Linguistic Shades: Why We’re Different People in Different Languages

Essays, Philosophy/Insight, Semantic Drifting

In one furious sweep after the Great Flood, God reduced the Tower of Babel to nothing. In our search for God, we came together to build the tower: one, universal communication system that would unite human kind and diffuse contention. This common link collapses, everyone disperses, and their language diversifies. A contemporary metaphor for multiculturalism, the Tower of Babel is the biblical account of the diversification of human qualities and, most importantly, our infinitely varied set of languages across the globe.

Speaking a certain language may relax us or tighten our lips; electrify us or sadden us. Articulating one consonant may make our mouth snarl. The steady rhythm of one language may subconsciously console use whereas the inconsistency and rapid rhythm of another may create anxiety. How our languages have manifested over time due to the influences of culture, language’s innate qualities, sound systems, and more, yields a kaleidoscopic variety. Linguists have largely debunked the rumors that different languages radically change our perception, yet there could a distinct influence on our behavior. When we learn a new language, we may adopt new behaviors, a new framework for perception… A different mask.

In learning a new language, we might try to connect with a different part of ourselves that’s shattered or repressed due to the cultural constraints. Learning a different language may be the only way we can compartmentalize ourselves in such way. In some cases of people with multiple personality disorder, people have assign different personalities to different languages. A sixteen-year-old boy in Nigeria woke up from a coma speaking fluent Spanish in a different persona after a head trauma injury. “Learn a language, get a new soul,” a Czech proverb declares. Though we may try to distance deviant or “shadow” identities by giving them a linguistic conduit, perhaps, deep in our psyche, the Tower of Babel remains. We may be superficially separate, but we are all one.

As infants, we are whole in ways we never will be as adults. Time narrows us. When we are that young, we have the innate and infinite capacity to learn any human language on the planet. This was never a given fact until Noam Chomsky, one of the founders of modern linguistics, pioneered his theory of an LAD—a “language acquisition device”. This “device” helps us learn our native language, and contains every parameter possible in a human language. As we go through life, we select which parameters our native tongue has: does our language put verbs at the beginning? How do we use the plural case? Do we have ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ nouns? Once we know, those parameters are “locked in”—and past age nine, it’s very hard for us to learn languages with drastically different parameters than our own. We may never go back to that place of infinite openness.

When we learn a new language, we become more whole. We gain a different lens with which to view the same thing—much like the blind men and the elephant—which alters our experience of the thing itself. Research shows we are sentimental in our first language and more objective in our second. A native German speaker in a study blushed when she heard “ich liebe dich” (“I love you”) but turned pale when she heard the English translation. Research also shows we may perform at a higher intellectual level in our second language due to this psychological distance from the words we’re speaking.

Maybe we’ll discover who we are in that language. Maybe we’ll become different subjective selves in all of them, and these are the building blocks, different vehicles of the human experience that lead to one allusive point in the sky.

Melanie Falconer is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. Her writing mainly concerns philosophy, personal experiences, cultural commentary, and her love of the visual and performing arts. If you’d like to reach out to her, you can do so here.

5 Reasons to Refine Your Writing with Masterclass

How-to Articles

I’ve recommended online learning platforms before, but never with such vigor as I do with Masterclass. Although it may sound like a made-over TED Talk, it cpuld help you explore another side of writing or pull you through the trenches of a long, creative project. These lectures delivered by journeyed professionals could be the spark you need in your hackneyed writing routine or help you rediscover meaning in your work.

Among the better reasons to at least try it, it’s only 180 for an annual membership, half of what any single writing class would be, and will expose you to at least four different semesters of classes.

Sirens and the Meadow

Sirens and the Meadow

Poetry

Silence under the surface;
The din shatters
Wasted expectations

I’ll spread myself over the open meadow—but I might snap back
And want more from you always
Let me down
From what I built
You always
Amplify the din
You always
Rise to the occasion
When I want it all
Falling in cascades

The meadow burns; the sirens blare
Does it matter what we fed the fire
When ashes lay in shame

And if you had listened closely
The silence of my pulse
Never asked for you
Never asked for me

Melanie Falconer is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. Her writing mainly concerns philosophy, personal experiences, cultural commentary, and her love of the visual and performing arts. If you’d like to reach out to her, you can do so here.

