Words Carrying Stories

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Courtesy freedigitalphotos.net, “alphabet in the ball” by Vlado.

Recently looked into my old blog again, and found this post on the origins of language: 

Last year I took a trip to St. Mary’s City, the original capital city of Maryland. It’s a great place where re-enactors dress up as 17th century Marylanders, living as they did when St. Mary’s was the hub of activity in colonial Maryland.  One of the main attractions, besides the Indian village and the Maryland Dove, the merchant ship at St. Mary’s dock, was the printer’s house, where the town’s newspaper was printed. The volunteer there showed us how the printer’s letter blocks were set in two cases – capital letters in the upper case, and non-capital letters in the lower case. This is the origin of the words uppercase and lowercase in English. We no longer see the “case” in our mind’s eye, but it was there once. Countless words grew out of physical realities we have long forgotten. We don’t think of newspaper correspondents as writing letters, but in the nineteenth century, that’s exactly what they did. The famous “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” came from a letter written to the New York Herald by its correspondent in Africa, Mr. Henry Stanley. His newspaper reports from Central Africa were introduced with the following telegram from the London correspondent in July of 1872: “It is with the deepest emotions of pride and pleasure that I announce the arrival this day of letters from Mr. Stanley, Chief of the Herald Exploring Expedition to Central Africa. I have forwarded the letters by mail.” Sometimes it’s nice to realize how much language tells stories, down into the words themselves.

Well, that last year I referred to is a long time ago now, but it’s funny how much all of these old entries still speak to me. The way words wrap up history and culture inside them has always been a fascination. Letters, too, have histories. For example, the letter z was imported into English from French, Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and the name “zed” – used in Britain to describe the letter – is thought to come from the Hebrew word for weapon, because the letter shape: ז looks like a weapon. Interesting, isn’t it? 

The still, small voice

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“Digital Equalizer” by panupong1982
courtesy of Free digital photos.net

Human beings rely, first and foremost, on their eyes to navigate the world. I know I do — I cherish my ability to see all the beauty that’s out there. And of course we talk about seeing as believing. The powerful influence of what we see cannot be denied.

And yet, strangely, the Book Princess pointed out to me that in both Shakespeare and the Bible, seeing is not considered believing. Hearing is.

Shakespeare has great fun with this. His women disguised as men will often still telegraph the truth with words, and even their voices. In Twelfth Night, Viola, when disguised as the boy Cesario, says, “I am not what I am.” The other characters, blinded by appearance, yet do hear the truth in her voice. Orsino tells her: “Thy small pipe is as the maiden’s organ, shrill and sound.”

The Bible is even more replete with stories of the primacy of voice as a source of truth. When Jacob tries to deceive his blind father, Isaac, into thinking he’s his brother Esau, he puts goat skin on his arms to make him as hairy as his brother. And yet, when he talks, Isaac wonders:

“The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.”

Much later, in the book of Kings, Elijah’s encounter with God makes a similar point. God sends a wind and an earthquake and a fire, but He’s not in any of them, only in the “still, small voice.”

So what is it about voice that brings us closer to the truth than other things? I can’t say I know, really. Helen Keller famously said that she would rather walk with a friend in the dark than alone in the light, presumably because the sense of hearing connects people to each other. And maybe that’s it — from sound comes language, and from language our humanity first grew. If I had to guess, I’d say it had something to do with that.