by Debbie Vance
In the Middle Ages, people believed that textual amulets–short texts written on parchment and worn on the body, perhaps scrolled within a bottle, hanging from a necklace–could protect the wearer against evil. The words themselves carried tangible power to thwart enemies. Even today, people tattoo their bodies with words that inspire, remind, console, maybe even protect. Some write to remember–the physical act of writing is proven to better imbed information in our memories–and some write to discover what it is they think and feel. Perhaps there exists a trace of our very selves in our printed words–in the ink itself or the voice it carries: When you read a book or a letter, you hear the speaker’s voice made manifest in mentally-audible speech, and that letter from a lover carried in your back pocket somehow makes them feel closer. There is something of our humanity in our language–simple regional diction maybe, or habitual syntactical patterns–but I think there exists a much deeper truth.
In his poem, “Their Lonely Betters,” W.H. Auden reflects on the uniquely human element of language–how humans are the only creatures with the ability to freely choose words and how to use them, to set words to a meter, with rhythm and rhyme. We are the only creatures who can lie, or promise. Our linguistic abilities prove our humanity and define it. Therein lies the truth–our words reveal our human responsibility, and our responsibility is to use them well.
Tags: humanity, language, WH Auden, words
As I listened from a beach-chair in the shade
to all the noises that my garden made,
it seemed to me only proper that words
should be withheld from vegetables and birds.
A robin with no Christian name ran through
the Robin-Anthem which was all it knew,
and rustling flowers for some third party waited
to say which pairs, if any, should get mated.
No one of them was capable of lying,
there was not one which knew that it was dying
or could have with a rhythm or a rhyme
assumed responsibility for time.
Let them leave language to their lonely betters
who count some days and long for certain letters;
we, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:
words are for those with promises to keep.