Language is A Living Thing
These days, as the anniversary of her death approaches, I think often of my mother. A professor of literature, with a PhD from Harvard, her presence was intimidating. She could read in six languages: French, English, Latin, Greek, Italian, and German. She had little patience for slang, profanity, or errors of grammar, all of which I expressed in abundance while growing up. She felt that books might improve me. I was reluctant, though in time I acquired first a taste, then a passion for reading. I dove into nineteenth century English novels, particularly those by Jane Austin and Charles Dickens. Then I explored what my side of the Atlantic had to offer. Henry James gave me a headache. So did Theodor Dreiser. The clean prose of John Dos Passos was a welcome relief. Everyone I read after that, as I moved forward through the twentieth century, was easier to handle. My theory was that in “the olden days” people had a lot of time to waste before getting to the point. They didn’t have radios, or television sets, after all, so the written page had to provide a lot of distraction and entertainment. When the world started to move faster, so did writing. It also became more efficient. Storytelling changed – it evolved. Art has to fit the times, after all. Or it must reflect the times, I should say. Boy, was I proud of that revelation! So proud that I shared it with my mother. She gazed at me over the top of the crossword puzzle she was solving. She neither agreed, nor disagreed with my statement. All she said was, “Language is a living thing.” She immediately returned to her puzzle, and I knew better than to ask for further explanation.
If she were right, then language was like a coral reef, or a rose bush, or a fawn. Which meant that language, like those three things, could also die. I’d heard that Latin was a dead language. No one spoke it anymore, not for conversation, anyway, for chewing the fat. So, language lived and died. While it lived, it needed – what? To be fed? That didn’t make sense. To be tended? How did one tend language? By loving it. Which is something I already did.
My writing life thus began as a love of language. Finding the right rhythm in a sentence. Getting the paragraph to balance. The requirements of storytelling came later, and after much frustration and bitter disappointment. It hurts to have one’s work turned down, ignored, and overlooked. After the struggles of that particular learning curve, and finally getting a feel for what readers needs on the page, the love of language grew even stronger. I feel it every single day, whether I’m writing or not. Gentle phrases run through my head, the birdsong is early this year, or the moon casts a pearly light. Maybe I should have become a poet, not a writer of prose. I may yet, in time. For now I’m deep in this affair of stories, novels, essays, and commentary. How marvelous it is, to live with what you love so much.