I love words. Writing them, reading them, saying them. Some words just feel good being spoken. I like the taste of them in my mouth. The physical act of writing words down brings me joy. And reading, well. I learned to read when I was five and haven’t been without a book or two in progress ever since.
And the fact that words have another function beyond this deeply personalized joy is enough to make me shake my head and wonder how much better can this life get?
Because words aren’t there just for our singular enjoyment. They’re there to connect us, one to another. And it always strikes me as the best kind of miracle that they can actually do that. I can have a picture in my head and by making a few sounds, or marks on the page, the same picture can appear in your head, without any physical contact needed.
The remarkable thing isn’t that sometimes words lead to misunderstanding. The unbelievably remarkable thing is how often they lead to understanding.
As someone who plays with words on a daily basis, spelling and grammar are hugely important to me. I try not to be a grammar snob and I really, really try not to correct my loved ones when they get it wrong, but it’s a struggle. Because I believe that words matter and correct usage leads to better understanding.
But I’ve also seen some of the best magic of the language happen when the grammar is bad and the words we have in common are few and far between.
When travelling in another country, I always try to learn a few key phrases. Bonjour! Hola! Jambo! And people smile at you.
It amazes and delights me that I can order something off a menu in France and what I was expecting shows up at my table. That wandering through a French market, pointing and smiling and making generous use of s’il vous plait and merci will allow me to hear and mostly understand what the vendors are telling me about their wares. The fact that different cultures have different sounds for the exact same thing and that those different sounds can make the shared pictures appear in our heads is just amazing. Every time it happens I want to giggle with delight.
I have a friend who grew up in France and moved to Canada as an adult. Her command of English is very, very good and her accent is gorgeous. One day, we were in my mother’s garden and I pointed out the lemon verbena that was growing. She didn’t know what it was called. ‘Verbena’ had no meaning for her. So I dug deep into my memory and managed to find ‘verveine’. Her eyes lit up and she smiled. And I felt wholly triumphant, because up till then, she had been translating French words into English for me. Connection. Magic.
It’s not just sounds that put the pictures in your head. My sister Eileen experienced profound hearing loss. She started taking sign language classes and Alan and I learned a few signs as well. ‘Thank you’ ‘I love you’ and ‘toilet’. And one day, we were at a noisy family gathering and Eileen was uncomfortable and heading toward agitated. My mother couldn’t understand what was bothering her, nor could she convince her to just sit quietly. I was across the table from them, unable to hear what they were saying at all. Inspiration struck. I made the sign for toilet with my head tilted to the side. Eileen’s eyes lit up and she nodded emphatically. I stood up and we found our way to the bathroom.
This magical connection is shared, not just with other people and across different languages. We can also share the pictures in our heads with other species. Ruffles, our lovely dog, understands certain commands. I say ‘sit’ and his bum hits the floor for an entire split second. If we say ‘are you ready?’ he’ll pelt off to the kitchen to await kibble treats. And one day, we said our friend Bo’s name and he ran to the window looking for her. He’s a dog, he doesn’t speak English, but we can still have those moments of connection when we’re all thinking the same thing.
It’s that connection that I love most about words. That moment when you look in someone’s eyes and you just know that you’re both seeing exactly the same picture. It’s what I live for. It’s why I keep struggling with my own writing, why I drop everything every week to make sure that I put up a post here, why I read and read and read.
Because the fact that those moments of connection stand out so much, that I can remember them so many years later, tells me that most of the time, we don’t feel that connection. Most of the time, we move through the world alone, the pictures in our heads unshared.