This week I sat in a room in Atlanta, just off the Buford Highway, a road lined with Mexican restaurants, Chinese stores, Vietnamese malls. I was with a trainer and two other men, all of us learning about the business of how to safely remove asbestos, as I spent all week taking a class in this topic (and I now have a certificate that says I have taken an Asbestos Contractor/Supervisor Course, though my purpose was simply to have the certificate, which I will need in working with my brother). My real point in this blog entry is to note that the trainer spoke to me for a while in English, then talked quite a while with the other two men in Spanish.
My knowledge of Spanish is right weak, and while I tried to follow what was being said, I only caught a word here and there. Mostly for me, those words were just noises. I was thinking about this exchange in the context of an interview on NPR earlier in the week with the spoken word poet Sarah Kay, who referred to the power of language. Of course a lot of people have talked about this, but it was Sarah Kay who got me to thinking.
I agree with Sarah, and I was examining the idea of what makes language powerful. On the one hand, it’s a bit strange to think of language as powerful, since it’s only noise, literally. Listening to someone speak a foreign language, as I did during asbestos training, you get some sense of one reality of language, that we are just making noises with our mouth.
And yet…we all know that language is powerful. Every one of us has had multiple occasions of hearing those noises from the mouth and standing dumbstruck, of living our lives differently from that moment on.
I thought about what it is that makes language powerful, and while my cocky confidence does not go so far as to say I know, I’m willing to suggest theories, some of which must be wrong: (1) The power comes from the very sounds of the words, the noises themselves, like onomatopoeia. Boom! (or as Russians say of ocean waves, shoom) (2) The power of words comes from the meanings plus connotations of the words. (3) The power comes from the thoughts represented by the words, as those thoughts are expressed by language and transferred to other people. (4) The power of words is an indirect reflection of the real power of physical reality, which words merely represent.
To contemplate these theories, let’s take some examples from each one:
(1) [Sound] flux (currently beloved by the poet Sarah Kay), or words I like the sound of: postilion, jelly, dastardly. Your word goes here: _______.
(2) [Meaning/connotations] heinous (implies not just bad, but deliberately evil), hug (implies not only you, but puppies), Appalachian (implies moonshine and a trail), vixen (oh man, don’t get me started)
(3) [Thoughts] “I love you”, “Joe is going to fire you”, “There’s a spot on your lung”, “You make the best coconut cake I ever ate”
(4) [Physical reality] “CRISIS IS AT HAND” (newspaper headline about war with Spain, New York Journal, 1898); “I am not a crook.” (Richard Nixon, 1973); “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.” (Albert Einstein)
What do you think? Does language have a power inherent in itself, or only because it represents things outside of itself, which themselves have power?
If we wanted to answer that question (or maybe we don’t want to), the answer would have to take into account what is language? That goes back to the mouth noises, but those noises do mean something, and they not only reflect reality, but even help to create reality. If someone is a “traitor” or a “witch” or a “hero” we decide those things through language, and once we decide, it becomes reality, right?
I don’t have room here to consider that this idea of reality creation (in some ways) is true of everything. So that is a kind of power that language has. Words reflect reality, or create reality, and change the facts of the world.
Yet they are only mouth noises. Mmmmmm.