What Language Means To Me

Jenny Campbell takes us on a personal journey through her relationship to language, and how it has helped and hindered her.

by Jenny Campbell

I’ve always been a deep thinker. As a kid, I liked the idea that anybody that walked past me in the street was living their life in the same way I was – that they had their own fears, memories, doubts, hopes, their own group of friends, family, their own dreams, dilemmas and pitfalls.

Watching The Truman Show at the age of 7 only fuelled this kind of deliberation. For months after I saw that movie, I played a game where I’d pretend my eyes were a camera, recording all the best moments of my life.

I never knew what to call it – this feeling that I could be in the background of a stranger’s photo, appear as a light in a window, a passenger in a car going the opposite way on the motorway – that is until I encountered ‘sonder’. A word invented to refer to the realisation that each random passer-by is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.

Image credit: Bronson Farr

Words capture our innermost thoughts and desires; we can keep them to ourselves, hold them captive in the recesses of our mind – or we can voice them, share them with others – we can make them feel better, or worse – we can change entire lives with what we say.

I’ve always been good at quoting other people, be that through impersonating their accents, reciting lines from films or TV programmes, coming across phrases in books that I find inspiring and remembering song lyrics.

This desire to collect alternative words to my own made me want to learn another language. I enjoyed and did well at French in school, but it wasn’t until I travelled to France and later, Madagascar, that I realised the true meaning of communicating in another language. I maintain that speaking in a different language enables you to change and almost assume a new identity, in a way nothing else can. The best part, by far, is getting to know someone that you would have never otherwise had had the chance to connect with. You can meet like-minded people wherever you go in the world.

Those closest to you will always know how best to talk to you. When I went on holiday to Cornwall with my family, aged 9 or 10, I created an entirely new alphabet with my brother. We invented new characters and symbols for every letter and then wrote secret notes to each other, so that our older brother couldn’t understand. When I was very young, one of them taught me the colours orange and green the wrong way round. It’s not as if I see those colours differently these days, but every now and then, I’ll comment on someone’s orange jumper as being a lovely shade of green, and it’ll make them laugh.

I’ve always been an avid reader – from the backs of cereal boxes to Wuthering Heights. I guess I’ve always found myself trusting in the words of others – discovering people’s stories, repeating comedy sketches off the TV – mimicking anything I hear. But I’ve recently come to realise something: I need faith in my own words. When I don’t feel like I’m being heard, I’ve started to think back to that idea of ‘sonder’ and the fact that I’m included. So here’s a start.


Jenny Campbell | jenbob27

Jenny Campbell works for a publishing house in London. When she’s not devouring chocolate, she’s devouring books. Diabolo trickster and indie music fanatic.