A beautiful poem by Jack Gilbert on the topic of language - both its enormous power and its limitations. What I find most interesting is that Gilbert is using language here, as if no other medium can properly express his thoughts. So even when language is inadequate, is it still the best thing we have?
This is a question I posed a few days ago, receiving very little response except from one person who mentioned the value of action alongside words. Days later, the topic came up again in a conversation where I admitted through gritted teeth that I tend to trust actions over words. It wasn’t easy to admit, being a writer, but perhaps it’s only natural that writers are most wary of words. We spend our days struggling against their deficiencies, their flaws. And yet, for some mysterious reason, we press on, every day, convinced that the right words are there and that they’re important.
I tell about a time in Hungary when domestic abuse was “normal.” For many generations, men had beaten their wives, and the wives accepted it because that’s all they knew. If they ever thought about standing up for themselves, they couldn’t, because they didn’t have the language to do so. They couldn’t say what was wrong, and certainly not why.
When I started learning Hungarian in 2005, the Hungarian language had seven times more words in it than the English language. Seven times more! Was it possible that there weren’t any words to shed some light on the concept of domestic abuse? It didn’t seem so. My job required me to work daily with women who came in with bruises that were quickly dismissed. It saddened me, deeply. But I was so young at the time and barely understood my own problems, much less anyone else’s. I tried recalling the times when I’d felt mistreated or misunderstood, and how had I dealt with the pain? Something very simple, actually. I’d read. Books were my refuge. They offered me a map of sorts, helping me to see where I was and how to navigate the world around me.
With the help of a Hungarian friend, I started reading to a small group of women. Not self-help books, but stories and poems that had never been translated into their language. Stories that finally, for the first time, helped define their pain and gave them the words they needed to stand up to their husbands and say, “Stop. What you’re doing isn’t fair, and it hurts.”
By the time I left Budapest, a public march was being organized against family violence. Not because of my little book club, mind you. There were other, bigger factors at play. But I just have to say that when thousands of women went marching down the Danube River, they were holding signs they’d made themselves. And what was on their signs? Words. Their own words.
This makes me wonder if language must come first, before any conscious action can be taken.
Perhaps the beginning of justice is naming the injustices. Just as the beginning of healing is naming the disease.
As far as I know, human beings have always had language. By the time our species evolved, it was already inside of us - noises that rolled off our tongues in all sorts of ways. What shall we call those noises then? Words? Music? Impulses of the body?
My friend says music and then laughs at himself, as if the idea is ridiculous.
But of course there is music in language. Just listen to the birds, or the sheep, or to someone who speaks a different language than you, and you might hear music.
I tell about the time I was in Tanzania, Africa visiting the home of a little boy we’d met at the village school. When we arrived at his house, we met his younger siblings and learned that both of his parents had died of AIDS. All responsibility for the kids fell into the grandmother’s lap. She greeted us with a smile that overtook her face, then brought some chairs out of her mud hut. “She says she is sorry,” the translator told us. “Because she only has three chairs.” They were more like stools, actually, made of mud and straw, maybe some wood.
We urged the grandmother to sit on one of the stools. She resisted at first, but finally sat down.
“She says she will sit only because she is old and tired,” the translator said, laughing at her joke.
The woman looked sixty, at least. The creases of her face were well defined, they seemed to fold in on one another like currents of the sea. She wore the typical Masai jewelry and a regal purple shawl. Her earlobes stretched down in long, flimsy loops, grazing the top of her shoulders. Where you could really see her age was in her eyes. They weren’t so bright anymore. The whites were tinged with a dusty yellow, but they were big and deep and could’ve held all the knowledge of the world. We found out later that the grandmother was only thirty-one.
When we started talking about her grandson’s education, she became restless. It was obvious that she didn’t like our questions. Her grandson was the eldest child, and in her opinion, he should be learning the practical ways of life, how to care for his brothers and sisters, how to survive. “What can these books teach him that life can’t?” the translator asked on her behalf.
Someone in our group asked the grandmother if she had any wishes for grandson’s future.
The translator seemed uneasy with the question. He uttered a few sentences in her language, but her face wrinkled up in confusion.
“I’m sorry,” he turned to us. “In her language, there is no word for future. I can’t make her understand what it means.”
“What about plans? Or hopes?”
The translator sighed and tried again, using his hands this time too. The grandmother followed his hands, glancing into the far distance where he pointed, but in the end, she gave a shrug.
Would it have changed anything if their language had accommodated for the word future, or maybe hope? It’s hard to say. But I think this is what Jack Gilbert meant when he wrote, “A people in northern India is dying out because their ancient tongue has no words for endearment.”
I wonder what words we’ve lost as our language has evolved. For instance, when we say love, what do we mean? There used to be several different words for love, but now we only have one word. Is that enough? When we find ourself struggling to express what’s in our heart, would it help to have a few more words to choose from?
Possibly. But I’m wary. When it comes to matters of the heart, something tells me that they’ve always been nebulous and will always be nebulous. We reach for metaphors, for comparisons, and the words get it wrong.
Thankfully, we have art and music, and physical bodies too. There’s so much you can express through your actions. And what about silence? Yes, it speaks as well, sometimes better than anything else. But still, I can’t dismiss language. We yearn for words. The right words. Even if we never speak them aloud, we need to have them within us, a foundation from which to consciously act. Today, perhaps more than ever, we must be able to articulate ourselves. To strip away all the dross of marketing and advertising jargon, the business lingo and social chit-chat, and actually figure out what it is we want to say.
What a gift, language is.