Friday, April 21, 2006

Choosing the right words

Researchers at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena have hit on something intriguing:
Remarkably, the study has concluded that the letters we use can be viewed as a mirror of the features of the natural world, from trees and mountains to meandering streams and urban cityscapes.

The shapes of letters are not dictated by the ease of writing them, economy of pen strokes and so on, but their underlying familiarity and the ease of recognising them. We use certain letters because our brains are particularly good at seeing them, even if our hands find it hard to write them down. In turn, we are good at seeing certain shapes because they reflect common facets of the natural world.
A fascinating notion, that the symbols used as letters as a way to visualize language have a strong basis in the natural world. Oftentimes there are names of people -- either fictional or not -- which seem, well, just right; they couldn't describe anyone else as perfectly. It's interesting to think that the phonetic sound of spoken language and the visual shape of letters sometimes correspond with incredible synchronicity. Many times I've stumbled when trying to come up with something as simple as a name for a character; it's more of a challenge, sometimes, than you might think. The trick is coming up with something that sounds right and feels right and looks right, and getting those three criteria to match up is one of writing's big hurdles. Some can do it without even thinking, whereas others seem to struggle with it endlessly.

As an aside, there's a real-life neurological condition called synaesthesia which bears mentioning in this context. Basically, it's the bleeding of one sense into another; people with it can hear colors, feel shapes, et cet. I've always been fascinated by this condition and have sometimes experienced sensations that correspond to it (although not to a particularly extreme degree). Many people with the condition tend to have creative and/or artistic bents, particularly musicians; the Wikipedia entry mentions, among others, Jimi Hendrix and Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd, as well as classical composers Alexander Scriabin, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Jean Sibelus and Gyorgy Ligeti. Bob Dylan is another likely candidate. It's intriguing to me that for whatever reason, wires get crossed and sensory inputs can be put to different uses than they're intended for; I'd even go so far as to wager that many great thinkers in our history likely experienced these sensations. How else do you learn to think outside of the box?

1 comment:

Veronica said...

Well said.
It's something that's always interested me.