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Redefining a Language – Take a Class on Literary Modernism

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UCSB chapter.

Last quarter, I chose to take a sample class on American literature from the 1900s to the present day, which spotlighted literary Modernism. Up until that point I had always viewed language as immutable and unchangeable. This thought is exactly what the modernist movement hoped to challenge, as it broke away from the conventional rules of storytelling to redefine language itself as something that is flexible and that can always be reinterpreted.

If this definition sounds a little confusing, trust me—I felt the same way too when I first learned about Modernism. Questions such as “How can you redefine an entire language?” passed through my mind as my professor spoke to the subject. 

The best example to explain what redefining language entails can be found in the quote by Gertrude Stein, a famous modernist poet: “A rose is a rose is a rose.” This sentence itself seems a bit strange or confusing in terms of structure, with the same word being repeated thrice. When I first heard this quote in the course, I was perplexed, as I couldn’t seem to figure out what it was saying. 

This quote emphasizes, quite simplistically, that a thing is what it is. As professor Yunte Huang explains, this means that only a rose can be what a rose is—no other words or language can describe its true essence, for words will never be a rose. Similarly, if you take another flower, such as a daisy, it will never be the same exact thing as a rose. Rather than define a rose as “a beautiful red flower,” Stein chooses to define the rose as “a rose” to provide readers with the only true definition of a rose without abstraction. In Stein’s writings, she focuses on getting to the true essence of a word and then continuing to use it in a way that defied contemporary expectations of language to put a sense of new life into the word “rose.” The main thing to take away from Stein’s quote is the idea of using language differently to redefine the meaning of words that we view as “fixed” in their meaning.

This notion of redefining language is one of the key points of the literary Modernist movement, and I believe that learning about this is essential to understanding language and the world at large. After taking this course that studied the Modernist movement, I realized that things that I once held as unchangeable, such as language or definitions, can always be modified or interpreted differently. The idea that nothing is concrete and great power lies in shifting your perspective has greatly inspired me when observing the world around me.

When put in the context of the modern world, I realized how important language is for relaying information to myself and those around me. The internet offers an invaluable world of information at our fingertips, but it is important to understand how language functions, and how it relays knowledge to us. For example, learning to be critical of language and how it functions makes identifying things such as media bias, fallacious reasoning in our daily lives, and false advertising much easier. At the very least, I believe that learning about Modernism can provide readers with new tools to look at something that shouldn’t be viewed as stagnant. 

Thus, I urge you to read some modernist literature to learn new ways to interpret the language that holds our society together. I recommend Gertrude Stein and her array of writings. Her book Tender Buttons will certainly provide mind-bending information that is as nonsensical as it is genius. Other modernist authors, such as Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams will also send you down a similar route of perplexment and wonder. In doing so, perhaps you will see some fallacies in how people speak, abstractions in things you once held as a true definition, or at least, find a new way of defining a rose. 

Lola Watts is a current student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is an aspiring novelist and journalist. Up until then, you can find her playing with her two pet cats, or trying to read all the Murakami novels.