Language is Alive

       In this literary piece, Zong!, language is a subject that is brought up quite often. In school we are taught how to write and read. We must not use run ons, fragments, must have proper grammar and punctuation, but most of all, we must make sense. If we do not follow these rules, then we might appear uneducated. 

      Zong M. NourbeSe Philip challenges our ideas of language. He states that, “I deeply distrust this tool I work with— language.” (197) and goes on to explain that historical events are often changed or portrayed in a way that is not true, as with the case of Zong. The African slaves on the ship were not even written as people, but objects, chattel, property. Philip stresses the importance of grammar— how it can change a topic so drastically if used in the right way. If we were to look at the argument the captain made in his case, we can see that the murders of the slaves on Zong were discussed, but not in a way that was right. Language here has power. 

       The way that Philip talks about language makes it come alive. In the beginning of Zong! the words do not really make sense and we find out later that this was purposeful. Philip explains that he wrote the text in a way that he literally cut words up, used violence against them as was done to the slaves. They are strewn about the page, making the reader feel disoriented. To me, this was a beautiful point in this literary piece. Language is alive. It can be used in so many ways and even just a few words can represent a larger picture. The way the words were acting as the African slaves is a work of art. Sometimes it is a stronger statement to stray from formal ideals of writing. Instead of forming a poem in a typical line-by-line format, Philip manipulated the structure and therefore made his language so much more powerful. 

  1. How did the way Philip set up his poem make you feel? (What thoughts went through your head as you read it?)
  2. Do you feel that language can have its own mind or do we (humans) give it one?

8 Replies to “Language is Alive”

  1. Hi Mik! I really liked that you chose to focus on language for this blogpost because it is definitely something that stood out to me as I was reading the book. To answer your first question, just by opening the book to the first poem I was confused at first. Typically, I am used to the standard paragraphs and full sentences on a page, but when I opened this up and I saw that the words were scattered everywhere, I thought it was interesting. As I was reading, it did not seem to make sense and I kind of just read through the poems quickly. However, after reading the end I understood why the author wrote it this way. Philip states, “When I start spacing out the words, there is something happening…, working to pull the page and ‘larger’ meaning together” (192). After reading why he did this, I was able to go back and now fully get an understanding of what the poems were about, and like you stated, I think that by using this method it made the language and the message a lot more impactful.

  2. Hi, I loved your blog post! To answer your second question about if language can have its mind or do we as humans give it one is that I believe that we give it its mind. I think that when we read words on a page that everyone interprets it in their specific way because of who they are and the experiences that they have gone through in life. We hold power to examine the language and to determine the meaning and why it was written. The beauty of English is that there is no clear cut meaning to things, and people are allowed to make it what they want. Zong M. NourbeSe Philip says that “Poetry comes to the latter type of communication – is indeed, rooted in it- not only in pushing against boundaries of language but in the need for each poet to speak in his or her own tongue” (197). Zong is saying how poetry is up for interpretation and how poetry is the best form for interpretation. Zong also says how poetry is made up by the author, and they make it their own language.

  3. Hey Mik, I thought your blog post was spot on. I would like to point out though that the author is a woman. I would love to answer your second question. Whenever we read something, because of our different life experiences and backgrounds, we all attach different meanings to the words we read. In the case of Zong!, Phillips’ style of writing is meant to disorient, and it is my opinion that it allows the reader to add even more unique meanings to the words on the page, “my urge to make sense must be resisted” (193). What I get from reading the very fist poem, arguably the most shocking one because of the adjustment to the writing style, all I got was water after reading it for the first time. In the back of the book she noted that she saw water as an important theme that she felt the need to write about. The second time around, though its hard to define the exact emotions I was feeling, my confusion turned to sadness because of the understanding, albeit small, was starting to form when I remembered that Zong! was written about those who were thrown overboard to collect insurance. Words are just words until we interpret them and give them life. Phillips talks about the poem that shes writing and the story that is writing itself, but the story that is writing itself would not be written or understood if Phillip weren’t writing about the story herself.

  4. Hi Mik! I loved reading your blog post. It was very insightful to the thoughts about language and words in the story. I wanted to add a point to what you said. Philip talks about the meaning of words and why humans add meaning to words. Philip says “I fight the desire to impose meaning on the words… This story that must be told; that can only be told by not telling.” (194). He says that he does not like to put meaning to words because he is not exactly sure what is meant by them. Semantics are important as they are the meaning of words. Philip includes his desire to fight the meaning of words because he does not believe that words need a meaning. But if they do, he is not sure what the need is. Overall, I enjoyed reading your blog post and I look forward to hearing what you have to say in class.

  5. Hey Mik! Your explanation of the use of language in this text is great. I commend you for being able to write on such a difficult book. To answer your question, these poems make me feel a disconnect with emotion. Philip states, ” One approach was literally to cut up the text and just pick words randomly, then I would write them down but nothing seemed to yield”(192-193). He continually talks about how he could not write the story, but the story had to write itself, without bias. Without trying to incorporate any feeling, Philip still depicts these poems with a lot of emotion. At the end of the book, Philip writes about how he has to “murder the text”, “castrating verbs, suffocating adjectives, murdering nouns”(193). That is a lot of anger and feeling built up on this text. I find it ironic that Philip says he does not want to portray any emotion with the words in his poems, yet he has many thoughts, and feelings on all the poems and words he uses.

  6. Hi Mik, I really enjoyed reading your post and I liked how you chose to focus on language. When I first read the poem I was confused as to why it was kind of set up in this way. All throughout our academic career we are taught the importance of reading and writing and the correct way to do so, so it is hard to see and understand it done any other way. At one point Philip says, “One approach was literally to cut up the text and just pick words randomly, then I would write them down but nothing seemed to yield” (192-193). I thought this was so interesting because when having to write a poem, I would never think to use that as a strategy. When I first read through the poem I was just confused by it but once I understand the meaning behind it I thought it was a really interesting way to give the readers a new perspective.

  7. Hi Mik! I enjoyed reading your blog post. I love how you explain the way Philip talks about language, and how he makes it come alive. Also, I agree that the beginning of Zong! the words did not make sense and we do find out later that it actually had meaning. I like the fact that you said Philip explains that he wrote the text in a way that he literally cut words up, used violence against them as was done to the slaves. You see an example of this in this quote “This is not what was, Or should be”. In this quotation, the narrator comments on the tragedy of the drownings saying that these deaths shouldn’t of even happened.

  8. Hey Mik! I loved the statement you made about Philip challenging the way we look at language because from the moment you open up this book I agree 100%. To answer your first question, at first the way Philip set up his book was a little confusing to me, but the further I read the more it made sense to me. The presentation of each page separates and emphasizes the importance of what he wants to tell his readers. Philip says “When I start spacing out the words, there is something happening…, working to pull the page and ‘larger’ meaning together” (192). Every word was intentionally placed where is it, to make a deeper meaning in the long run. I love how Philip set up this book because it makes the book so unique and his message about language is fully understood among the readers. Great job on your blog post!!

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