I believe that language matters. It matters as much as freedom does because language allows us to be free…free to do, to express…and ultimately for some, it allows the freedom to live.
I am biased, I suppose, because as an editor and a writer I make my living from language. I have a career—thankfully doing something I love—because others, too, believe in the value of language.
In small and large ways, after a bad day or when I am grieving a loss, language and the ability to engulf myself in it, heals me. To sit and read, absorbing another’s thoughts and personal way of putting words together, fills me. To write something, which has been growing inside of my cluttered brain, frees me. It seems trite, too small, to say that language is important, but that’s what I believe. There are two people of great inspiration to me who believed that language was the most powerful thing that ever entered their lives.
Frederick Douglass was an American slave who won his freedom due to language. Sent to a new estate as a young boy, he astutely realized that if he learned to read and write that he could become free. Literacy was a serious crime for slaves, and it was by harrowing and heroic efforts that he learned to read and write. People’s lives were literally at stake in the process, a testament to how those who wielded the authority also realized that language had the power to free. The profound narrative of his life, of which the subtitle “Written by Himself” (three seemingly superfluous words that actually invoke all of the power he believed language to have), is the quintessential document proving the importance of language. Douglass became a free human being and a persuasive orator because he acquired language and therefore all of the accoutrements that go with it. He said, “Whenever my condition was improved, instead of its increasing my contentment, it only increased my desire to be free, and set me to thinking of plans to gain my freedom.” Thankfully for him and for thousands of slaves that he helped, he correctly chose mastering his enslavers’ language as his plan to gain freedom.
Helen Keller was allowed the freedom to create a life due to the fact that she acquired language. To what eternal darkness and silence would her life have been relegated if she were not given the gift of language? Nothing expresses this more than what she wrote upon making the connection for the first time between the word (water) that her teacher was tracing into her hand and the substance being poured onto her hand. She wrote, “That living world awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!” That living world was language.
Not all of us have the ability to see and to hear. Only language, in its various forms, is universal.
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