La, la, la, la…lemon

Digging through the CD case that was tucked in the door of the car the other day my daughter found a CD from when she was small. It was a “mix tape” made as a gift for her by her dad’s friend who has a child a few years younger than her. It was equal parts corny and delightful to listen (and sing along to) to songs we forgot about as she moved on to her own musical choices. Not to mention Pandora and iPod genius mixes.

She has always had eclectic tastes in music, probably because her father made her CD’s with music ranging from punk/rock/jazz and everything in between. Joe Strummer, The Specials and Squeeze were early favorites, which meant we were spared the cruelty of Barney, The Wiggles and Disney Radio.

The “La La La La” song by Barenaked Ladies was one of the songs on the “Joey Mix CD” that we listened to the other night. It does “unexpected” things with the letter “L” like singing about linoleum rather than lullaby’s. This popped in my head today as I was reading an essay on language by Joshua Foer in the New Yorker (you can read it here). The thing that hooked me, and made me start humming the lemon song, was the premise that language could (or should) be “cured” of its inherent flaws so that communication would be logical, efficient and precise.

As someone who spends a lot of time talking (and writing) I can’t say precision has ever been my uppermost goal. Maybe it is a symptom of the language, but my drive is to usually word choice that creates feeling. Data is never as powerful as metaphor or story – no matter what our mouths keep saying – our brains know better.

Communication by language is so much more than just the words. I understand the desire for precision for certain topics, philosophers are notoriously obsessed with describing reality with precise, neutral language, but that’s what I thought Latin was for. Language conveys history and values along with ideas. Imperfect slices of the evolution of a society, the adoption of “accepted” knowledge and advances in science, are all reflected in language, dialect and common usage.

Its a fascinating topic, thinking about the purpose of language. Linguistics in general, semantics in particular. I didn’t realize before how attached I am to my language evoking feeling and connection. I think of myself as fairly logical, but I guess the swirly, word soup in my head is closer to the whimsy & charm side of the scale than the precision & efficiency end.  I think in the work I do the emotional connection (forged by words, anecdote, metaphor) is actually what greases the neural pathway to allow new behavior. It’s all self-motivation of course, but the language is a trigger.

Much to think about. Including how children’s songs about lemons fit into our conception of the purpose of language.

CODA:
I neglected to click “publish” after proofing this post yesterday because I needed to take my daughter to her school spelling bee. Which she subsequently won. As much as I like writing I can’t spell to save my life so I take no genetic credit for her spelling skill. Her father and I are very proud of her accomplishment.

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