THE POWER OF WORDS.
It has been said, with considerable emphasis and conviction, that what distinguishes humans from other species is “language.” This is a highly lexocentric point of view. We’ve come to discover that language is not anthropocentric. Many other, if not all species on earth, have language—we just don’t know them or until recently have ever bothered to distinguish the sounds of other species as languages.
For example, I’ve had dogs and cats all my life and I still don’t know one word in “dog’” or “cat” for that matter. Yet, my dogs and cats have learned or have come to understand the meaning of human words. I daredsay my 13-year old female Labrador Retriever probably knows the meaning of 50 or so words, chief of which is her name. My other animals respond to the sound of their names too.
We’ve done a lot with words: we’ve given structure to words as sentences; established an order for words under categories of nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, articles, etc. We’ve given shape to the letters of words by capitalizing them according to function, making them small in terms of their position in a sentence. We talk about ordering words per syntax. We know that words readily order themselves or that we can order them in logical ways to convey meaning. Words are grouped in phrases and sentences which we parse or diagram for greater understanding of their function or the meanings they convey. With Noam Chomsky’s help we make linguistic trees of words in order to fully understand their function.
There is much ado about words even when they don’t mean anything in the language we speak. For example, what do the following words mean
Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimbel in the wabe.
All mimsy were the borogoves,
–Jabberwocky, Lewis Carroll, 1872
What message do these words convey? There’s a message there if we’re willing to be lured by the words into deciphering them. Carroll’s Jabberwocky poem has been described as a non-sense poem, a parody to satirize pretentious poetry and ignorant literary critics. Carroll characterized a Jabberwocky as a feared monster pursued by a brave man dedicated to beheading it.
We’re familiar with the imputed metaphysical power of words as “incantations” and, to some extent, we’re familiar with the metacognitive power of words as communication. Unfortunately, at times words can be like steel darts piercing deep into our psyche despite the rhyme that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Words can sometimes pierce the strongest steel-plating of self-confidence. The power of the word is exemplified in Genesis 1 of the Bible describing God contemplating the world. “Let there be light,” he said, “and there was light “We cannot imagine that those performative words would not produce light.
One way to think about words is to think of them as metaphors of representation in a “market of symbols.” As Lexistents—that is, creatures of language—we go to this market shopping for whatever words we need to create a poem, craft a short story or novel, script a play, recount an experience in narrative prose or shop for words to enhance conversation or accurately recount an experience.
Despite the misgivings we may have about words, I believe in the power of the word as I wrote for the “This I Believe” project. There is, indeed, no power greater than the power of language, the medium that binds speakers of distinct languages together. So powerful and, perhaps, so fearful was the way of the word that in biblical times, we are told, God scattered humankind over the face of the earth and separated them by a diversity of languages so they could no longer work together as one people to build a tower by which to ascend to heaven and the domain of God. In other words, humankind speaking one language threatened the eminence of God.
We have come far from that world of one language. Today we are no closer to a universal language or that language that so distressed God. We are still separated by language, even though historically there have been periods of linguistic dominance by one language or other. The English language seems to be trump at the moment. So trump, in fact, that in many English-language speaking countries there are efforts to establish English as the (official) language of those countries. In the United States there have been zealous attempts by English Only proponents to legislate English as the (official) language of states and the country. Fortunately those efforts have come to naught.
But there are still people hurling words like steel darts at American Hispanics In the U.S. Congress recently Representative Steve King of Iowa splayed Hispanics with words describing them as dope-carrying “mules.” This is not an isolated case. In the United States, Hispanics have been the butte of vicious and cruel stereotypes since 1848 when the United States grabbed more than half of Mexico’s territory and turned it into the states of what is now the American Southwest—Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and parts of Wyoming, Kansas, and Oklahoma.
In New Mexico there are still efforts to curb the power of Hispanics and the word by protesting the use of Spanish by Hispanics in the public domain. There was a time—not that long ago—when Hispanics were prohibited from speaking Spanish in the public schools of the Mexican Cession. That situation was not as severe in New Mexico as in the other states of the Mexican Cession.
Words of the stuff of language and of cultural identity. Strike at a person’s language and you strike delicate nerve. True of all Hispanics in the nation these days is the evident pride of linguistic fluency in English and Spanish, though a recent PEW Report indicates that American Hispanics reach out to English-language media for their news. This does not single out the evanescence of Spanish language media. “Don Francisco” is still popular in Hispanic homes where the sounds of English mingle with the sounds of Spanish.
I’m pleased to report that my essay on “Spanglish” (Newspaper Tree, April 11, 2008) is included in Language: A Reader for Writers Oxford University Press, 2013. The piece was posted on Hispanic Trending, April 11, 2008. Discussed on National Public Radio’s Way With Words with Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, April 11, 2008, posts 213; and posted on American Mosaic Online: The Latino American Experience, hosted by Ilan Stavans, Greenwood Press, May 23, 2008; posted on ChicanoNews.net, May 29, 2008. The piece has traveled far.
The essay is my effort in making the case for the emergent language wrought by the contact of Spanish and English, explaining that “Spanglish” is not the impoverished language of American Latinos. Few people see the parallel between the phenomenon of Spanish and English producing “Spanglish” just as the phenomenon of Latin mixing with the indigenous languages of Spain as well as Arabic produced the language we now know as Spanish. In my linguistic classes I explain to students that languages are like consenting adults and their issue the melodic strains of a new language. And we are in that linguistic “soup” giving it froth.
Copyright 2013 by Dr. Felipe de Ortego y Gasca.
To contact Dr. De Ortego: Philip.Ortego@wnmu.edu