Moments of Impact: Why We Can't Live Without Illusions

Moments of Impact: Why We Can’t Live Without Illusions

Moments of Impact, Uncategorized

“If there is something comforting—religious, if you want—about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.”

— Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

We can’t live and not believe. Beliefs stem from and  live past our experiences, imprinted in us, carving out our inner lives. Some may not serve us well,  but we have just as many we can’t live without. We can’t sleep without believing we’re safe. We can’t be intimate without believing in trust. It may not be possible to live in a state where nothing is connected—the mind’s ability to make connections is what makes it human. We always believe, whether we know it or not, and regardless of how many times our beliefs change.

What distinguishes the paranoid person that Thomas Pynchon refers to is that they have too many beliefs. This person, the contemporary lunatic shouting imaginary prophecies on the street, belongs in our human history as the shamans or priests of ages passed. Today we say they don’t see, and we have to make them with prescriptions. But in smaller communities, they were a valuable set of eyes into another realm (although in the Middle Ages in Europe, it was a demonic one). Even now with our fixation on treating the mentally ill by numbing them, no one could argue that their beliefs aren’t fascinating. They forge connections we never would.

The American mind has a special inclination to believe in spite of. We love believing for its own sake. In Kurt Anderson’s new book, Fantasyland, he makes a case for why being delusional is synonymous with being American. We came to the continent from Britain in pursuit of gold, searching for thirty years with no proof of its existence other than hearsay from Native Americans trying escape our slaughter. The biblethumpers believed God caused public epileptic fits. We believed Joseph Smith. We created Scientology, the Las Vegas Strip, Disneyland, and pursue illusions above reality simply because it feels better to do so.

In fact, we take our illusions as reality. If given the choice, I’m not sure which one I’d believe. My illusions, that I’m safe, special, and my dreams will come true. Or the reality, which is unknown, constantly changing, perhaps out of my grasp. And I’ve never been one to believe two things at once.

Melanie Falconer is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. Her writing mainly concerns philosophy, personal experiences, cultural commentary, and her love of the visual and performing arts. If you’d like to reach out to her, you can do so here.

Moments of Impact: Realityland in Florida Project

Moments of Impact: Realityland in ‘Florida Project’

Moments of Impact

Spoiler alert: If you don’t want the brilliant performances and story line in Florida Project to be ruined, please don’t read. You also don’t have a lot of time—Dafoe-n’tchya  want to catch it in theaters?

Americans breathe in the fumes of Fantasyland, a place where happiness is possessed. It’s tangible for those who can afford it, people who embrace the manicured lawn laid out before them every tomorrow. But Fantasyland has a mirror universe: the harsh and irrefutable Realityland as presented in Sean Baker’s revolutionary new film, Florida Project. Realityland is the place where people don’t buy magic, it’s a place where people live in the present because they must, just like the film’s protagonists, Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her six-year old child Mooney (Brooklynn Prince).

The mother-daughter duo live in a cheap motel just outside of Disneyworld in Kissimmee, Florida, ironically named the Magic Castle. The building is an aggressively cheery purple and stands along a road of pawn shops and other garish sights. Bobby (William Dafoe) owns the property and shepherds the motley crew of low-income strivers and stragglers, guiding them with a fair, but firm, hand. Halley smokes pot while stealing perfumes and peddling them to oblivious tourists to scrape up rent. Meanwhile, Mooney and her friends from the motel, Scooty and Jancey, brew up mayhem with spitting contests in the motel parking lot.

Through her imaginative feats, Mooney’s story undermines one of the most insidious and profitable myths in our country: that a sense of wonder and zest for life can be bought or experienced with material luxury. Behind this veil is Realityland, the here and now, the ever-ignored present that does not deprive, but feeds, an imagination grounded in reality. Realityland is a vicious rebellion against magical tomorrows.

