WWW: The Beauty of Language

>> Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Since I talked about reading aloud yesterday, I have to talk again about using the beauty of language to intensify one's prose. I've mentioned this before, using the sound of language to reinforce the meaning of the words, but it bears repeating.

But wait, I have examples:

The sequestered situation of this church seems always to have made it a favorite haunt of troubled spirits. It stands on a knoll, surrounded by locust, trees and lofty elms, from among which its decent, whitewashed walls shine modestly forth, like a Christian purity beaming through the shades of retirement. (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving)

To such perseverance in wilful self-deception Elizabeth would make no reply, and immediately and in silence withdrew, determined, that if he persisted in considering her repeated refusals as flattering encouragement, to apply to her father, whose negative might be uttered in such a manner as to be decisive, and whose behavior at least could not be mistaken for the affectation and coquetry of an elegant female. (Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen)
I saw them writhe with deadly locution. I saw them fashion the syllables of my name; and I shuddered because no sound succeeded. I saw, too, for a few moments of delirious horror, the soft and nearly imperceptible waving of the sable draperies which enwrapped the walls of the apartment. ("The Pit and the Pendulum," by Edgar Allan Poe)
If you can't discern how wonderfully the language was used in those passages, go back and read them out loud. Can you hear the somnolent beauty of the setting for the church, with it's pristine walls representing the beauty of faith? Or the sarcasm in the lofty terms Elizabeth uses to express his explanation for her gentle refusals and her hopes that her father can be more successful in saying NO? Or the painful otherworldly description of the torture victim? Not just the meaning of the glorious words, but the sound.

But modern authors can do it, too.
Unsmiling, she chose her target: a man in black and white. Unsmiling, she loosed her arrow . . . and it sang, how it sang, slicing through the sky . . . she heard the distant crescendo; she heard the archer's scream. ("Spoils of War" by Jennifer Roberson)
If you think you get as much out of that passage reading it silently than you do in reading it aloud, you might be doing it wrong.
As the shadows lengthened, she became a shadow herself, another purple shape in the underbrush. In the lee of a tower, she scaled the crumbling wall of the castle unnoticed, unheard. She came up just below where guards kept watch in the turret, sliding beneath them on the battlements, in the shadows, and slipping soundlessly into the keep itself. (Curse of the Jenri, by myself)
Think of your favorite books and see if you can't find a passage that sounds as good as it looks. And, if you can't, trying writing one.


  • Davida

    My favorite passage that sounds as good as it looks is probably inappropriate for your comment section :) There is definitely a benefit to reading aloud though... it makes the passage feel beautiful.


  • Patricia Rockwell

    I also like reading literature in another language aloud--even if you don't understand it,you can still appreciate the beauty of the language. Baudelaire comes to mind.

  • Stephanie B

    Beautiful language makes the silent reading better, too, Davida, more powerful. But you do get something by reading it out loud.

    You're not wrong, Patricia. In my Spanish classes in high school, we read Cervantes (Don Quixote) in class and in college French, it was Colette. In both cases, they are so beautiful and lyrical in their native languages, it's hard to compare them to the relatively clumsiness of English. Although, as I tried to demonstrate, a little care can pull some beauty out of English, even if it's not as effortless.

    I suspect that's why operas haven't all been translated into the native tongue. The beauty of hte original language is such that knowing the (often inane) meaning of the dialog is actually secondary.

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