Arlan Andrews Sr. has been many things in his life. A scientist, a White House Fellow, engineer, founder of SIGMA and many, many other things. Here at Hydra, the former Hugo award nominee plies his trade as a wordsmith, the latest being Silicon Blood, a thrilling look into the not too distant future of nanotechnology and crime, as well as Future Flash, a collection of flash fiction Arlan has written over the years. Today he provides his thoughts on the use of “words”.
Words are wonderful things, the elements of language, the DNA of literature, the genes of writing, the chromosomes of communication. In other words, they are the very structure of literary life, ever-reproducing in endless chains, permutations and combinations.
Some words have caused wars, others have generated peace; occasionally some few words captured ideas that changed history and altered civilizations. Some words will reach the stars, and others the depths of human existence.
Some words are meant only for speech, and can’t be properly written, though Mark Twain gave it a good shot when he introduced country slang and Southern dialect into popular “litra-choor.” (Political correctness being what it is, I can’t even reproduce those words here, much less begin to discuss them in detail. For your own edification, just check out Huckleberry Finn or the B’rer Rabbit tales of Joel Chandler Harris – if they are still available and the society of Fahrenheit 451 has not yet taken over.)
For example, nobody would ever write “thuh” even though several billion native speakers of English say the word “the” that way, billions and billions of times a day. Anybody who doesn’t say it that way, didn’t learn it as a child and forever brands themselves as a foreigner. (Actually, I think we and the English changed the pronunciation of “the” that way just to catch German spies like in those World War II movies, and we never changed it back after that. God only knows what the recent conflicts in the Middle East are doing to our innocent language!)
And speaking of speech, spoken words many times are used in only certain ways and only unwritten rules apply. Any English speaker, educated or not, says “I see what you mean.” Whether you are from the Tidewater, the Thames, the backwoods or the Bronx, nobody has to tell you that only a foreigner would ever utter, “I am seeing what you mean.”
Words for Your Eyes Only
Other words are never spoken, or probably shouldn’t be. Now, I’ve hung around fairly well-educated people most of my life since my young backwoods Arkansas days – at missile ranges, universities, research labs, in Mensa, government agencies, literary meetings, with writers and science fiction fans and engineers and scientists, and now even occasionally with a renowned Kentucky State Poet Laureate, author, and playwright – and I’ve heard lots of words, some of them more than once, but some words I’ve yet to hear spoken. (I have a feeling that you’d break some kind of Shakespearean or Chaucerian spell if you ever said them out loud instead of just in your mind while reading.
“Vaunted” is one of those words only ever seen in print, as is “inexorable.” Same for “enormity” (almost always used incorrectly even there, by the way). “Eschatology”, “dialectic”, “deconstruction”, “progressive”, “reactionary”, “pejorative” – all are juicy intellectual-sounding words for University writing classes or the New York Times Sunday Crossword, but hardly ever heard in the real world where people have actual jobs and build things and make a living. (I believe, for example, that “words” like “esne”, “oryx”, and “onager” never really existed until needed to fill in some small corners of those crossword puzzles.)
(And I also have to note that, since moving here to the Commonwealth (and just what does that word mean, anyhow, comrade?) the two words I’ve never seen or heard used together are in that foreign-to-Kentucky phrase, “turn signal”.)
I love written words, and writing words and reading words. They bring life to the mind, and the mind to life. The computer age has made writing much easier, reading even more necessary than ever.
However, technology may be bringing other great changes to words. Just as oral storytelling gave way to written language thousands of years ago, so our written language may yield to voice recorders and speech synthesizers and audio devices, and thus complete the cycle. Our current quaint arts of reading and writing text may one day be consigned to hobbyists, becoming skills as useful and meaningful as hand-inked calligraphy is today.
So books themselves may die off, our earbuds even eventually evolving into direct brain inputs or the like. But in whatever form, words — beautiful, fanciful, useful words — will live on.
You have my word.