With These Words

Painting of a roadThis afternoon I spoke at the funeral of a friend, someone I was very close to in high school, though we had moved apart in recent decades. When I was asked to speak, I was naturally thinking of what one should do with a eulogy, what needs to be said, how it should be presented. I wrote notes out ahead of time, but since I was also speaking, the eulogy was a combination of writing and speaking.

This occasion made me think about situations where formal speaking is part of a regular ritual. Public speaking on important occasions has been a part of human culture everywhere in the world, as far as I can tell, as long as we have records to tell us. For a funeral we even have a special word for speaking, eulogy. This comes from Greek, from the roots “eu” (good) and “logos” (word), so by etymology we know that for the Greeks, a funeral speech was meant to say good things about the deceased. Which is how we still do it, of course.

Other formal speaking occasions that come to my mind include making a toast at any special occasion that includes drinks (a birthday, a wedding, completing something successfully, and so on), retirement speeches, or other speeches. I’d even include something like the words of a wedding ceremony, because in reality the person doing the ceremony could simply declare the couple married, without all that talk.

Thinking about these speaking occasions makes me wonder two things. I think about why we feel compelled to use language when it isn’t necessarily a natural thing to do. Sometimes a person trying to make a speech will get choked up, or cry, and find it difficult to talk. People at a wedding making toasts would often do better to sit back down and have another drink instead. Because these are all occasions of formal speech, the speaking is not even natural, so many people will do as I did, and write something out ahead of time.

The second thing I wonder is why we feel compelled to make these into such formal occasions. Is this need related to our feeling that language has magical properties (similar to spells and curses)? Whatever the case may be, the practice must be natural in some sense, in spite of what I just said, as it is ubiquitous throughout cultures and over time. My guess is that while speaking formally on an important occasion may not be natural for a single person, it is natural to the social group.

We might normally say that the purpose of language is to tell people things, but on these very important occasions, I don’t think that’s true. On every occasion I’ve named, including the funeral eulogy, not one of these instances has a main purpose of conveying information. Instead, this formal speaking seems intended to either create or intensify emotions. A eulogy should make you feel positive toward the deceased, a retirement speech to feel perhaps both glad for the person leaving and sad to see them go, a wedding toast to promote joy and happiness.

It seems to me that formal public speaking often serves the purpose of using one of the most quintessential facts about ourselves—our use of language—to bring a group together, to say, “We will all experience this emotion in the same place and at the same time.” The emotions vary, the occasions vary, but by taking part, we are showing that we’re part of a community, and language is the way we do it.

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