Once upon a time, before I decided to be an English major, I was an English Education major. I wanted to teach kids about the wonder that is language. And then I realized I would have to actually be around kids. So, here we are. While my degree changed, my sense of awe in language has not.
The first words I ever read completely on my own were “No Parking.” The street I walked to and from school on was lined with them. Every few feet there would be another sign, “No Parking.” The day I read them alone, I stood at the first sign. I sounded out all the letters the way my kindergarten teacher was teaching me to do. I smooshed all those sounds together until I had something I recognized, and it was like the Hallelujah Chorus exploded in my head. I admit, they weren’t that impressive. It wasn’t what they had written on them so much as what they represented that made me tingle with all of the possibilities. You see, I could read. I. Could. Read. The days when my mom could write little notes to keep me in the dark were over now. Well, except for that whole cursive thing. The devil really is in the details, I guess. At five years old, I began to understand the power of the written word.
If you asked me what I consider the greatest human invention ever, I would tell you that it is the written language. Babies will learn how to speak all on their own, provided they are exposed to language. It doesn’t matter what language you speak. Expose a child to that language, and the brain will start filtering out all of the human sounds not used for it and chucking them in the bin. Can’t trill your Rs? Your native language probably doesn’t use that sound. But no matter what language you speak, you must be taught to read and write it. People came together and agreed that when you make this squiggle, it represents this vocal sound, and if you put a series of different squiggles together, you now have a graphic representation of a word. This entire post is nothing but a series of squiggles smooshed together and we, as English speakers, have all agreed that these squiggles make sense and that we will all read the same series of words, even if we read different meanings into them.
Here’s the awe-inspiring part for me: language allows communication across centuries. When I pick up my copy of The Canterbury Tales (in Middle English because I’m hard core), I’m reading words that someone who has been dead hundreds of years wrote. I don’t just mean Chaucer. Even the scribes who copied the different manuscripts have been long dead. When I read the diary of Anne Frank, I’m reading the words of a young girl who died decades before I was born. If I am lucky, maybe in two hundred years, when I am dead and everyone who ever knew me is dead, someone might find a copy of Celia somewhere, dust off the cover, and start reading. Just the thought gives me chills.
But what about language itself? Have you ever thought of all the different ways we have of saying something.
- I dislike prunes.
- I hate prunes.
- I loathe prunes.
- I detest prunes.
- I despise prunes.
- I abhor prunes.
If this broad verb “to hate” is, oh…lets make it the color orange, then every synonym for “hate” is a different shade of orange. Maybe “dislike” is a cheery light orange. “Detest” might be a bright day-glo shade. Perhaps “abhor” is the most obnoxious shade of orange you’ve ever seen. This…this right here is what turns language from awe-inspiring to magical. The shading, the nuance, the ability to paint word pictures, this is the greatest human creation. I often picture words as a box of crayons. I want the biggest box of crayons I can have.