Did you know there are at least fifty synonyms for the English word, “beautiful”? Each one has a slightly different connotation, depending on what exactly is being described. “Beautiful” is an adjective – a word that describes. Within one word alone, there are fifty others, also adjectives, whose jobs are the same – to create an image of what is being spoken or written.
I’ll admit, this is being written a bit defensively. I know two languages: English, and American Sign Language (ASL). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Sign language is so beautiful!” And you know what? That’s true. Sign language is all about the visual – body language, facial expressions and concepts. Half the time, people who don’t know sign language may not even realize that the “signs” they are seeing are basic gestures, acting out particular dialogue. It’s pretty awesome once you think about it. Fingerspelling alone is a commendable achievement for those not born into the language.
But at the same time, I’ve heard English put down just as frequently, if not more so, for not having the same communication capabilities. What? Okay, English can be pretty ridiculous when it comes to grammar and spelling rules. The whole “i before e” thing alone is misleading to say the least, and oftentimes is downright wrong. English has borrowed from so many other languages that spellings are enough to frighten any foreigner. All those silent letters can drive anyone insane. No wonder the younger generation is now falling prey to chatspeak acronyms and phonetic spellings (“phonetic”… how ironic).
Granted. But the same people who put down English perhaps fail to see the beauty underneath the idiocy. I love words. I’m a writer, so using words is kind of my thing. And since English is my first language, that’s the language in which I write. Communicate. Paint. Yes, it is an art form. Anyone can draw a person, right? Even if it’s just a stick figure or a blotch that your four-year-old painted, there you have it – a representation of a person. But only a great artist can make a portrait come alive… can make the eyes reveal one’s soul within the confines of an inanimate canvas. So, too, it is with writing. I’m not claiming to be great – I am far from it. But the same feeling you might get from dipping into a fresh, cool spring during a sweltering summer day is similar to the feeling I get from sitting down with a blank piece of paper and painting a picture through words.
Moving on to spoken English. Sure, sign language is full of gestures and expression that can tell a whole story with one look. Some people may forget that we use facial expressions in English as well. Think about the word, “Oh,” for just a moment. [insert raised eyebrows] “Oh!” [insert dull expression] “Oh.” [insert quizzical expression] “Oh?” Now take the word “Oh” out completely and just leave the facial expressions. Wait, what? That’s not English. No, it’s not – it’s simply communication. English-speaking people are not bound by forming words with their lips or with pen – facial expressions and body language is communication in and of itself, and English is not exempt from these very effective tools.
Now things are getting good. Let’s add tone of voice in there. Think about the word, “really.” [insert sarcasm] “Really?” [insert excitement] “Really?” [insert irritation] “Really?” Based on tone of voice alone, you know exactly how the speaker is feeling. One word. Multiple meanings. Phone conversations are successful only because of tone of voice. Think of all the different tones that can be heard. Hushed. Irritated. Happy. Sad. Angry. Gentle. Tone of voice is an utterly amazing gift. It crushes barriers formed when implied meaning doesn’t exist otherwise.
Back to written English, even here I can imply tone of voice. A little bit of italic emphasis, and I have your attention. Even you can’t argue with this. Written words will never be as effective as face-to-face communication, but don’t let the surface simplicity fool you. Everywhere you go, there are written words communicating with you. Just go online. Read a book. Look at a street sign. “STOP” = English telling you to halt. Words are virtually everywhere. I’m not even going to get into puns – we’d be here all day.
Here’s the thing though. English isn’t special. English is just a language. It’s just a set of twenty-six letters all combined in different ways to enable us to communicate. It’s not unique when considering other languages. German. French. Spanish. It doesn’t matter – each language is about communication. Each language has its own set of rules, but each one conveys meaning in such a way that those using it can be enveloped in the whole message, not just singular, flat words. American Sign Language is beautiful – sure! But you can’t put English down in the same breath. Or any other spoken/written language. There are things that can be expressed in sign language that cannot be translated into English. But there are also things that can be expressed in English that cannot be translated into sign language. Each is unique. Each is effective. Each is beautiful in its own way.
No matter what language you speak, listen to, write, or sign, communication is key. If two people need to combine languages just to know what’s going on, there’s no shame in that. Actually, it can be pretty nifty. You speak French? Great. I speak English. Let’s figure out a way to talk so we can be friends in spite of the barrier.