Just saw the film, ‘Arrival’. It was eerily strange which was great for a Hollywood film. That sense of such an unknown entity coming to Earth and humans having to rise to the challenge of communicating with it – to learn about it and its purpose – had my mind whirling with thoughts about language.
When the linguist in the film, Louise, cracks the ‘code’ so to speak of what the ‘aliens’ were saying, she had to ask them the ‘big’ question: why were they here? The answer she deciphered was ‘weapon’ or possibly ‘tool’. Obviously that set everyone into a panic, with retaliation or obliteration on the military’s mind. But what Louise finally figures out is their purpose wasn’t to proliferate a weapon but to impart a ‘gift’ – language. They were here to give their language so that humans could help them in the distant future.
Language is a gift. As a means to communicate, connect, understand, empathise and help. To make sense of our existence and express what it means to be human. It’s amazing how we take this gift for granted, simply in that we use it every day. In the wake of the US election, I’ve been thinking a lot about how language can also obfuscate, manipulate, erase, harm, rally and damage. The fact that Trump’s proposed cabinet is shaping to become an alt-right (or to be more pointed: right wing nationalist) nightmare, it’s chilling to think of how other extreme right wing regimes throughout history have co-opted language in the most insidious ways, and how citizens became embroiled in that narrative.
So I’ve been turning to other writers for solace. Affirming my belief in the life-giving capacity of language, Toni Morrison in her Nobel Lecture in 1993 spoke of language’s vitality, how ‘It arcs toward the place where meaning may lie.’
Her discussion of language is couched in a parable, and her words are those of a wise, blind woman having to communicate with her much younger visitors. The challenge is communicating that which seems inexplicable, and how language meets that challenge. Why language matters.
‘Word-work is sublime, she thinks, because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference – the way in which we are like no other life.
We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.’