June 15th, 2007

cocked and loaded


I can't imagine what I would do without words. Where would the poems go? Where would be the satisfaction of seeing my thoughts take shape before me in printed form, intangibles made solid and communicative? Into the sound of silence, the still and quiet spaces of speechlessness.

How often do you stop and think about the words you use every day to express yourself? How often do you ponder word choices and regard with amazement the fact that you HAVE choices about the way you say things, the words you pluck from your braincase and plug into place in the sentences you utter without ever having to stop and think about them? I suspect that if we DID stop and think about it too often, we'd wind up mute with astonishment and wonder at our own genius in learning, decoding, remembering and using language on such an unconscious level.

Now think about this...what if the language you spoke was one that very few other people could speak? What if you were the last one that could remember it at all, the last one who knew the words for summer breeze, fountain, satisfaction, working. If you had learned a language as a child but not used it in years, most of it would slowly disappear behind a misty fog of disintegration, crumbling bricks in a once sturdily mortared wall. If your elders, your parents, your forebears were gone and your children had never learned that native tongue, how much of yourself and your identity would you feel was disappearing as well, with no one but your memories to speak to?

We've got opposable thumbs and the ability to invent tools for our use; the ability to work together, to anticipate, to solve and produce, but without language we're nothing and no one.

Think about the words you choose and use with your loved ones each day. Think about the way you tell a story or the way you listen to one. Think about the fact that you're reading this right now. One of the things that draws us all together right here is language. You reading my words; me, reading yours. The fact that I can feel I know and connect with so many people in so many places all over this world is thanks to the mutually accepted code we've learned.

My children are lucky, as are some of yours, and some of YOU: they're getting two languages for the price of one. Their brains will end up being more flexible, more creative and more able to learn and remain more open-minded and adaptable than I simply because they have Swedish AND English words forging shinier grooves into the mental pathways of their brains. Even though I've learned Swedish as an adult, which had to have helped MY brain re-route some of those solidifying and stunting synapses, nothing beats the effortless mastery of languages that children have.

I'm thinking a lot about language, something I do fairly frequently because it's a subject that's always fascinated me, but on an increased level this week because I'm reading a book about threatened languages around the world. Languages that have died out, languages that are dying, languages that some of their speakers and proponents are expending superhuman amounts of energy and resources trying to revive or rekindle or simply to hang on to the edge of their hems as they head over the long drop into silence.

Maybe, if your language was silenced, you'd be able to express yourself with another one, but you would never have the same choices, the same way of thinking and analyzing the world, and you would lose some essential part of what defines you. The world becomes a little less rich and a little less diverse for each language that falls mute.

A Lizardek Book Recommendation: Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages by Mark Abley

*to paraphrase and elaborate on something Samuel Johnson said