Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Words, Words, Words

We need words, and we need the ocean. In fact, we need an ocean of words to wash over ourselves sometimes.

 We take language for granted. This is necessary, of course. Our constantly beleagured brains habe to process grammar and vocabulary at a breakneck pace, parsing sentences and contexts as we enter our daily streams of speech and text. Nobody needs to know what a noun or a verb or an adverb is in order to use them. 

We hardly remember that vernal time when we just acquired language without thinking about it. Linguists grapple whether there is a language centre and a language instinct (Pinker; Chomsky) or whether it is just a thing-in-itself we can’t analyse. But even as speaking in the most complex of tongues is always going to be an imperfect way to pass our thoughts from one to the other across time and space, it is what makes human life possible.

English is blessed (and cursed) with a fat vocabulary. One metaphor I learned as a child is that the language is a giant Amazon river, born of Germanic mountain streams but fed by so many tributaries that, at its mouth where it connects into the common human experience, it is sometimes difficult to ascertain its source. There are streams from the Romance, from the Slavic, from the Arabic: the list is long and exhaustive.

Sometimes we lose sight of this, so that people baulk when I say to them that Afrikaans is in fact very closely related to English: it even sits on the same branch, West Germanic. English (and Afrikaans), being part of the vast tree that is Indo-European, is even related to Hindi and Sanskrit and Farsi (Persian.) From a single seed sprang forth a forest.

Sometimes we need to look up from the forest floor and appreciate that canopy. There are high leaves on the trees that can delight and inform. Words like syzygy, barycentre, hypaethral, apogee, benthic. They speak of the skies and the oceans. They might not be essential to daily survival, but we need to be reminded of the innate magic of words. When you see a small child speaking for the first time you are watching a magic spell in action, something inexplicable, but necessary, and vital.

We should dream of that time when we grasped words without needing to reach for a dictionary. Fortunately, we always have the friend of context available, and nowhere does it come more to the fore than in books. Something great happens when we place our vocabularies next to those of another, who has exposed it in their writing, and we gaze on the common ground and divisions and exclusive areas.

What astonishes me most is the capacity for learning other languages. When European explorers encountered people from other nations, other continents, whose tongues were completely unrelated to our own, the collision brought initial confusion, but ultimately, clarity. Because French and English are cousins, if not siblings, we can easily understand that “cat” and “chat” mean the same thing, and “travaille” must be related to “travail” and “bateau” cognate to “boat.” Not so with Xhosa. Or Navajo. Or Japanese.

Yet, with patience, we begin understand each other. The easiest, of course, is to place children in a situation where they are exposed to both languages. A child with English parents placed in a German (or Mandarin, or Zulu) school will pick up both tongues and become fluent to the point that it will be difficult to ascertain what is their mother tongue.

It was children who invented understanding.

Even adults can obtain astonishing competency, even if complete mastery eludes them. Joseph Conrad, a Polish immigrant, only learned to speak English when he was 19, yet became one of the most important writers in the language. He never lost his Polish accent, but, reading him, you’d never think English wasn’t his mother tongue.

The larynx is an astonishingly complex organ, a master instrument we carry about nonchalantly. A fine network of nerves innervate a nexus of interconnected cartilage, articulating, the tongue in happy tow. We sing notes without needing words, yet when we add words we exalt both the music and the language we pour forth. And in singing, we lose our accents; we revert to a common dialect, as it were. Anyone can be taught to sing. And anyone can learn more words.

Then there is the magic of writing. It is the last of the arts of language to develop, because words and associations must be learned and placed in context. But it doesn’t just draw its energy from here. Roots reach deep into the symbolic, the subconscious, the passion from story, an energy that was witness to ancient hunts, fires, even the protean moments where we were not quite fish and yet not quite furry.

Where and when a group of cells congealed to be able to become aware of itself is a mystery, a beautiful mystery I am happy not to understand. For now. The spread of Christian Empires was partly predicated on the fact that the God at the centre of it all was, ultimately, unknowable to It/Him/Herself.  I have confidence that science has the capacity to discover it, and if I’m privy to the knowledge, it won’t be spoilt, for yet another mystery will open like a nested Russian babushka doll. Knowledge creates fractals, snowflakes out of triangles, casting light as it probes into the darkness that races away to depths still deeper and more shadowy. As I like to quote so often: “the larger the searchlight, the greater the circumference of the unknown.”

It is at the edge of language that we encounter shadow, and our primal need to name things kicks in. We are always forming new words, and we do that partly to assuage our fear. Words like “tweet” and “facebooking” and “clusterfuck” may seem frivolous. but they delineate the fuzzy line between the conscious and the pre-conscious.

So go ahead and read more. Learn a new word. Place yourself on that front wave, and surf the edge of chaos. You’ll be richer for it, knowing that even if a wave knocks you sideways, you won’t drown in the ocean, but, merely catch a glimpse of the yet undiscovered jewels that will one day surface.


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