We speak volumes

From my current morning reading, the 1987 Booker Prize novel.

Today language abandoned me. I could not find the word for a simple object—a commonplace familiar furnishing. For an instant, I stared into a void. Language tethers us to the world; without it we spin like atoms. Later, I made an inventory of the room—a naming of parts: bed, chair, table, picture, vase, cupboard, window, curtain. Curtain. And I breathed again.

We open our mouths and out flow words whose ancestries we do not even know. We are walking lexicons. In a single sentence of idle chatter we preserve Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse; we carry a museum inside our heads, each day we commemorate peoples of whom we have never heard. More than that, we speak volumes—our language is the language of everything we have not read. Shakespeare and the Authorized Version surface in supermarkets, on buses, chatter on radio and television. I find this miraculous. I never cease to wonder at it. That words are more durable than anything, that they blow with the wind, hibernate and reawaken, shelter parasitic on the most unlikely hosts, survive and survive and survive.


from Moon Tiger, by Penelope Lively (1987), pp.40–41

Originally published at culture-making.com.

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