What is language?

in the beginning was the word, and the word became flesh”

Babel Tower 2I was reading an old Roger Cohen’s column (I’m quite his fan, never was but recently he’s take some very intelligent and courageous stands on issues from nuclear disarmament to Palestine) Loos and Language. That was enough to take me on a this meditation of “What is Language”.

It is so powerful this clay we teachers work with! I remember, me a German by name and birth, in Canada. I remember hearing the word “German” and thinking of “germs” , “bad”, “dirty”. That still rests with me, though I’ve traveled all over Germany and become a germanophile. The power of language to seed, to make you believe, even against all your wishes. So here is my meditation.

Language is thought made visible. We might even extend that to emotion made visible. It is the electricity that lights up human experience and allows us to “not be an island”. From the swamp of thought, a tree grew and declared itself alive – this tree of life was language…..”for in the beginning was the word, and the word became flesh.” It made something permanent, solid and resistant against the chaos of that within……

Words? They die quickly without life in our inner thoughts as we “think aloud”. They live forever in the written word, scratched on a stone wall. Words – they allow us to complete desire, “I love you”, “I’ll have eggs, over easy” or they allow us to kill and control desire – rules, laws, edicts. One imam today declared a fatwa, with 10 words only, thousands march…… Words are power and an expression of our ultimate existential powerlessness….a national anthem plays at our opening ceremony, this language creates us as a culture. Yet, I open the newspaper and a writer demands the ex-president of Korea be jailed. He disrupts culture, he uses words to mix and destroy as well as build….. Language builds and destroys, blows bombs and kisses…….

Language. It is both that which is compressed with meaning – poetry, song. It makes the young girls cry, as I heard Barry Manilow sing today. Yet, it is mundane, a ritual and meaningless, robotic. “Hello, how are you?”, “I’m fine, thank you. And you?”. I must have said this a dozen times today but don’t remember, so insignificant it is/was. Auden’s comment goes well – “Poetry makes nothing happen, but it matters” (so many forget the last part of this quote!).

Language is loud or soft – a drum for how we feel. They say a picture speaks a thousand words but nothing speaks of quality better than sound, meaningful sound. This sound and fury that is the very essence of life and which we haltingly call, “soul”. The yawn that I just made as I stretched, is as much a word as “Pandiculation” – however we might think otherwise. I communicate myself or like Whitman, use language to sing, continually sing, “the song of myself.”

Language is the music I listen to every day. A kind of on/off which provides meaning. As Nietzsche so well said, “without music, life would be a mistake.” I say, “without language, life would not even be, a mistake”. Language gives us ourselves — we have a name, Thou art that, “Tat Tva Asi”, sayeth the Brahman. Meaning, everything begins with calling something by the right name. Today I asked for a “pencil”. However arbitrary at the bottom language is, it is precise in functioning. I had to call it by its right name…..I will never be anyone other than “David”. A rose, is a rose, is a rose, as Gertrude Stein might have explained. We may well want to call it another name but it is consigned this for perpetuity.

Language. It is a time machine. First I’m talking about my weekend, next, I’m 5 years down the road, looking at new career moves, finally, I’m right here now, drinking my coffee and talking to you, whoever you are. Time allows us the joy of travel, the safety of this kind of travel.

Language is identity. A man walks into my office and says “kaput”. He and I share a Germanic bond. We know something’s wrong. From the hooligan’s cry to the babies babble, language links – it is a cacophony of sound, a stream of nonsense that has no space, no pause. Yet we pause it, we make sense out of it. We perform miracles because of it. Like the miracle that from the finite number of letters available to me, from the finite number of sounds I can wind — we may create the infinite number of sentences and “crie de coeur”. Miraculous, through language we are all as if gods.

Whatever else language is, language is freedom. It is an endless creativity, a gift of pun and playfulness. From one thing, we can build an infinite of another and on and on. Language gives us power because ultimately, we feel like we make the rules – whatever the ghost in the machine. When I’m teaching, I’m empowered – where do these words come from, that just appear out of nowhere? What a god I am! From nothing – I create something!

Without language, we’d be chained to the now, chained to the wall of our self. Imprisoned, a Guantanamo of our own making. That’s why I say thank you to language, through language. That’s why, I care about the words I use and that’s why I try to learn more about language. It is the sun the beckons our human spirit.

Comments

  1. It is an endless creativity, a gift of pun and playfulness. From one thing, we can build an infinite of another and on and on. Language gives us power because ultimately, we feel like we make the rules – whatever the ghost in the machine. When I’m teaching, I’m empowered – where do these words come from, that just appear out of nowhere? What a god I am! From nothing – I create something!

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