What are words?
Are words grains of salt in a soup?
Perhaps. Too many of them can spoil the flavor of a text and if they are used indiscriminately, they are much more likely to do so.
However… I wonder about that metaphor–and my dear readers–you know how I care about the metaphors we use to think about stuff.
As George Lakoff has argued in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories reveal about the Mind, metaphors lie at the heart of how humans employ and create language to deal with the material world. How we create metaphors and apply them is thusly an important way to understand not only how humans, in general, are perceiving their world–but also how particular individuals are doing so.
So.. are words like salt in a soup? Perhaps to an extent–but there are ways in which that metaphor is limited and/or flawed.. or at least ways in which it doesn’t catch the some important aspects of how words work.
As I am wont to do–I’d go back to root meanings and I’d look at where words are used.
Words are used in texts… and what is a text?
Well, the word “Text” comes from Old French “texte,” which itself was derived from Latin “textus.” In Latin, “textus” meant “style or texture of a work,” but it literally meant “thing woven” and the root of “textus” came from the Latin verb “texere”==to weave, which derived from the indo-european root *tek- that meant “to make.”
Obviously–this is also the root for our word “texture” and “textile” and those are interesting thoughts to keep in mind….
As it stands–a text is a weaving of words.. which quickly generates the idea that words are like threads or strands of material that are combined in certain patterns to form a greater structure. This size of this structure can be small or large.. and it can be strong or weak.. and it can have a rough or delicate texture to it…
This kind of metaphor captures a bit more–for me–about how words interact with each other and the interdependence they have with other words. It also makes very clear that there are more or less successful ways to combine these threads in order to produce a pleasing text….
Again–perhaps this is just my bias–for the metaphor of being a “weaver of words” fits how my brain works. Earlier in my timeline, as once I began to realize that I would have to use words more than I, as a young man, wanted (words and language are not natural to me.. they are a learned thing…)–I applied some of my pre-existing skills towards their use… and I soon began to realize that I could put words together much like I built with legos. It was then that I saw that words were parts of a greater whole that allowed for much creativity–but which also had limits and rules…
Later, I would learn this more interwoven metaphor for words–actually while I was taking a German test in Germany to get into the University–and I saw how my lego metaphor had been close to the truth–but perhaps also just a few threads short… In any case, since then, I’ve always noted just how many and how important such metaphors were in our language…
To take an interesting Example or perhaps Beispiel, one can think about the idea of “casting spells” or of a “Spell caster.” A “spell,” as our lovely etymological dictionary tells us–is a story or a speech–which came to mean something more like an incantation or charm. What’s interesting to me is how the metaphor that is so often used with that newer meaning is that of “casting,” which conjures the image of “casting a net” to capture someone’s mind or attention.
But what is a net–if not a strongly woven mesh.. a kind of binding textileso to speak…
In the end, the “textile/text” metaphor is layered into our language in ways that are not immediately apparent on first glance.. but which shape how our minds conceive/perceive almost everything around us.
This is the stuff that I have come to love about our language.. and maybe I can pass this kind of appreciation for the texture of our tongue on to others in this way…