Happiness versus Contentment

Almost everything sold in America will have a “happiness promise,” translated into a tangible rush of endorphins that we experience upon attaining things. Happiness is presented in a “buy and sell” model, the euphoria entangled with external circumstances. The beauty industry, a cult of external validation and appearances, grossed 65 billion in 2019. Lest we forget the seductive casinos, where people may roll away their savings in one Vegas night—in America, we threw out a whopping 73 billion in the gambling industry in 2019. Disneyworld, a place supposedly supposed to encourage the imagination while, in fact, stifling it with over-stimulation, spectacle, and consumerism, is no less a part of the “happiness promise” that has rushed in with the age of advertising in the seventies: a product is no longer just the product. The product is a feeling and a symbol that transcends the thing itself. Beauty is confidence and vitality. Winning the lottery is freedom and the good life.

MRI scans don’t lie: when we get our desires or expectations met, our brains flood with “happy” endorphins. But then, the magic dust of novelty wears off. The stimulus no longer has its effect, yet the cycle continues—we buy the newer, better thing, pushing the boulder up the like Sisyphus, condemned to watch it fall again until we buy again. This is the toil of those living in Fantasyland, a mythic hell of sorts. Just like no one makes a movie about Cinderalla and Prince Charming’s bitter divorce, no one talk about consumerism to the point of obsession: thing after thing after thing. No everlasting happiness.

This isn’t a uniquely American thing, the quest for happiness. When one pursues happiness, one often finds the need for contentment, as the Stoics realized, which represents a disposition rather than an emotional state. It comes from accepting circumstances and embracing life with gratitude. Contentment, in one sentence, comes from a deep acceptance of and appreciation for the reality of one’s life.  It is the fertile ground for the play and mischief that ensues in Mooney’s Realityland in Florida Project.

Conceptions of happiness and contentment collide during Mooney’s exploits around the motel. One night, a Brazillian couple come to the run-down “Magic Castle” expecting they’d be right inside of Disneyworld on an immersive and magical anniversary. The gorgeous and clearly disappointed fiancé drops her jaw upon arrival, disgusted. She lambasts the place as a “trash heap”. In Realityland, dreams dissipate like snow falling on scorching hot asphalt. The so-called “Magic Castle” is home to exploited, working class, disabled, have-nothings.

Mooney has no interest in Disney World. She fully embraces the Magic Castle and all its flaws. She shows her new friend Jancey around the place, describing people who live there: “This guy thinks he’s Jesus,” “This woman snores so loud I can hear her from my room.” Halley, her mother, has no money to spare after rent, basic necessities, and a bag of pot. But, we never hear Mooney whine. Mooney only ever embraces her circumstance, peddling naïve customers outside of the frozen yogurt stand for money, scrounging up enough for a scoop to share with her friends.

The key difference between her and the snobby Brazilian tourist is that Mooney doesn’t place happiness in her purchase. She revels in her deviousness, roping her friends in for the hustle, inventing games on the spot when there’s nothing to do. She leaves the tantrums to the tourists; she’s too busy making magic in Realityland.

The Unhappy Ending  

(**Major spoilers coming up)

Material poverty forces people to be in the moment, for better or worse. Baker doesn’t seem to have a judgement on it: it teaches you to be rooted in finding solutions quickly, in thinking about what needs to be done today. Extreme economic privilege can serve as a rainbow spreading into the far future, letting the imagination run free and wild. But what happens when you’re low-income and there is no solution? What happens when you run into a dead end sign, and there’s no fixing yesterday?

Halley finds out she won’t get a job at her friend’s waffle house. Eventually, she’s kicked out of a resort where she sells perfumes. She sells anything she can. She turns to prostitution; which Bobby immediately shuts down. Halley, with nowhere else to go, asks her friend Ashley for money, and is refused. Out of resentment for their fallen friendship, Halley beats her up, and the next day, the CPS shows up at Halley’s room to collect Mooney.

The contentment that once filled their lives crumbles on that day. The present, forced upon them by circumstance is now too unbearable, especially for Mooney, who never imagined a life without her mother. Mooney runs to the next motel over in tears, and finds her friend Jancey. We don’t know whether this really happens, but Jancey takes Mooney’s hand and they run off to Disneyworld and away from the CPS.

