September 8, 2013

A World of New Words

A World of New Words
I’ve recently started learning German and have discovered a whole world of new words; words which do not have an English equivalent. This has led me to wonder how learning another language can help improve our ability to express our feelings, and maybe even make us more aware of those feelings in the first place.
For example, I’ve experienced weltschmerz for many years, but I never had a nice neat word for it until now. The literal translation of weltschmerz means ‘world-pain’, or world-weariness, and was coined by the German author, Jean Paul Richter. It’s the feeling ‘experienced by someone who understands that physical reality can never satisfy the demands of the mind’, or ‘the feeling of sadness when thinking about the evils of the world’. Upon discovering this word I felt a weight lifted from me; having a singular word has helped me accept that feeling and it seems easier to deal with now that I have a label for it in my mind and it’s not just some intangible experience.
There are many other German words which do not have a direct English equivalent, such as gemütlichkeit (a situation which induces a cheerful or peaceful mood), or schadenfreude, which many of us have heard before and which means to take pleasure in the misfortune of another.

Building the Bridge
Discovering these brand new words which so succinctly describe a feeling has demonstrated to me just how important it is to choose the right word to match the emotion, especially for us writers. I’ve certainly read stories where the writer described the character as feeling a certain way about something and thinking it just didn’t ring true. Using ‘disappointed’ when in fact ‘distraught’ is closer the mark can make all the difference to how much your reader believes in you as a story-teller. The reader is relying on you to build a connection between them and your character. You need to understand how your character feels, and how to express it accurately. This makes improving your vocabulary an essential part of developing as a writer.

The Danger of Vagueness
Inexperienced writers have a habit of being vague or non-descript about their characters feelings. They’ll say ‘a bit tired’ rather than ‘exhausted’, or ‘she started crying’ instead of ‘she slumped into her chair, covered her face with her hands and sobbed’.
To vividly express emotions and feelings in a story, the writer must first be aware of his or her own feelings. This will sometimes require challenging the words we take for granted – happy, sad, angry, annoyed – and looking for new and different labels. It also requires us to develop a heightened awareness of our own happiness spectrums, sadness spectrums, etc. For example, is the kind of happiness you feel when you’re with your spouse or partner the same kind of happiness you feel when you find a £5 note on the ground? Is the sadness you feel when your pet dies the same as when you lose your job, or when you discover you’re all out of coco pops for breakfast?

New Words are your Friends
The need for a wide and varied selection of words shows how important it is to incorporate new and foreign words into the English language.
Schadenfreude is a good example of a foreign word which has been adopted by English-speakers. But there are other ways to improve your vocabulary too. Newly invented words can also be useful, and fun. ‘Cidiot’, for example, is a merging of the words city + idiot: “someone from the city who's utterly crippled by an inability to survive outside city limits or comprehend any merit or logic in rural life or people” – This may have been the first time you’ve heard this word, but I bet you know exactly what it means (either because you are one, or you’ve met one) and it creates a better image in your mind than the word ‘idiot’ on its own.
Our stories suffer when we become stagnant in our use of language. There are so many words out there, words which can change how you perceive your own feelings. So just imagine how improving your vocabulary may help improve your readers’ experience too. Keep your net wide open and never stop fishing for those juicy, fresh words. Your readers will thank you for it.

J.C. Piech is the author of ‘Don’t Be Afraid’, and her short story ‘Day Trip’ is now available on Kindle. She lives in south east England with her husband, and when she’s not writing she enjoys learning German, eating cake and reading about WW2 and Cold War history.

[Preview picture created by NiteOwls]

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