A Couple of Wuthering Observations

...on Wuthering Heights


Earlier this spring I made some observations about Emily Brontë and encouraged us to toss out youth as a barrier to the pursuit of any endeavor.

I have now read Wuthering Heights and want to make just two simple observations.

1. Emily’s writing is beautiful. I am sure this was partly a product of the times in which she lived. The way they spoke and wrote is very different from the way we speak and write. Even though most of you speak English as your primary language, her English is different. Let me offer an example, even though I know I could have found a better sample with a bit more time. This excerpt is from Chapter VI. The narrator is the servant Nelly:

Heathcliff bore his degradation pretty well at first, because Cathy taught him what she learnt, and worked or played with him in the fields. They both promised fair to grow up as rude as savages; the young master being entirely negligent how they behaved, and what they did, so they kept clear of him. He would not even have seen after their going to church on Sundays, only Joseph and the curate reprimanded his carelessness when they absented themselves; and that reminded him to order Heathcliff a flogging, and Catherine a fast from dinner or supper. But it was one of their chief amusements to run away to the moors in the morning and remain there all day, and the after punishment grew a mere thing to laugh at. The curate might set as many chapters as he pleased for Catherine to get by heart, and Joseph might thrash Heathcliff till his arm ached; they forgot everything the minute they were together again: at least the minute they had contrived some naughty plan of revenge; and many a time I’ve cried to myself to watch them growing more reckless daily, and I not daring to speak a syllable, for fear of losing the small power I still retained over the unfriended creatures.

I do not write or speak like that. The impact of the language on me is to transport me into that older world. The language itself helps with the setting of the book in northern England in the early 1800s. It also gives me a great appreciation for the beauty of our language.

2. Reading old books is healthy. I tend to read a wide variety of books from the latest business works to the English classics.  I find myself wondering how modern readers, especially younger readers weaned on a diet of text messages and hastags, will be able to read and understand. I will admit that this could just be a concern from an older person, but I suspect that the wisdom of the ages may become virtually inaccessible to all but specialists who may devote their lives to such writings. It is a language and reading comprehension concern I have. I take it as a challenge to read some of these great books to see how well I can read and understand and to find out what all the fuss is about. I usually finish the old book completely understanding what all the fuss is about. I just wonder if we are losing our ability to do this. Where will we be in fifty years’ time in our ability to read and understand the classics?

Before I read Jane Eyre by Emily’s sister Charlotte, I just wanted to make these observations. It is a good thing to stretch ourselves with both the older language and with the themes explored by these classics of English literature. I am sure all of these same points apply to the classics of each language, and I find many of these same benefits when I read English translations of great books that were originally written in other languages.

Feel free to use the comments to make an observations of your own. What classics have made an impact on you?

I Don’t Have the Language for That

The Main Barrier to Understanding

Nearly every day I find myself in conversations where the main barrier to understanding is language. Every area of knowledge has specialized language that must be mastered to truly understand.

Let me offer some examples:

  • Medicine – “adrenocorticotropic”
  • Engineering (Mechanical) – “draft”
  • Engineering (Electronic) – “impedance”
  • Math – “quadratic equation”
  • Philosophy – “ontology”
  • Athletics/Cricket – “wicket”
  • Theology – “soteriology”
  • Software – “LAMP Stack”
  • Financial Markets – “derivatives”
  • Law – “habeas corpus”

If you will begin to observe the times that you struggle to understand something, you will notice that the problem is usually not that you are not smart enough. It is usually that the speaker is using a specialized vocabulary that you do not yet possess.

I say usually because there are some concepts and fields of study where the ideas themselves are abstract enough or complicated enough that rare intelligence is required. For everything else, though, I am arguing that language is the key to unlock the doors.

It may be that learning is really about words. It may be that education is simply starting with a very basic vocabulary based on the ABCs and then continually building that vocabulary. Of course, I am not saying that we must just learn words. The words that we learn must be understood, else they will produce no meaning and we will forget them. These words must be connected to concepts. The words are abstract symbols that stand-in for the concepts.

I recently sat in on a two hour meeting with electronics engineers doing a schematic review. I am not an electronics engineer (EE). Let’s analyze the situation. Three of the people in the room shared a common background and a common language. They all studied engineering in college and have now been working in electronics circuit design for decades. That common background includes immersion in math and science. It also includes expertise in electricity and micro-electronics. They all understand the computer-based tools they use to design their circuits, and they also understand the way the electronics will be manufactured. About the only thing I share with them is that I understand the manufacturing side. So I sat in that meeting for two hours in wonderment at how much I do not know. I had fun just trying to make a note of all the terms I did not truly understand. I was inundated with terms and acronyms that I could not define.

This leads me to appreciate that in any field of study that I want to understand, I must be committed to learning the language. However, it is not just leaning the lingo, it is actually understanding the words, terms, and acronyms. There is a recursion that has to take place to really understand a new term. Recursion means “the act or process of returning or running back.” If a new term is a specialized twig way out at the end of a limb, I need to use recursion (go back) to first understand the limb it is attached to. If I don’t understand the limb, I keep going back to the branch, then the trunk, then the roots. At some point I find the concept that I already understand. If that point is at the roots, then I start building back up to the trunk, branches, limbs, and finally to my specific twig. This is the way language and understanding builds.

This is the reason that I respect all disciplines. To function at a high level of understanding we all had to build our knowledge. Whatever your field of knowledge, you have invested time to master the language. If you decide to learn something new, it starts with language.

In recent years I have become unashamed to say to someone “I don’t currently have the language for that.” I then recursively explore the language with them to arrive at knowledge.

Do you have some examples where your field of expertise has specialized language that is a barrier to understanding? Have you run up against a language barrier that you had to overcome to achieve a goal? Please share these in the comments section.