“I’m writing a book. I’ve got the page numbers done.”
– Stephen Wright
Amazing, isn’t it?
A mere 26 letters in the English alphabet. 26 weird shapes. Haphazard marks on paper. Ones that can change your life forever, depending upon how you decide to arrange them. The birth and death of entire worlds, encapsulated in 26 tiny oceans of ebony.
Astonishing to think language is nothing but noises. Say the right thing, to the right person, at the right time, you can win the lottery. Say the wrong thing, to the wrong person, at the wrong time, you could go to jail.
This has nothing whatsoever to do with your actions beyond speech. You can be standing there, not doing a thing, merely speaking, and have your entire life change based solely upon the words you utter. Words can seal a marriage. Words can cause a divorce. Words can get you killed. Words can seduce you into acts that create life.
Words, and our understanding of them, can alter all of life as we know it.
For example, I don’t speak French. Don’t speak it. Don’t understand it. So you could insult me in French, you could say the most vile, disgusting, rude things to me and I wouldn’t be remotely offended, because to me, you’re just making weird noises. They aren’t insults. They aren’t words. They’re just meaningless sounds. But, go to Paris and say the same things to a French police officer and you’re spending the night in prison.
The exact same words, spoken at a different time and place to different people, cause vastly different results. Don’t you find that fascinating? I sure do. As an author, such aspects of language and communication are intriguing to me in ways I can barely articulate!
To me, that’s utterly astounding! Language is nothing but noises. Yet those noises change our lives. We fall in love. We get new jobs. We get fired from jobs. We get divorces. We become incarcerated. All because of when, and how, and to whom, we make certain noises with our vocal chords. Our culture has deemed some of these noises so offensive, we’ve created euphemisms for them. We’ve substituted one set of noises for another because certain people don’t like certain noises. The word “fuck” is called “the f-word”. The word “nigger” is called “the n-word”. People have such a strong emotional reaction to a noise, that we’ve replaced it… with a different noise.
Strange, isn’t it?
Written language is the same, of course. Little squiggles. Random jumbles of ink on a page. Dots of light on a computer monitor. Pixels of electronic ink. Yet, they have the same power as spoken words. Healing broken hearts. Shattering peoples lives. All because of the arrangement of some lettering. People have been banished into exile for fear of their very lives, all because of words they have written or said.
Indeed, the old saying “the pen is mightier than the sword” is not a metaphor. It’s quite a literal truth. After all, a single sword can only kill one man at a time, but the stroke of a single pen can declare a war. That same pen can also sign the peace treaty, but the sword can’t resurrect a life it has stolen.
The pen is mightier than the sword.
The ink above which it flows is the cauldron of all our birth certificates and love letters, all our last wills and testaments. Swimming in the 26 seas of happenstance, every river of our destinies are brewed.
“People on the outside think there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it.”
– Harlan Ellison