The Wonder of Words

The other day, I took my roommate’s dog out for his business. This brought with it inevitable flashbacks to my childhood. When I was eight, my family acquired a young golden retriever puppy whom we promptly named Lucky. The name originated, according to my kid brother, from the fact that Lucky was lucky to have us as his family. My brother was a very modest child.

Part of our parent’s agreement in getting Lucky was that we help take care of him; which involved getting him potty trained. Thus I found myself spending many cold, winter nights standing on our front lawn holding lil’ Lucky on a leash waiting for him to do his stuff. My parents claimed the proper way to potty train him was to make him stay outside until he utilized the facilities (such as they were). I didn’t realize until I was, oh-about 18, that this was just a well-schemed plan to get some peace and quiet with me outside the house each night. All this goes to say that I spent many a shivering hour urging Lucky to take a piss.

“Go potty,” I’d tell him.

He’d look at me inquisitively.

“Go potty,” I said again. He’d look away and sniff around for a bit.

“Go potty,” I attempted a third time with the same result; Lucky would simply shuffle around within the limits of his leash, sniffing a pile of dirt, pawing some grass or just siting and staring at me as if to ask “now what?”

“Now,” I’d say, “you go potty.”

I came to repeat the phrase “go potty” so many times that my words eventually merged together. “Go potty, gopotty, pottygopotty, gewpawtie…” With nothing better to do (and the growing necessity to keep my mind off my freezing appendage) I became somewhat fascinated with how the words themselves were formed. I noticed the pursing of my lips and sudden exhalation that created a “pah” and the movement of my tongue to the back of my teeth to produce a “t” sound. At eight years old, I had never really contemplated the origin of language or the mystery behind human’s communicative form and I was suddenly enthralled. The miracle of syllables overwhelmed me with joy, and I found myself dancing around the lawn proclaiming, “go potty! gah pawtie! poutie phottie snottie!!!” feeling the wonder of each sound while Lucky just sat looking at me, no doubt wondering himself why he was the one on the leash. I didn’t have many friends back then.

Thinking about it today, I realize that what’s even more remarkable than words themselves is considering how they even came to be. Most linguists would say that language first appeared 30,000-100,000 years ago, the common belief being that it was an adaptation to some outside pressure upon the homo sapiesn. Theories offer that it had something to do with hunting; the faction of our race that realized grumbling “hmma gumpha” meant “good meat, straight ahead” were more prone to survival than those who failed to acknowledge that “ GRMMA! GRMMA! THBTB- haeo” meant “LION! LION! THERE’S A LI- too late”.  Thus humans evolved and their language did with them, from pre-historic caricatures and picture texts, to ancient Semitic and early middle eastern scripts followed by Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, Latin, the romance languages and various versions of Gaelic to English and now…Twitter.

What’s incredibly fascinating about this is that language didn’t add anything to reality; it simply gave reality a scope. For those early humans, there were deer straight ahead of them regardless of if they could communicate it, and the lion was running towards their buddy Earl whether they could express it or not. And one has to wonder, what on earth were our earliest ancestors thinking without language? When I learn a new language today, I think in my native language. Thus, if I’m trying to communicate “brother” in Spanish, I think to myself “I want to say brother” and this can only be done utilizing the constructs of the English language.  Earliest humans didn’t have linguistic parameters like that: their brains weren’t wondering “gee whiz, how to I say ‘you’re about to get mauled’ in eastern caveman as opposed to river caveman?”

Similarly, language, if we really think about it, doesn’t contain truth but proscribes it. If language is to be anything other than a prescription, then it must have an outside inspiration, and that inspiration must be something that isn’t within the bounds of language, something transcendent and greater than anything comprehensible to our human parameters. Otherwise, words are just the movement of a tongue and spurting of air. Now that’s something to think about.

But if you’ll excuse me, I need to take the dog out.

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