A common misconception:
The pen is mightier than the sword.
It isn’t the existence of the words themselves that hold up ideas and agreements. Some may argue it is ultimately the threat of harm, mutual or unilateral, that protects these cornerstones of society. Or a ‘civil’ society, anyway. But that, I find, is untrue- such is not the power of words- this power is held in the concept of words. We can fight and argue, wage wars out of the wish to be dominant; or we can debate, reason, and create agreements to benefit both sides. What the benefits for any side may be can vary as much as the wind, but some benefit is eked out. And as a whole, I find that we are more willing to follow the concept of words, the treatises written of them. The papers, essays, laws, moral codes, theories, of the past and present- some universal or near sacrosanct from their influence and use. Our want to believe these documents- hold what they say is true- and let them be a guide to our actions; for better or worse, they are as much the religious texts of the modern world as those original texts themselves. The only difference in their effect is, that we hold them as they are, with no pretense like the will or word of a god.
And without words, without recorded language, we as a society, a culture, a global community, have no history. Written words have swept to the side vocally-based cultures with the permanence and ease of the fixed letter. Those unwritten have fallen to obscurity- speeches, stories, morals, knowledge, highs and lows- everything is lost. But even those with written record can be difficult to retrieve, to learn the complexities of a language when no one remains to teach it. Only recently, have there been advances in the translation of Mayan and Aztec records, in the words whose meanings we must relearn by slow, arduous means. Not just words themselves, but the different forms they take up need be preserved for this very reason- how many times has peace been disturbed or knowledge misinterpreted by the difference in language, the hidden ambiguities of a phrase that does not carry well with translation?
Of course, language is personal as well. My family has no knowledge of the language of our ancestors, those who first came to this country. I am perhaps one of the first to have an interest in it, most definitely of these past few generations. I have the experience of what language does, in agreement and history; my family has little of what happened beyond my great-grandparents, and there is some confusion as to our heritage should one ask us. As for myself, I take what I know, what I feel, and I put it to words. I know and feel my history, and that of my people, and the world.
But most importantly, it is in the power of words, which I believe.
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