Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Magic of Language

 A word after a word after a word is power.
                                                                        from Margaret Atwood’s poem, Spelling

Words . . . are little houses, each with its cellar and garret. . . . To mount too high or descend too low is allowed in the case of poets, who bring earth and sky together.
                                                                        Gaston Bachelard

 Words about words – like looking up the word “dictionary” in the dictionary.  There’s an absurdity to it. It’s almost circular and nonsensical. I recently read an article in which a man described a night in Indonesia. He was staying in a hut in the middle of rice paddies.  It was a spectacular, star-filled night and the vast night sky was perfectly reflected in the dark, flat water surrounding him. He described feeling weightless, not sure which way was up. Something about the reflection was disorienting, as using words to describe words may be. The definition of “word” is: “a unit of language, consisting of one or more spoken sounds or their written representation, that functions as a principal carrier of meaning.” The definition goes on to say that words are “composed of one or more morphemes”, etc. etc. – which is a word I don’t know the meaning of. Interesting that I don’t understand the definition of the word “word”.
We communicate through the words that we speak, hear, read, write and there’s an assumption that what we mean to say is being understood by our chosen audience. But each word is rich in its own history and meaning, in addition to being subject to individual interpretation.  When I ask for a little enthusiasm for something I’m starting in my life, am I consciously aware of asking for, essentially, divine inspiration.  (en-, in, within + theos, god or “possessed by god”).  Clearly not a conscious request, as the word “enthusiasm” has somehow been watered down to a more cheerleader-like quality then its original magnitude may suggest.
It makes me wonder if I’m ever really saying, or hearing, what is truly being said.  What is understanding?  The etymology of “understanding” is “standing in the midst of.” Perhaps we are meant to allow words to engulf us, like a reflected starry sky, so that the true meaning – altered and enhanced from the original attempt to express a new idea by each murmur and expression  of it  – can have its impact.

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