Column: The Finer Things
Language As An Art
Published: Sunday, February 10, 2013
Updated: Sunday, February 10, 2013 20:02
Art, for a painter, is created with rich, colorful hues. And art, for a musician, is composed of varied and complementing notes. Art, however, is not confined to such strict mediums, and art is not restricted to such a limited range of artists—art, actually, is for anyone who has ever spoken or written a single word, because language is art. And the speaker is an artist.
Rather than picking up a paintbrush or flipping through a book of sheet music, the speaker turns to his knowledge of language to craft his masterpiece. For the speaker, sentence structures, grammatical rules, and vocabulary words are no less brilliant and diverse than a palette of paint would be for a painter or a scale of notes would be for a musician. There are well over a quarter of a million words in the English language alone, and there are an infinite number of potential combinations of these same words—combinations that could result in fun, silly puns or beautiful, reflective similes and metaphors. Clearly, the possibilities for creation are endless.
Though the tools, the skills, and even the artist are different—the underlying essence in each form of art is entirely the same. These components are irrefutably important in their respective mediums, but they are merely vehicles in achieving what makes art, art. The paint strokes, the chord progressions, and even the sentence structures would mean little if they failed to elicit some kind of emotion in their observer, listener, or reader. It’s feeling that makes art.
And even though this indispensable principle ensures that one medium is in no way superior to another, there’s no denying that there is something incredibly special about the art of language. In her book on aesthetics, Kate Gordon elaborates on the idea, saying, “In representing human emotion language has the prime advantage of being able to render literally the speech of the person. Painting can give the visible appearance, music the intonations; but language alone can give exact thought and utterance.” Language, alone, can do what painting and music can only achieve together: it can evoke both detailed imagery and precise sounds, with nothing more than a strand of cleverly arranged words.
Language, as an art, is an all-encompassing experience of emotion, and although its form changes with different speakers, it’s the sundry and varied styles of language, both oral and written, that make it truly amazing. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, influenced an entire movement with his emboldening speech, and his words “I have a dream,” though simple, incite hope even decades later. The art of his language rested in his ability to inspire, and the same standard holds true in writing. Two of the most famous American writers of the 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, possessed wholly opposite narrative styles—the former’s was florid and elaborately complex and the latter’s was raw and bluntly basic—but the two, all the same, are praised for their mastery of language. Despite their stark stylistic differences, their writing appealed, in singular ways, to human emotions, making their literature real works of art.
For centuries, though, it’s been William Shakespeare who has been lauded as the artistic master of the English language. Lines from his plays such as Romeo & Juliet and Macbeth have been held as the golden standard of linguistic form. In Hamlet, for example, he wrote, “Doubt that the stars are fire / Doubt that the sun doth move his aides / Doubt truth to be a liar / But never doubt I love.” It’s undeniable that such words are some of the most poetic ever written, but it’s also obvious that today no one really speaks or writes like Shakespeare did. Does that mean that the art of language is deteriorating?
It’s hard to say. Fluid and dynamic, language is constantly changing: “Language is an anonymous, collective, and unconscious art—the result of the creativity of thousands of generations.” Edward Sapir, one of the most influential linguists of the 19th century, couldn’t have said anything truer. Even our generation is playing an integral role in crafting, composing, and sketching the art of language for the future. With each word you say, you’re creating it. So choose your words carefully. Say something beautiful—something that will inspire. Make your words art.