Although Mooney and Halley shared a flawed life, it was magical in and of itself. Yet throughout the film, we see the laws and forces in American culture that actively squeeze the poor out and into desperate circumstances. Maybe, it is not enough to be content, to explore the magic of Realityland. If you’re in America, and you’re not working for a “better” tomorrow, things will likely get worse–and when the facts are too overwhelming, too tragic to tolerate, the imagination transforms from being grounded in reality to breaking from it.

“Moments of Impact” is an original Falcon Post series dedicated to when experiences, culture, philosophy, and psychology find a meeting point, producing finely-tuned revelations. I hope you have one moment of impact every week. 

Melanie Falconer is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles, California. Her writing mainly concerns philosophy, personal experiences, cultural commentary, and her love of the visual and performing arts. If you’d like to reach out to her, you can do so here.

Semantic Drifting: The Story of the Word "Amazing"

Semantic Drifting: The Story of the Word “Amazing”

Semantic Drifting

Words pass through time like great works of art or literature. People once winced at Nietzche’s works, considered relics of a lunatic, and now, we revere him as an intellectual icon. As with words, which rarely mean precisely what they did at their inception. The process driving their evolution is semantic drift, the way words change meaning in their lifespan. There are many ways they do this, but the least common of them is called amelioration.

Perhaps speaking to time’s usual habit to making things worse, words will often go from meaning something positive to negative, a process called degeneration. The chances for a word to escape its gloomy, miserable, or evil connotations are slim to none. But when they come to mean something cheery or positive, they undergo amelioration–and it’s amazing.

Amazing, derived from the noun maze, meant “confusing; perplexing” around the 14th century. It’s not entirely clear how it became something so unquestionably positive in the contemporary sense (“Did you see her sing? She was amazing!”). The likely culprit is the multitude of emotional contexts in which we may be “confused” or “perplexed”. For instance, we may be confused by a cruel act, but we may be equally perplexed when we see someone so talented we don’t understand it. Amazing must have been used to express awe more often over time.

Emotional words tend to be more black and white, except for truly confusing words such as these. Words like happy or sad have not strayed that far from their original meanings (happy used to mean lucky, sad meant sorrowful). But aren’t emotions like confusion and bewilderment inherently amazing… in the original sense? Does this give them the gray area for a rare semantic process like amelioration to do its unlikely and miraculous work?

Beginning the maze of semantic drift may seem daunting. But a word’s lunacy may reveal much about our own.

Melanie Falconer is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles, California. Her writing mainly concerns philosophy, personal experiences, cultural commentary, and her love of the visual and performing arts. If you’d like to reach out to her, you can do so here.

I am drawn to new journals and notebooks to the point of an obsessive and compulsive craving.

Journal Fetish

Essays, Philosophy/Insight

I compulsively crave and obsess over new journals and notebooks. In the bookstore, Walgreens, and paper goods store, I walk directly to the shelves of Moleskins, Paperblanks, Deuts187s and Piccadillys. A journal serves not just as a utility to write. Before the writing happens, a journal is loaded with meaning.

Writing in some journals may mean participating in a historical continuum. Paperblanks’ cover images are restored designs from millennia ago. The aesthetics are orderly, symmetrical, and intricate—­foreign to the modern reductionist journal with a white cover and a tiny but rebellious black square in the center. The Paperblanks images, ranging from equinoxes, silk work from France, the book of Solomon, to Paris Noir, imbues each journal with a sense of historical continuity and connection. By writing between the covers which bare images of the old, we restore them to the present. The journal which contains the first draft of this essay bares a cover with a symmetrical, silver filigree design from Germany in the 1800s. The description inside proudly declares: “Silver filigree was made with the intent to celebrate human’s inclination to the ornate, the symmetrical nature to beauty and the delicate system in which beauty participates.” No matter how desolate the modern era appears to others, we can always restore our universal appreciation of beauty and the ornate. A notebook can thus restore and connect us to something greater than what it is we’re writing in the present.

This journal features the door number of Sherlock Holmes. While I tend to stay away from movie or book related notebooks, this notebook is surely alluring, clever, and mysterious.
This journal features the door number of Sherlock Holmes. While I tend to stay away from movie or book related notebooks, this notebook is surely alluring, clever, and mysterious.

