The Complexity of Language

Human beings are able to communicate their thoughts and their feelings in many different ways. If I have the ability I can paint them, draw them, sculpt them, dance them, compose them into a symphony or a ballet or a piece of jazz, and express myself in all the ways that are called ‘arts and crafts’. Each does something none of the others do. And the word language has been used in relation to all of them. People talk about ‘the language of painting’, ‘the language of music’, and so on.

But there is a fundamental difference between all these art forms and ‘language’ in the sense of this book. When we see a painting or a dance, or listen to a piece of music, we don’t need language to enjoy what we see and hear. But if we want to describe what it is that we’ve seen and heard, or give it a name, or discuss it with others, then we do need language. Language allows us to talk about our experience of the world in a way that no other means of communication can. That’s why it is so special. That’s why it deserves a book of its own. And that is why it is studied by the subject called linguistics.

Language can make us think and make us feel. It can appeal to our head and also to our heart. And within our heads, it can appeal to our ears and also to our eyes, by sounding or looking beautiful or ugly. Sometimes it does all four things at once. We can read something which tells us a good story, makes us laugh and cry, is nicely laid out on the page, and (when we read it aloud) is great to listen to. Language like this is most often found in novels, short stories, essays, plays, and poems. In a word, in literature.

The word ‘literature’ can mean virtually everything that appears in written form. But the main use of the word literature is to cover everything where people have used language to create something special as a work of art. We normally divide these works into two man kinds: fiction and non-fiction. In fiction people use their imagination to tell stories, such as the books about Harry Potter, or those by Roald Dahl or Terry Pratchett. In non-fiction, people talk about the real world, as when they write about their travels or tell the story of someone’s life (a biography). Sometimes they write stories which are a mix of the two, as when an author writes a tale about Shakespeare which is partly fact and partly fiction.

Most literature in Western society is in written form. We read it. But in many parts of the world the languages have never been written down. So in these cultures, the people have to listen to literature. They have people who are highly skilled at telling stories and reciting poems. The stories are learned off by heart and told over and over at different times and different places. This is called ‘oral literature’

Whether oral or written, all literature has one thing in common. The authors are trying to use language in the most effective way. They want the way they speak or write to be beautiful, powerful, dramatic, memorable, original, and to move us in some way.

David Crystal
from A Little Book of Language

A Little Book of Language

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