Monday, July 26, 2004

Some excerpts from "The Power and Myster of Words," Saint Louis University Magazine 45.5 (1972): 4-6.

"Instruction and research in a university are inseparable from deep involvement with language. Today we sometimes hear how primitive peoples entertain the bizarre idea that words give you power over things, as though this were a belief which intelligent persons can no longer tolerate. But words do give you power over things. Can you imagine studying mathematics or physics without learning the words these sciences work with? If you want power over chemicals, you had better learn their names and a lot of related words besides. No vocabulary, no scientific control. A computer's work means nothing unless somewhere along the line someone says what it means. Without words, we are helpless" (4).

"Let us start from a prime truth about words. Words are sounds. They are not 'signs' in a strict sense at all. 'Sign' suggests at root something visually apprehended, coming from the Latin signum, which referred to the standard that ancient Roman military units carried aloft to identify themselves to the eye. This is not what a word is. Real words cannot be seen. They can only be heard. If they are in some ways like a 'sign,' they are also fundamentally quite different. You need words to tell you what signs mean more than you need signs to tell you what words mean. Can you draw a picture of a sound? Or a picture expressing what each individual word in this paragraph means? A picture of 'about'? To show what 'about' looks like? Or 'like'? Or of 'which'? Or 'suggests'? Or a picture of 'fundamentally'? Not pictures which you say mean these things, but pictures which simply do?" (5).

"We often think of words as 'media,' or of communication as existing in a 'medium.' This is another attempt to picture words, to project them on a visual field, and it creates as many difficulties as it solves. A medium means something inbetween. What words do is precisely annihilate the in-betweennes which separates you from me and me from you. When I speak to you, I am inviting you to enter into my consciousness, and I am entering into yours. When you listen to me, you pretend that you are saying the same things I say to find whether they make sense. When I speak, I listen to myself to see if I am making sense to you. The listener speaks while the speaker listens. Words are invitations to community, to sharing, to existence in a non-medium" (6).

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