Root of Language

Like any poet, I think a lot about language. It’s a way to connect with the physical world, but also to lift out of it. It’s abstract, but its source is concrete — the letters of our alphabet are based on a set of pictograms, stylized pictures used for words. Egyptian hieroglyphs, Mayan glyphs, and cuneiform are all sets of pictograms. Our first words were drawings, visually imitating the physical world. As these languages influenced other written languages, most of them became extinct as they were replaced by alphabets that gradually became more abstract.

I am writing with the series of symbols known as the Latin alphabet, for example, but the series of pictograms in our alphabet’s most distant past is Cuneiform. Cuneiform symbols passed through half a dozen more writing systems to get to us, all of which, except for Greek, are now dead. There are ghosts of them in our alphabet: the fourth letter of the Phoenecian alphabet, the symbol daleth, means “door” and looks like one. By the time the symbol evolved into the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet, it was ∆, pronounced delta, a symbol we still use in science to mean “change.” In the Latin alphabet becomes, again, letter #4 or Dd. You don’t have to be a poet to see the symbol still vaguely resembles a door, and that a literal door can be abstracted into the concept of “change,” and the symbol from there can be further abstracted until the letter is nothing but d-ness.

The root-meanings of words are often literal, too, a kind of miniature picture in words. Take boulder, short for boulder stone, from the Middle English bulder ston. We know that a boulder is a “water-worn rounded stone.” Its etymology is obscure — the clues and shadings don’t quite add up — but my old OED makes “boulder” a word brought to our language by the Scandinavians, because it was likely physically brought to the island of England by Vikings invading over one thousand years ago. The word seems akin to the Swedish bullersten, large stone in a stream, from buller (noise: to roar, rumble, gurgle or bellow) and sten (stone). It’s the water making the noise, of course, but I like this bellowing stone. If that is the original sense, then, like a pithy phrase that becomes a worn cliché over the years, the word has lost its rawness. It needs new context for us to see it again.

I don’t know that poetry “makes” language new as much as it reminds us of the visceral, not intellectual, pleasure inherent in language. Poems make us look at old situations in new ways, not so much because the poet comes up with something completely original, but because she takes a new angle, or uses words we know in surprising way. Shakespeare is thought to have coined up to 1700 words and phrases in our language — gust, skim milk, lackluster, green-eyed monster, killing frost among them — but most of them weren’t wholly original. More often, he changed nouns into verbs and verbs into adjectives, yoked words together, or added prefixes and suffixes, so that we saw the words differently. It works the other way, too: whenever I’m writing and stuck, I look up the origins of the words I’m working with. Who knew (I didn’t until last week) that until about 1500 deer meant any wild animal, while cattle meant any domesticated beast? And that, according to my Webster’s, the word traces back to the Sanskrit he perishes? I feel, at those moments, as if the dictionary hands me metaphors.

Filed under: Prose