Using Language to Be More Human – Carol Shields

I was struck by the quote from Carol Shields that our professor in Expository Writing read early in our course. I made a note of it and decided to use that idea as the topic for my Analytic Essay. The quote is in the first sentence of the essay. Enjoy, use, be more human.


Using Language to Be More Human

“We are human because we use language. So I think we are less human when we use less language” said Carol Shields in an interview with April Henry for Boswell Literary Magazine. For lovers of language and literature, this is an intriguing idea, especially coming from a recognized and well-regarded writer, but it raises philosophical and anthropological questions about what is meant by human and by language and by the idea that the quantity of language affects our humanness. It may also raise concerns about how literate people might think about those they consider less literate such as children and socially-disadvantaged persons; it is a matter of historical record that white European colonizers considered colonials who had no written language to be lesser human beings. What does it mean to be human and what role does language play in that? Our first step in considering these questions is to look at what Shields herself said about language and humanness. When that is done, one discovers that Shields was not thinking in philosophical or anthropological terms about humanness and language, but about the role of language in forming human connections and community. For her, it was through language, especially in stories, that we connect and come to know others and to be known. In this understanding, Shields came close to what many people experience to be true and close to how language functions in God’s creation of people in his image.

Shields’ quote came in response to Henry’s question if she believed that words were dying out. Shields replied that she had heard that 5,000 words had dropped out of the average vocabulary in the last ten years and then commented, “If that’s true, that’s very alarming, isn’t it?” When Henry asked why that was important, Shields replied, “Words are our life. We are human because we use language. So I think we are less human when we use less language” (Interview). Shields used the terms language and human in the ordinary senses of everyday use; she was not articulating some theoretical or philosophical understanding, for example, of language as the key characteristic that distinguished humans from animals. Shields’ concept of human was also quite ordinary. Susan Swan commented that “It took me years to understand that by ordinariness Carol meant our humanness. Nobody’s ordinary. That’s the truth of it. But we’re all human” (74-75).

When she connected language and being human and “being more human,” Shields was thinking of language as the thing that allows individuals to know each other and thereby to know themselves and the meanings of their lives and to leave a record in the world: I have been here! Not language in the abstract, but language that could bring out the untold stories of their lives. In the “Afterword” to Dropped Threads, she said, “We decided to ask some of our women friends to talk about the skipped discourses in their lives and how they had managed, at last, to cope with the surprise of self-discovery, stumbling on that which had been missing: an insight, a truth, an admission, a dark hole” (346). The use of language to tell these stories—giving an account of who we are and relating to others—was very important to Shields. As she said in her essay, “Narrative Hunger and the Overflowing Cupboard,” the world is full of the stories of who and what we are. All of us are like the man with the sign “J’ai faim” around his neck while eating, the sign “gesturing…toward an enlarged or existential hunger, toward a coded message, a threaded notation, an orderly account or story that would serve as a witness to his place in the world” (19). And so we want stories, we tell each other stories of our lives and our secrets; “[e]veryone recognizes that human hunger is part of the human personality” (20). But the stories never quite satisfy us because they don’t say enough, they are “glancing off the epic of human experience rather than reflecting it back to us” (22). Shields says that the task of the narrative writer is “getting inside reality rather than getting reality right,” so “it is inevitable that our stories will never mirror back to us a perfect image” (35). One can almost hear her echo Saint Paul who says, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror” (I Cor. 13:12).

The need to use language and the desire to tell our stories run deep in all of us because God made the world with language embedded in it. It is through language that we can know the world and create human community. In the beginning, God created the world by speaking words: “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3), and there was light. In the Gospel of John (1:1-2) , we read that Jesus was the logos, the Word of God that became flesh and lived among us so that in him we could see—or “read”—the character of God. The word, or language, is then central to the character of God: he is a God who communicates to establish a relationship with humans. In the words of Eugene Peterson, “…language in its origin and at its best is the means by which one person draws another into a participating relationship” (13). God also gave Adam the task to name the animals; this use of language makes it possible for us to know the world, to give order to it, and to describe it. The most remarkable thing is that God said he would make humans, male and female, in his own image. Language is part of that image, for God made them and spoke to them to give them their task as his co-workers. God also gave Adam a wife as his partner. Adam then named her and the two of them walked with God in conversation each day.

Shields does not make reference to a Christian worldview or a language relationship with God, but she understands the role of language in creating relationships and in understanding other people and the world in which we live. In the words of Eden Edward, Shields affirms “the ties that bind reader and writer, world and text, language and the real world” (10). Shields had an interesting way of describing the relationship between language and reality. She said we should admit “that both real events and their accompanying narratives are conveyed to us by words, and that words, words alone, will always fail in their attempt to express what we mean by reality. We cannot think without words—or so many believe—and thus the only defence against words is more words. But we need to remember that the labyrinth of language stands besides reality itself: a somewhat awkward, almost always distorted facsimile or matrix” (“Narrative Hunger” 23).

Especially important to Shields was telling the stories of women that had not yet been told, the stories that had been suppressed. However much we want and need stories and want our stories to be told, most of them never see the light of day; they fall through what Shields called the “narrative sieve” (“Narrative Hunger” 20). Much of our experience is never put into words. In the past, it was mainly male stories that were told. Much fiction was disallowed because fiction was “untrue” (26). Women were not allowed to tell their stories. Literary theories disallowed certain kinds of stories. The writers whom we do allow are generally at the periphery, part of the “picaresque hero” crowd. Stories at the centre—where most of us live—are not allowed, for they might not follow the accepted (male) “narrative arc” (35). What Shields valued most in narrative was “the interior voice. Reflecting, thinking , connecting, ticking, bringing forward a view of a previously locked room, and, to paraphrase John Donne, making that little room an everywhere” (35-36). As she said in her Interview, “I guess I am interested in the unrecorded voice. The voice that doesn’t make the public record is much more interesting to me than the one that does.” These voices, mostly from women, are singular, but universally experienced (“Afterword,” Dropped Threads 2, 366).

Jane Urquhart commented: “What truly absorbed Carol Shields, however, was something she called ‘the arc of a human life,’ the path a human being walks from childhood to death. She once said that there is no such thing as an ordinary life; a seemingly simple idea, but one many of us had not considered until it was made delightfully clear to us by her writing” ( 136). Each one of us ordinary people is human. In “About Writing,” Shields said: “language that carries weight in our culture is very often fuelled by a search for home, our rather piteous human groping toward that metaphorical place where we can be most truly ourselves, where we can evolve and create, and where we can reach out and touch and heal each other’s lonely heart” (262). Through her words and stories, Carol Shields invited us all to “come home” to community with herself and with all those about whom she wrote. Through her words, we may become more human.

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