I Believe in the Beauty of Language

Scott - Berkley, Michigan
Entered on May 4, 2008

I believe in the beauty of language.

I stare down a stark white hallway. There are no doors, just a window at the end. The window is a gateway into darkness, a deep velvety black. As I slowly walk towards the darkness, it starts to move. It twists, shudders, and collapses upon itself. A mist is dancing across the ebony sky; its movement reminding me of a flock of small birds undulating through space. As I come closer, I see that the mist is actually more like a nebulaic cloud, as colors emerge and flicker and flow. The hallway rotates forward as if on a perpendicular axis, and I soon find myself falling, possibly floating toward the abyss. The white in my peripheral fades with the eclipse of the lustrous cloud that now engulfs me.

I think that all people who have found something that brings them to awe can relate to the feeling of falling headlong into an all-consuming cloud of passion, the pull to dwell in and saturate themselves with their object of desire.

For me, one such passion is language.

I am a linguist/language teacher by trade. Before college, grammar had always been a chore, something dreaded and avoided. I thought it to be purposeless and utterly useless in life. It was not until I began to stumble through Classical Greek that I realized grammar’s usefulness in learning another language. Not only that, I was drawn in by these mysterious algorithms that seem to govern all communication. As the pages of my textbooks slowly turned, I began to understand that I was on the brink of a relatively new frontier with vast terrains awaiting discovery.

Language is one of the most basic elements of human existence, and yet so many questions remain. How does every child across the world learn something so complex, so rule-driven, with such relative ease? How are they able to see patterns and make generalizations, such as thinking that “foots” is the plural of “foot”? They certainly never heard “foots” uttered from their parents’ mouths, and yet somehow they are able to generate that “-s” at the end of a noun indicates plurality in English as they go on to apply this rule both correctly and incorrectly until they learn differently. How do I automatically know that I can use the present tense to describe a future action when the present tense is found in a dependent time clause which is attached to an independent clause employing the future tense? For example, “When John gets home, I am going to give him a piece of my mind.” As I continue to fall into a deeper knowledge of language, I seem to understand less. The questions only get bigger; my curiosity only grows.

As with much of science, our knowledge of the whole comes from dissecting and disassembling the minutia. Gazing through the microscope, language is a tedious and ever-changing beast. It overwhelms and intimidates me. It often leaves my head in a fog, and I’m stuck without answers. I’m defeated.

Then I remember the musings of Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi. Having analyzed the mysteries of the river, he writes, “Now when I had mastered the language of this water, and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry, had gone out of the majestic river!” So when my spirit is crushed, I still smile because my Mississippi refuses to be mastered. And in that raging defiance, I never lose sight of the grace, the beauty, and the poetry that leaves me anxious and excited to fall deeper in the abyss during my brief allotment here in life.