Here is something I read in The Guardian: an article about the work of David Shariatmadari about language. The article said, summarizing some of what Shariatmadari is thinking: Language is “a medium that is formed as it is used…a road that is paved at the same time as we walk it.”
I think of the Antonio Machado quote: “Caminante, no hay camino,/se hace camino al andar” which I’ve seen translated in many wonderful ways, but is roughly, “Walker, there is no way, the way is made by walking.”
I write and in writing, if I’m open enough, I can learn what I’m thinking and why, and then I can write toward writing it. I speak and in speaking stumble over all the ways to miscommunicate, to hurt inadvertently, to confuse, to be thoughtless, or to be thoughtful, to be funny, insightful, or astoundingly dumb, and go on to speak again, ideally having learned something (to hold my tongue, perhaps).
Then I remembered something of a wonderful book by Olivia Laing, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, in which she uses a period of displacedness in NYC to explore artists who have embodied loneliness in their life and work, from Hopper to Warhol. She talks about long periods of silence, being startled then by her own voice in speech with others. She writes, “Language is communal. This is the theory put forward by Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations, a rebuttal of Descartes’s notion of the lonely self, trapped in the prison of the body, uncertain that anyone else exists. Impossible, says Wittgenstein. We cannot think without language, and language is by its nature a public game, both in terms of acquisition and transmission.”
I love language because my mother enjoyed words and read to me aloud. Dr. Seuss, Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows. I was raised in words, even in a family of whispers, and silences. The more I learned words the more words I was eager to learn. Some of what I love about both reading translation and playing with it myself is the word search, the many ways to think about sound and meaning in one language and trying to make it correspond in another. As I’m trying to speak French, I love the feeling of spinning through my internal rolodex of English synonyms for what I’m trying to say, seeking a Romance language cognate that might be the right word in French.
I have a literary crush on Robert MacFarlane. His prose unscrolls and rolls in wonderful rhythms and sound. I am now reading The Old Ways, his book of walking ancient paths. Here he is thinking about the word landscape. “Landscape is still often understood as a noun connoting fixity, scenery, and immobile painterly decorum. I prefer to think of the word as a noun containing a hidden verb: landscape scapes, it is dynamic and commotion causing, it sculpts and shapes us not only over the courses of our lives but also instant by instant, incident by incident.”
It occurs to me that my personal vocabulary is a landscape, shaped by what I’ve done and who I’ve known, where I’ve been, what I’ve read. My lexicon shows my wandering and wondering: slithy tove, schist and gneiss, anomie, SEVIS, parts per million, quasi-public, total quality management, chiasmus, per sterpes, apical meristem, and ways to say hello in ten languages. I love this sense of language as landscape through which I have moved and am moving, little dictographs of the way.
Anyway, I’m rambling here. And I guess I’ve arrived at this point to say: Thanks to all of you who have learned me some words and in advance for all to come as we walk this way, talk this way, thinking all the way.