Our true relationship with language lies obscured and unnoticed. The day-to-day sounds we speak and symbols we write express only superficially its core position within us; and our constant gratuitous use of words swamp its profundity. Language is visceral. Its true form is so powerful that each of us can bear witness to its ability to compel us and edify us; to cow us and redeem us. But this deeper power of language does occasionally break through. When words come at us from unexpected directions, or in unaccustomed forms, they often reveal language's full force.
Language was not born in our mouths or our minds. It was born in the forest and in the storm and in the heat of noon. It was born in savannah grass and the hoofbeats of stampeding herds. Language was born in lightning and cold. It was born in the cry of crows and the poison of bees. Language predates humans. Language was born long before we spoke it.
Take the word thunder. When you say thunder you evoke the era of thunders unnamed, the era of intimidating misunderstood majesty booming above you and threatening to devour. You feel this booming and recognize this majesty and you utter an incantation. You respond with a fearful prayer. You say thunder and you are a human on a plain a hundred thousand years ago trying to put a name to this presence above him, trying to give it a mental shape, trying to make something so awesome manageable to his consciousness. He repeats the prayer. And others, with similar needs, in similar attempts, repeat their protecting sounds. Together they continue repeating these incantations and the word thunder is born. Tens of thousands of years later you relax near the windows of your mid-town apartment with a cup of tea watching a storm. A great booming erupts. You sit upright. You sit thoughtless, moved. But then you think thunder and you share with your ancestors those feelings--both the blank awe that the surprise gave you, and the need to put it into words and make it sufferable. You do this and you connect with them across countless generations.
Thunder is not the word thunder. Thunder is its feeling in us. It came to us from the storms and entered us. And the word sounds back through time, tying us to when thunder did not have a name, to when it was nothing to us but startlement and intimidation and fear and confusion and the unexpected. In that first moment it crashes over us thunder is nameless and original. It is untouched and primal. And what is nameless and original and untouched and primal in us is moved by it.
This is the sound of language. Here are its roots. It carries us back to its source and reintroduces us to our own source. We are so inundated by it it is easy to overlook this property. But when it comes to us unexpectedly, of a sudden, its power is seen. Say daisy and you are a child in a field. Say feast and you are a hunter standing over a kill. Say roar and you are taking shelter in a cave. Say fire and you are huddled before its crackling, deep in the night, in the humming night, alone or with a family or with a band. The fire crackles and you think crackling and you have made the mystery of fire then, too, manageable to your consciousness, and you have revisited an ancient age.
The symbols of language are just as resonant as its sounds. We come across an Egyptian hieroglyph, or some Japanese calligraphy, or a Sumerian cuneiform and they pique our attention. This ancient cross with a loop on its top is fascinating, we think. What could it mean? The script of that Arab tapestry is enchanting, we think. What does it say? By chance we encounter these riddles and they attract. Irresistibly we take them up, reaching into ourselves for their solutions, groping at their mysteries. What we find instead, however, is our own mystery, the mystery of our own selves crying out to be deciphered. All unknown symbols suggest to us the symbol of our own self. What does this mouth without a face mean? we wonder. What does this left-facing owl mean? we wonder. And then we are plagued by this suggestion, inarticulate though it may be: But what does this thing I call I mean? What am I? The riddle of ourselves is thus stirred.
It is easiest to understand this if you look at a written language that you do not understand. Look at Sanskrit, or Cyrillic, or Chinese. Observe how the scripts tug at something within, how their hidden meanings fascinate and promise. These symbols tease our curiosities with the profoundest possibilities. We look on the characters. We study their shapes. Our minds caress their twists and turns and loops and curlicues in attempts to elicit some hint of their meaning. Superficially the beauty of their mystery first draws us. Unconsciously the analogy to our own riddle then holds us. And viscerally the fact we know this mystery has a meaning, and that we can learn this meaning, excites us. So we face the strange Mayan ideograph. We are drawn. We seek out its definition. And then we find it! But, lo, note how its revelation lets us down, how learning that the intricately convoluted symbol means simply linoleum disappoints us. That let down is our perennial longing to understand our own mystery disappointed. Such meanings are always disappointing because they are not the us we hoped they would be. They are not our mystery revealed.
It is more difficult to see this in your own language but it is still there. Driving down the road you pass a billboard. You are zooming by and you only glimpse in your peripheral vision the symbols, the letters. Once glimpsed, who cannot turn to look truly? Your mystery is piqued then. You want to know what the symbols say. You get a similar feeling from a newspaper headline lying just out of sight, or a note barely legible scribbled onto a script and crumpled in your pocket. What does it say? What does it mean? Will it tell me what I'm yearning to know? The meaning of my own unknown? The answer to my mystery? Written language is a code. But it is a code in the end which cannot be broken. For we make of it a symbol of something that ultimately is not fully known: Ourselves.
You take these two elements of language, its sounds and its symbols, and put them together and something powerfully compelling emerges. You glance at that billboard and the yearning of mystery rises in you. You look again on the symbol and decipher it in your head, groping for the answer to your own mystery. The word is familiar, and it does not answer your mystery, but your mystery has been stirred. Then you say the word in your head. Thunder you say. And then the power of something so undeniable that it had to be given a name eons ago is transported through you. The nameless thunder of the timeless before and its awe and its intimidation moves through you. You are driving down the street. You see a billboard. And in the space of seconds the root of what is deep and mysterious in your psyche is aroused; and the root of what is deep and powerful in your primal self is recalled. This is what happens when language comes upon us unawares; when it comes to us in unaccustomed forms, and, surprising us, reveals to us its true power. When it is in a more accustomed form, like, say, in this essay, its affect is much less telling.
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