Behind words, beyond reason: an ethos of language

To us, she was Miss Donley. She rode our high school Latin classroom as an equestrian rides a spirited horse: patiently, thoughtfully, and with unequivocal firmness. Which was a good thing: for as students we were, if not exactly wild, certainly more given to sass than serenity. Only beyond her pillared and charioted bulletin boards would we spin our little pranks, slamming lockers in gladiatorial bravado and swaggering as only a sophomore among seniors can swagger. Once having entered her precincts (so stark and austere after the stuffed luxuries of the biology lab down the hall), we came under the spell of her polished blackboards. There, our studied disregard for learning having given way to a grudging fascination, we sung of nouns and the man, groped among the irregular verbs, and were invariably ambushed by the ablative absolute.

There, too, had we thought of it, we would have discovered that all knowledge , like all Gaul, divided is into three parts: the practical, the theoretical, and the esoteric. The first was nicely exemplified in our English class, where we studied a book whose title (Thirty Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary) sounded rather like a cross between a self-help tract and a jail sentence. The second, the theoretical, was the province of geometry, where I recall that we once debated the possibility that zero was infinity. The esoteric was clearly embodied in the Roman tongue: ornate, convoluted, full of fine sounds, and entirely useless.

Or so we thought. For which of us, puzzling piecemeal through Caesar's exploits, could recognize the value of such an immersion in antiquity? In those true-false days, the fact was king: he who was smartest had the head most full of useful detail. We came to The Gallic Warm as to algebraic equations, intent on ''solving'' them into English. Never mind that it told us of a wholly different age and conscience; never mind that around the edges of the words shone the penumbra of a strange new world of feeling. Feelings couldn't be memorized or graded. In the press toward facts, feelings remained on the fringe.

How thoroughly our priorities were reversed never occurred to me until much later. I remember, in college, getting into a silly squabble with a fellow student about the dative case. His Latin, it seems, was better than mine, and so of course he won. But what astonished me was how little I remembered from my studies. I could still smell the classroom. And I had a clear sense for the sound of the steeds in the night, the watchfires signaling from hill to hill, and the breastplated centurion sweeping back the flap of his tent as the mist lifted over what we now call France. The feelings remained. But I knew nothing of the dative case.

I recalled all this recently when a friend told me about learning another unused language. She spent some years as a typesetter in a publishing firm. She was not old enough for linotype and hot lead, nor young enough for word processors and video terminals. She fell in between, when the letters were set from a punched paper tape produced by a keyboard machine. She told me how she learned to read the holes on the tape -- so that, when something went wrong, she could dive into the wastebasket and pluck out the relevant tape as easily as you and I could recover a thrown-away page from the typewriter.

There, I thought, is a talent for which there is no demand: a language learned for which there are no longer any readers. It had taken her, no doubt, some months to learn to read it. Yet I sensed in her no anguish of wasted youth , no had-I-but-learned-Spanish remorse. Like me, she came away from her immersion in language with a set of feelings. She felt, far beyond her capacity to articulate, what it was to be accepted into the masculine and esoteric world of readers of punched tapes. She knew, profoundly and from within, the ethos of the composing room.

And there, perhaps, lies the real reason behind the study of language: to learn how to feel. Our poets have been telling us that for centuries, you say? Just so -- and yet we go right on believing that learning a new language is no more than a matter of memorizing some one-to-one correspondences. Snow,m we say, imagining that it translates into the Latin nix, nivis.m But what it means to me, sitting before my fire on a New England winter's evening, bears little relation to what it must have meant to a Roman soldier, child of Mediterranean sunlight, as he stood guard along Hadrian's Wall in the north of England in a swirling blizzard of nix.

No, the deepest language -- the language of feeling - is not made for algebraists. It may not even be particularly practical. And it is certainly not amenable to theoretical analysis. English, a teacher of mine once noted, is full of words describing the processes of thought and ratiocination, but almost empty of words that describe feeling. That used to trouble me. No wonder, I thought, our culture has shipwrecked on the shoals of insensitivity: we can't even express our feelings. But what that means, I now see, is that the algebraists have not yet won. They have not quite found a way to analyze all feelings into words.

So if I were inclined to jeremiads -- or even if I simply wanted to run severe storm warnings up the flagpole of twentieth-century civilization -- I would decry the loss of the study of language. Not for all the official reasons - that it opens international understanding, that it teaches etymology, that it disciplines the memory, or even that it is in high demand among diplomats and import-export traders. No, I would see in its waning a sign of a loss of sensibility, an atrophy of our already tenuous capacity to feel. So much of that capacity, I think, relates to our use of language to express it. How better to shift into new feelings, then, than by shifting tongues?

If I were looking for another renaissance -- another transformation as great as that which culminated in the Elizabethan age -- I would seek it not among men of facts, nor among computers talking one to another, nor in a society which speaks, as ours does, progressively in numbers. I would seek it among those who are willing to let their language convey to them not only an understanding ofm but a feeling form one another. I would look for it less among those who say, ''I must know what this Roman thought,'' than among those who say, ''I must sense what this Roman felt.''

And for you, O rare Miss Donley, I would invent a new past tense, a kind of perfect imperative. With it I would say: ''Have taught me Latin well enough that I can afford to forget its details. Have brought me through the thickets of grammar into the open leas of feeling. Have raised my awareness of all that lies beyond reason.Have shown me poetry where, in my ignorance, I thought there were only words.''

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