Context is very powerful

I’ve been teaching myself Spanish for the past six weeks or so, and am at the point where I can read very simple fiction such as the stories in this book, which are designed specifically for beginners, and use only simple, common words and phrases.

Although I don’t know all the words, and am still very confused by the grammar rules, tenses, and all that kind of stuff, it is surprising how easy it is to understand what a sentence as a whole means based on context. I find myself reading sentences, guessing at the meanings of words that I don’t know based on the sentence as a whole, and coming up with what I think the sentence means… and being right. Of course, sometimes I’m wrong (I always check, anyways) but not very often.

I remember being young and doing this with English words I didn’t know (before google!). If you see a word in context enough times you just learn what it means without anyone telling you, or if not exactly, then you get an aura, or flavor of what it generally means.

I also think that, aside from learning the meanings of words, we can learn all kinds of things just from context. Why did some character say a certain word, or act a certain way? What are a characters motivations or fears? We learn these things by the things that happen around the character. Not by having them explicitly, painfully, detailed for us.

Anyway, I’m having a lot of fun learning. It gives me that little hit of dopamine every time I successfully decipher a sentence, like solving a puzzle. My hope is that, if I can get good enough at it to read actual novels, I will become fluent through osmosis, by just reading and reading, which is how I got good at English, after all.

Then I could read Marquez and Borges in their original text! 😮 Life goals!


I cog it

I am nearing the end of Cloud Atlas, and the current viewpoint character has a very foreign (to me) dialect. The character is Hawaiian, but in a far future ‘we forgot technology’ situation. Perhaps some of this way of speaking is familiar to Hawaiians, but it’s not to me. And this is not just dialogue, but the narrator. The text is quite dense with unfamiliar idioms and phrases. Yet, I have hardly any difficulty understanding it.

Brains are good at figuring out contextual clues and filling in the gaps. I only had to think for about two seconds that ‘cog’ was ‘understand’ and that ‘beutsome’ was ‘beautiful’ and ‘hushly’ was ‘quiet’, and so on.  This is just one of an endless stream of reasons that you don’t need to do so much telling in your stories. Readers aren’t dumb. They will figure it out just fine. I didn’t need someone providing definitions, I just figured it out based on the context of what was happening. I could imagine a lesser writer feeling the need to insert a ‘fish out of water’ character to go ‘huh? what?’ at every new word so it could be explained to them.

This is the bane of many TV shows. Just pay attention next time you watch Law and Order, or some other basic cable TV show. One cop will say ‘The victim has deep lacerations on the abdomen.’ Then a second later, another one will say ‘He slashed her belly,’ to explain it to the supposed dummies who don’t know what a laceration or abdomen is. It happens every time anyone uses a word with more than two syllables. Pay attention, and you’ll notice it, though you might not be as irritated by it as me…

Anyway, all that is to say that over-explaining–or really, any explaining when you can avoid it–is not good for your story!

Fused words

I’ve come to notice some patterns in some people’s speaking that I find sort of irritating but also interesting. It seems that certain groups of words that are spoken together often enough become ‘fused’ together to be one word in the mind.

For example (and once I mention this you will hear it all the time and hate me): it is very common to say the words ‘the problem is’ or ‘the question is’ or ‘the thing is’ in groups like that. What I often hear, on the radio or in conversations, is people saying ‘the problem is, is…’ and then going on to state the problem.

It’s as if the words ‘the problem is’ have fused together and become the preamble for listing a problem, so instead of saying ‘the problem (pause) is that I ate too much pepperoni’ it comes out as ‘the problem is (pause) is that I ate too much pepperoni’.

Every time I hear someone saying this, I find myself wondering how long it will be until another ‘is’ is added into the fused group. Will people be saying ‘the problem is is, is I have a speech impediment’ at some point in the future?

This isn’t the only example. Just today I heard someone in the supermarket making an announcement over the PA. He said ‘Julie to check-stand 5 please, please.’

The man must have said ‘so and so to check-stand whatever please’ so many times that the group of words became just one sequence of sounds that he said when he needed someone at the check-stand, and after saying that sequence of sounds he felt the need to be polite and add ‘please’ on the end of it.

I wonder if this is related to semantic satiation, the phenomenon where repeating a word often enough causes it to temporarily lose meaning and become just a sound.

I’m certainly not a linguist, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there  were already a term for this and other examples. If you have any examples I’d like to hear them!