Skinny Sticks and Knobby Stones

In the beginning was the word. And we who come later still ascribe magic powers to words. We use them to signify, to name, and thus in some primitive sense to create.

Modern nations threaten war over the name of a piece of land. Naming the baby is a new/old mystical ritual. American men acknowledge the power of a name when they cling to their own and divest a woman of hers. (Well, perhaps not cling, but lay claim to an investment, a family heritage, a link to roots, a being-in-the world denied to those who lose such treasures in exchange for a ring around their finger and a chokehold on their history.)

Religious Jews go to the cemetery to change the name of a seriously ill family member, hoping that the angel of death will thereby miss her target. Somehow I thought angels were smarter than that, but I digress...

How did words get this magic power? They are made up of letters, some of which are not attractive at all. Skinny sticks with knobby stones – these are our English letters. They belong to a linear, antiquated tribe called the alphabet, relics of a stone age of thinking. But they lack the passion of picture languages. The Chinese knew that: calligraphy was the highest form of art. Our letters are linear and one-dimensional. They imply a beginning and an end, time like an arrow that flows in one direction only. Picture languages, on the other hand, draw us in, surround and absorb us, weave webs around us.

Perhaps we can now retire our alphabet, 26 lifeless corpses, to a glass specimen case in a fossil museum. Perhaps we're already developing a new language of chaos and multi-direction. Perhaps hyper-links are the abc's of tomorrow.

Even a dead language can be fun. One website offers us these delightful signs: “Please do not spit too loud. Thank you.” or, “Any persons (except players) caught collecting golf balls on this course will be prosecuted and have their balls removed.” Or, my favorite, “Please take care of the sleeping grass.” You'll find more quirky word usage here:

I'm not always kind to sleeping grass, but I have decided to learn another language, specifically Greek, since I fell in love once again with the Greek people and left my heart on the Greek islands this summer. The language dates back to the 9th century BC, and was the first alphabet to include vowels. In my advanced state of knowledge, after two weeks, I can say this to you: (Don't despair: as David Sedaris has said, "Me Talk Pretty One Day") -

Here's the transliteration: Óli i ánthropi yeniúnde eléftheri ke ísi stin axioprépia kai ta dikeómata. Íne prikizméni me loyikí ke sinídisi, ke ofílun na simberiféronde metaksí tus me pnévma adelfosínis.

And here's the skinny sticks and knobby stones version: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

It comes from Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I will follow it with “Ise omorfi”, and you can just smile and reply “S'agapo”. Now if I could just substitute these two phrases for those infamous off-microphone chitshitchats reported by the press and lifted, I suspect, from an episode of "The West Wing", think how quickly international relations would improve.

c. Corinne Whitaker 2006