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THE DRESS OF THOUGHT, WITHOUT WHICH WE ARE NAKED*
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
 thoughtful
mood: thoughtful
music: Mary Chapin Carpenter—Quittin' Time


Comments
(no subject) - (Anonymous)

thank'ee kindly.

I was just thinking about this the other day! I go through phases where I use certain words and then they sort of disappear. I think I'm more aware of my word choice when I write since I can see everything at once. It's often then that I notice that I use certain words/phrases too much. I'll sort of fall in love with certain words as well and enjoy weaving them into conversation.

Heh! I love it! I do that, too. Words that roll around in your mouth and slide off your tongue. Words that light up your mind with their sizzly electricity. :)

(Anonymous)

I second every word you say! That's why I study language and have always loved it with passion! :)

Language is the greatest gift we have as humans! It's so amazing. And the way children learn it. Effortless, intuitively.... And they can learn ANY language that same way.

Knowing more languages than one is a blessing. I still remember the day when I noticed I was watching an English-speaking tv show, and could understand it without subtitles some day in my teens. I was all excitement!! *Hey everyone! I understand! I understand!* My father: "ooookay..." LOL!

I wish I could speak German as well as I can speak English, but at least I understand it when I read it, and understand most of it when hearing it - enough to get the context of what is being said...

I wish more people were as fascinated by language as I am, and apparently you too! To realise what a gift it is.

Lovely post!!

/Mia

http://mias.blogg.se

Argh! My reply to this never showed up!!

I remember that moment when I was learning Swedish and suddenly realized it was so much more effortless to understand what people around me were saying. It came on gradually, but it was sure a relief when it happened!

As proud as I am of myself for even somewhat learning Swedish starting at the age of 50 and the fact that I can now go where I want to go there, meet with new friends, take care of business, there is still the mental struggle every time I have to open my mouth, to sort through words and tenses and, the worst part, to know that I am limited in expression just because Swedish will never truly flow for me, that verbalising my thoughts will always be restricted because of my late beginnings and lack of total fluency. You know me, I've got a big mouth and in my mother tongue, I'm FULL of words.

I think any of us who learned a new language as an adult, no matter WHAT our degree of fluency, should be damn proud of ourselves. :)

"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."

Amen.

Amen.

(Anonymous)

I have read about many of the languages disappearing because of my interest in anthropology. How sad it must be for the last of those groups...to have no one with whom to easily converse.
I envy those of you who have been able to learn another language. I so struggled trying as an adult to do so. But, now I understand about the brain synapses dying off when not used by a certain age, so I realize the impossibility for some of us to succeed with language learning later in life. It is so necessary to be introduced to a second language before the age of 12. I think Americans must make an effort to have a second language mandatory in school. Love, Lizardmom

(Anonymous)

Last year, I listened to Wade Davis give a speech about lost cultures and languages. He is an anthropologist, ethnobotanist, author and explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society. He spins words unlike any other; he was fascinating. Anyways, he argues that "the steady loss of languages, which are reportedly disappearing at a rate of one every two weeks, is an alarming indicator of declining cultures." Crazy eh?

bohemiangirl
http://www.bohemiancreations.ca/blog/

Yes, it IS crazy/sad...and even though I am a native English speaker and one who loves the language, it's a bit alarming at how English is apparently helping to gobble up so many languages/cultures.

(Anonymous)

I've been thinking a lot about language... My fiance's father is putting together a video clip of students learning Spanish at the kindergarten level for the school board (he is the principal) in order to maintain funding for the program. My father was talking to him and reminded us of that old joke: What do you call someone who speaks two languages? (Bilingual) What do you call someone who speaks three languages? (Trilingual) What do you call someone who speaks one language? (American)

Sadly, there is so much truth to that. I stopped taking language classes after an Advanced French Grammar class kicked my butt. And now I'm re-learning, borrowing my mother's textbooks for the summer.

I was listening to MPR into work the other day, and they were interviewing someone about making language programs for American Indian youth (and adults) to relearn their heritage language. These programs wouldn't be marketed to everyone though, as the language is sacred, but it's there to preserve, which I think is lovely.

- Molly
www.sylviatheteacher.blogspot.com

Sacred? I hadn't heard that before. In the book that I was reading, there is a lot of information about Indian languages, particularly Yuchee and Mohawk and there was nothing about them being open only to "insiders" ...seems to me that restricting usage is another good way to speed up the demise of a language.

Most of the experts seem to agree that if parents aren't speaking the language to children in the home, that is the first and biggest sign that it is on the way out.

I thought there was more and more tendency to go toward having Spanish available nearly everywhere in the US, so I'm surprised to hear schools are still fighting for funding, though perhaps it's because it's at the elementary level? Which seems a bit contradictory since it's the youngest children that learn languages with the most ease. Interesting.

(Anonymous)

Educational funding is always a struggle. It's painful to be witness to it, and to be victim of budget cuts in one of the richest districts in the state. Of course the will question everything that doesn't relate to the tests too. There isn't a No Child Left behind test for language, as far as I know, so it's becoming less of a priority.

And I think with the tribal communities, in some cases, already so much has been stripped away, mutated, changed, and stolen that there is a cautionary approach. I was an American Indian studies minor, and in those classes, I learned there is a fine line between wanting to let people in, curiosities and thrill seekers, people who want to see the cowboys and Indians sort of culture, and wanting to keep that from happening. It's a tough call, I think. It is too bad, because I know letting "outsiders" learn the language would help preserve, and I'm wondering if it is a "just for now" kind of approach. They have fought so much with museums and scholars to get back the pieces of their past that I can understand not wanting to fight a little more.

(Anonymous)

God forbid - the thought of me being the last human a language hinged on - my favorite words these days are "the thingy" and "you know, the thing." Words seem to evaporate out of my brain. This whole discussion is a sad, fascinating exploration - I'm always fascinated by dialects, as well. I'll be looking for this book to expand my brain...

~Sam

Wonderful post, Liz! I DO plan to spend some of this month off thinking about just that...it's been bothering me lately that the busier and more stressed I get, the more careless with my language I become.

:) I've missed you!

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