Words Shape Us


Language colours you in ways you never realise. A language shapes a culture, as much as the culture shapes the language. Language shapes how you think, and the way in which you view the world. This concept got driven home to me the other day as I was waiting for the bus, and I noticed that there were some new knock-down sticks at the corner of the next street.

Knock-down sticks. What a utilitarian word. Functional. Dull. Then you look at most of the cars passing these functional sticks, and you notice that their colours are mainly utilitarian as well. And the people driving those cars are mainly wearing dull-coloured coats - brown, black, grey. There's so little variety, though that is changing. I think North American culture has too much grip on it by the Protestant pragmatists of our past. It's created a culture where we put less and less 'art' into some things, because we assume that black, or white, or grey, will appeal to a wider customer base than soda pop orange or electric yellow or pink or sage. It still makes my head turn when I see a purple car, or bright green, because those colours are so rare in the average every-day vehicle. The utilitarian nature of colour also caters to a belief that something cannot be artful, graceful, or creative, and still be as functional as something that has no 'personality' to it at all. It seems, also, that a lot of people take something's viability a lot less seriously, the more 'creative' or out of the norm it appears. It might also speak to why a lot of people still don't take art itself seriously as an activity, a profession, or a contribution. If it doesn't serve some kind of quantifiable, functional purpose, then it has no use or value.

In the UK knock-down sticks are called "bollards"; presumably because they resemble the posts that boats are tied when moored. In the UK they refer to ball-point pens as biros; which is an oddly more functional term than the word 'pen'. Well, not really; just more recent. Pen relates to a Latin word for "feather"; as in the feathers used to create quill pens. Biro is the name of the person who invented the ball-point pen. How have word-differences like that shaped their version of English, and thereby their culture, differently than our version of English has shaped us? I'm starting to wonder what knock-down sticks are called in Japan, because that's a culture that has - in so many ways throughout its history, at least to our Western eyes - turned life itself into an art; or maybe it just seems that way, in comparison with our own way of living. I remember reading something quite a few years ago that mentioned that Japan didn't have art galleries in the way that we in the west understand them; or they at least didn't at the time. And I thought that the reason they didn't, might largely be due to the fact that they don't need them, since the very act of living in some places, is the art. Some cultures put a great amount of effort into their dress, their habits, their writing systems.

Which makes me think of the importance of symbols, of names as signifiers. A number is as useful a term as any to label a thing by, but every time I get a customer from somewhere out west where this is common, I wonder how much of a pain in the posterior it must be to remember your address when it's all numbers. In B.C. and Alberta it's very common for streets not to be named, but to be numbered. It's so common in fact, that when I do get a customer that lives on a street with a name, I'm surprised. Someone's address could be something like: 1223 8186a St. NW, now throw an apartment number onto that as well. But saying 1223 Apple St. is simpler and easier to remember. People in New York have dealt with it just fine; some of the most famous street names in Western culture not being street 'names' at all even, but numbers; so I suppose folks get used to it.

In Hamilton we still use the term "West 5th", at least amongst older generations, when we're referring to the psychiatric hospital; because it's on the corner of Fennell Ave. and, you guessed it, West 5th.



2017 10 19 - 05:13

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