the future qualify as a cliché.” Jacques Barzun

“There is really but one way to tighten one’s grip on language and that is by reading.” Jacques Barzun

“Diction should be handled with particular care in those parts in which little is happening, and which are expressive neither of character nor of reasoning; excessively brilliant diction overshadows character and reasoning.” Aristotle

“Despite membership in the guild of outcasts, writers to, by quirk of fate or sex or addiction or parenthood, become intimate with others, with those who don’t originate from the planet of words and language.” Jayne Anne Phillips

“The guild of outcasts is essentially a medieval guild existing in a continue Dark Age, shaman/monks, witch/nuns, working in isolation, playing with fire.” Jayne Anne Phillips

“The writer’s first affinity is not to a loyalty, a tradition, a morality, a religion, but to life itself, and to its representation in language.” Jayne Anne Phillips

“I knew of no other way of not being alone in the world than through language.” Robert Stone

“It [language] is the most significant and colossal work that the human spirit has evolved—nothing short of a finished form of expression for all communicable experience.” Edward Sapir

“Language is the most massive and inclusive art we know.” Edward Sapir

“Literature moves in language as a medium, but that medium comprises two layers, the latent content of language—our intuitive record of experience—and the particular conformation of a given language—the specific how of our record of experience. Literature that draws its sustenance mainly—never entirely—from the lower level, say a play of Shakespeare’s, is translatable without too great a loss of character. If it moves in the upper rather than in the lower level—a fair example is a lyric of Swinburne’s—it is as good as untranslatable.” Edward Sapir

“A truly deep symbolism . . . does not depend on the verbal associations of a particular language but rests securely on an intuitive basis that underlies all linguistic expression.” Edward Sapir

“The artist’s ‘intuition,’ to use Croce’s term, is immediately fashioned out of a generalized human experience—thought and feeling—of which his own individual experience is a highly personalized selection. The thought relations in this deeper level have not specific linguistic vesture; the rhythms are free, not bound, in the first instance, to the traditional rhythms of the artist’s language. Certain artists whose spirit moves largely in the non-linguistic (better, in the generalized linguistic) layer even find a certain difficulty in getting themselves expressed in the rigidly set terms of their accepted idiom. One feels that they are unconsciously striving for a generalized art language, a literary algebra, that is related to the sum of all known languages as a perfect mathematical symbolism is related to all the roundabout reports of mathematical relations that normal speech is capable of conveying. Their art expression is frequently strained, it sounds at times like a translation from an unknown original—which, indeed, is precisely what it is.” Edward Sapir [My italics—UW]

“Their relative failure is of the greatest diagnostic value as an index of the pervasive presence in literature of a larger, more intuitive linguistic medium than any particular language.” Edward Sapir

“The greatest—or shall we say most satisfying—literary artists, the Shakespeares and Heines, are those who have known subconsciously to fit or trim the deeper intuition to the provincial accents of their daily speech.” Edward Sapir [My italics—UW]

“Every language is itself a collective art of expression. There is concealed in it a particular set of esthetic factors—phonetic, rhythmic, symbolic, morphological—which it does not completely share with any other language.” Edward Sapir

“English is by now the world language.” Salman Rushdie

“What seems to me to be happening [in India] is that those peoples who were once colonized by the language are now rapidly remaking it, domesticating it, becoming more and more relaxed about the way they use it—assisted by the English language’s enormous flexibility and size, they are carving out large territories for themselves within its frontiers.” Salman Rushdie

“After two or three stanzas and several images by which he himself was struck, his work took possession of him and he felt the approach of what is called inspiration. At such moments the relation of the forces that determine artistic creation is, as it were, reversed. The dominant thing is no longer the state of mind the artist seeks to express but the language in which he wants to express it. Language, the home and receptacle of beauty and meaning, itself begins to think and speak for man and turns wholly into music, not in terms of sonority but in terms of the impetuousness and power of its inward flow. Then, like the current of a mighty river polishing stones and turning wheels by its very movement, the flow of speech creates in passing, by virtue of its own laws, meter and rhythm and countless other relationships, which are even more important, but which are as yet unexplored, insufficiently recognized, and unnamed.” Boris Pasternak from Doctor Zhivago

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