Black journals are the most alluring of them all. Black, though the most soulful color, is not understood as such or even considered a “real color.” In objective terms, it is the very essence of color; it is all color condensed into one point. Darkness does not signify the absence of light but the complete absorption of it, as when pupils dilate in the dark to collect as much light as possible. Blackness gathers, collects, and condenses as a black hole does, inhaling the galaxy it inhabits. When I look at a black journal, I see colorful tales and mysteries condensed in the cover. Opening the cover titillates me, and I am always shocked by the white void of the blank pages.

We can neglect notebooks with different colors. They are too heavily associated with ever-changing personalities and moods. Red hot anger, yellow sunniness, green envy, imaginary purple—these colors have their own sentiments. I could only ever justify a notebook cover with a plain, light blue color, one reminiscent of water.

Water reveals what’s underneath, letting light in and reflecting simultaneously. In this way, the water can be a source of reflection, tranquility, and wonder which makes it an astute metaphor for the work that journaling involves. Water is a form of writing, like Dumbledore’s liquid pensive in Harry Potter, used to sift through memories, reflect, and relax. In writing, we wade through narratives, emotional currents, and epiphanies made by diving deep. Sometimes the waters are pacified and stilled with the pen, and I see a clear reflection staring back at me. Other times, I see something close to the Loch Ness: a dark and mysterious figure that manages to escape before I can take a snapshot. There is a mystery lurking in my subconscious, just beyond reach, awaiting discovery in a dream.

There might be something ironic in water as a metaphor for writing, as writing is a way to solidify passing thoughts on a page. Yet our words, no matter how tangible, are never absolute. No claim can ever actually be permanently proved to exist, although it can be improved and advanced, torn down, and critiqued. Just as I can write my memories down, my memories will change. I will have changed, for better or for worse, and inevitably look back on a memory which could feel foreign to me. By journaling, I can attempt to capture my memories as they were at that specific point in time. Yet just like a black and white photo, writing a memory down is only capturing a fragment, a basic shell of what it was. This brings me to the inside of the notebook: the blank pages.

Despite myself, I looked at these blank journals before anything else in the bookstore. The other books have already fulfilled their creative potential. Their creators will never walk into the bookstore to squeeze in their last edits. All is said, done, in print and for purchase as is. The empty journals are begging a writer to walk into the bookstore, pets in a shelter desperately looking for love. More so than a living, breathing thing, they are tragically incomplete and absolute without a writer.

This is a reason why they are also intimidating to start. Unlike spoken language, writing is slower and presents the possibility of rewinding, replacing, improving our language in retrospect. What we write can be taken apart; ­­people can take a magnifying glass to it like a detective and interrogate each word. We have to back up and defend what we write due to its permanence in the objective world.

A blank page is the blank day we might have ahead of us on our schedules, lucky as that is. It is another stomach waiting to be fed. We must really listen to know when it’s hungry and what it craves. A blank page is the emptiness any creative person feels before starting the project. This emptiness will persist, and therefore the creativity will live on. This satisfies the “logic of the fit,” ­­the model of the universe which states that no being exists as a solitary unit, everything is completed by its complementary part. And so, the blank pages keep turning as long as we are brave.

Melanie Falconer is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles, California. Her writing mainly concerns philosophy, personal experiences, cultural commentary, and her love of the visual and performing arts. If you’d like to reach out to her, you can do so here.

Put it Together

Put it Together

Poetry

Shine that light on me
I didn’t know much
In a life that’s just like
Breaking right over me

Watch me run
You’ll be sorry, father
Born but it’s not enough
Maroon from
A cracked champagne glass
Laughing as I put it together

Just watch me, break me
Suck me out of venom’s cries
But there’s just sound and steam
With no exit

Heaven is on earth, father
The reasons for creation
Too gone for me to know
Shine that searchlight on me
And put it all back together

Melanie Falconer is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles, California. Her writing mainly concerns philosophy, personal experiences, cultural commentary, and her love of the visual and performing arts. If you’d like to reach out to her, you can do so here.