The Gift of Language

I have been thinking about how we use the gift of language, how we communicate. It seems we have forgotten how powerful our words can be. Twitter and Facebook, texting and email….we throw words around as if they don’t matter that much. But they do. We can use them to offer praise and ask brave questions, to learn and heal, to dig for the truth and deepen a friendship, or we can use them to reject connection, to lie or harm or destroy. The human capacity to communicate through language is a gift, an evolutionary miracle that we take for granted. I’ve been trying to be more conscious about how I speak and what my intention is before I open my mouth or pound out an email or text. (I’ve been limiting my involvement with other kinds of social media because the blatant misuse of language is making me depressed.) I’ve been asking myself if I want to use my words to smear my ego all over the place, or instead if I want to use them to connect, soul to soul. Whenever I want to remember how lucky we are to be blessed with language, I turn to the story of Helen Keller, as recounted in her famous autobiography. Helen was nineteen months old when she contracted an illness that left her deaf, blind, and mute. In the autobiography, she writes about her life before she met Anne Sullivan, the teacher who would give her the gift of “the word.” Before that, she was a lost and wild child, “preyed upon by anger and bitterness.” 

“Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog,” Helen Keller writes, “when it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in, and the great ship, tense and anxious, groped her way toward the shore with plummet and sounding line, and you waited with beating heart for something to happen? I was like that ship before my education began, only I was without compass or sounding line, and had no way of knowing how near the harbor was. ‘Light! Give me light!’ was the wordless cry of my soul.” 

When Helen was seven years old, her parents searched for a teacher to work with their blind and deaf and wordless child—a difficult job to fill in 1887. Here is how Helen describes the day she met Anne Sullivan: 

“On the afternoon of that eventful day, I stood on the porch, dumb, expectant. I guessed vaguely from the hurrying to and fro in the house that something unusual was about to happen, so I went to the door and waited on the steps…I felt approaching footsteps. I stretched out my hand to whom I thought was my mother. Someone took it, and I was caught up and held close in the arms of her who had come to reveal all things to me, and, more than all things else, to love me.

"The morning after my teacher came she led me into her room and gave me a doll. When I had played with it a little while, Miss Sullivan slowly spelled into my hand the word ‘d-o-l-l.’ I was at once interested in this finger play and tried to imitate it….I did not know that I was spelling a word or even that words existed; I was simply making my fingers go in monkey-like imitation. 
"One day, while I was playing with my new doll, Miss Sullivan put my big rag doll into my lap also, spelled ‘d-o-l-l’ and tried to make me understand that ‘d-o-l-l’ applied to both. Earlier in the day we had had a tussle over the words ‘m-u-g’ and ‘w-a-t-e-r.’ Miss Sullivan had tried to impress it upon me that ‘m-u-g’ is mug and that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ is water, but I persisted in confounding the two. In despair she had dropped the subject for the time, only to renew it at the first opportunity. I became impatient at her repeated attempts and, seizing the new doll, I dashed it upon the floor. I was keenly delighted when I felt the fragments of the broken doll at my feet. Neither sorrow nor regret followed my passionate outburst. I had not loved the doll. In the still, dark world in which I lived there was no strong sentiment of tenderness. I felt my teacher sweep the fragments to one side of the hearth, and I had a sense of satisfaction that the cause of my discomfort was removed. She brought me my hat, and I knew I was going out into the warm sunshine. … 

"We walked down the path to the well house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away. 

"I left the well house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me. On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow. 

"I learned a great many new words that day. I do not remember what they all were; but I do know that mother, father, sister, teacher were among them–words that were to make the world blossom for me. It would have been difficult to find a happier child than I was as I lay in my bed at the close of the eventful day and lived over the joys it had brought me, and for the first time longed for a new day to come."

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