Losing Language

I read a brief article this week about scientists who are tracking the ways words are evolving and, with increasing speed, becoming obsolete as our “social, political, and technological” needs amend our language. You can read it here: http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/338884/title/Modern_era_brings_death_to_words

These scientists used a tool created by Google, called the “N-gram Project,” which accesses word histories derived from 4% of the books published (since 1800) in seven different languages. If you use this link, you can type in any two words, choose any years between 1800 and 2008, select a language, and compare how frequencies of the words’ use have evolved over this time, given the stated parameters. ([Go to])

I love words; in fact, I wrote a book about language, using words as the characters (http://lionap.com/word.html.), so I was eager to read the article and check out the N-gram link.

Of course, such studies and tools always create as many questions as they answer. I noticed, for instance, that the article didn’t mention if the scientists had a stated interest in how our other needs, like those related to our emotional, spiritual, religious or philosophical well-being, have affected the evolution of language. And I wondered about the genres of the 4% of books scanned for the study. The article didn’t clarify whether the texts used represented the entire Dewey spectrum or not. Still, it was fun to visit the N-gram page, type in two words, play with the other factors, and see what happened.

But I can’t say I worry too much when studies discuss the “death of language;” to paraphrase Mark Twain, I find these reports greatly exaggerated. As a lifelong logophile, I know language is alive and continuously evolving. When I fear that a people who communicate through texting linguistic amputations will annihilate our language faster than it can endure or renew itself, I look at the  number of well-written blogs available, or publishers’ booklists (including e-books), or the Facebook posts that reflect eloquent, witty, and thoughtful use of language.

More than I fear civilization’s language devolution, I worry about my own. I find my own menopausal brain fog increasingly leading me to the middle of sentences with no traditional (i.e., “verbal”) way of finding my way out. Rather than moving with ease to the next word, I find myself completely and instantly halted, as though the language train has arrived at the edge of a great and bottomless void that wasn’t on the track moments before. I back up and try again, often resorting to synonyms, or charades, or other clues to guide my listeners through what I’d supposed to be a droll, or at least interesting, informational nugget.

What a thrill it can be these days when I complete a thought and then share it, fully, in under a few minutes. Or hours.

Often, my companions suffer from similar language retention challenges. Someone mentions a movie or television program she’s seen recently. We all nod in recognition, excitedly, and then the fun begins. Fools rush in.

Guest: “I watched the Sondheim Birthday Celebration on PBS again last night.”

Me: “Oh, I enjoyed that, too…wasn’t [synapse explosion] um, that guy who was in Princess Bride—Inigo Montoyasinging with [fog rolls across mental landscape] you know; the woman who sings like this (mimes pouting lips)? You know, Sunday in the Park With…the artist who painted dots? Finishing the Hat?”

Guest: “You mean Mandy Patinkin? Yes. He sang with [poof!], um—yeah, I know who you mean…She was in…um” (Pouts lips; sings part of line from Hard Knock Life; stops midway, forgetting lyric.)

Husband: “Bernadette Peters?”

Guest and I: “Yes!”

All: (Laughing, amused, grateful; only somewhat tentative about proceeding. No one tries to retrieve name of pointillist artist.)

Me: (Boldly venturing out once more on the ice pond of discourse): “I enjoyed when Sondheim’s leading ladies came out towards the end of the program and each covered a hit. Elaine Stritch did an amazing rendition of I’m Still Here.” (Mentally pirouette and settle back into couch for earned rest, clearly the conversation’s victor at this point.)

Guest: (Palpably relieved to have no identity minefields to navigate): “Oh, it was wonderful. She must be in her mid-eighties, and she was jumping and singing…the audience just loved it. I’ve always enjoyed Elaine Stritch.”

Me: (Revived; heady with victory; ignoring husband’s hand signals to quit while ahead): “But the best performance of the entire evening was by [neural freeze] oh, um—you know… (singing) Don’t cry for me, Argentina! She was in that…not by Sondheim, but that other guy… (singing) Listen to the music of the night…that composer. She was in…wait! I know: Evita!” (Momentarily semi-smug.)

Husband: “Audra McDonald?”

Guest: “?”

Me: “No. You know…she was in the Gypsy revival. Her mouth kind of slants, like this… (Singing, from left side of mouth) Everything’s coming up roses…”

Husband and Guest: “??”

Eventually, we all tire of this activity and lapse into safe and pleasant silence until it’s time (9:00) to say goodnight, a word we can all manage.

Me: (3 A.M., sitting up in bed, suddenly awake): “Patti Lupone! Georges Seurat! Andrew Lloyd Weber!” (Instantly lie down; return to sleep.)


© Copyright of all visual and written materials on The Daily Round belongs solely to Catherine M. O’Meara, 2011-Present. Unauthorized use is strictly prohibited, without the author’s written approval. No one is authorized to use Catherine O’Meara’s copyrighted material for material gain without the author’s engagement and written permission. All other visual, written, and linked materials are credited to their authors. Thank you, and gentle peace.

Entering the Holy Flow

We received a lovely snowfall, a baptism of huge wet flakes that spiraled to earth and settled in mounds of glittering crystal. It began last night and ended as the sun rose, which is when I headed out in Phillip’s huge boots to listen to the world through my camera.

When I was eight, I received an old Kodak box camera from my grandfather. I think it required 110 film, and even then I preferred black and white images.

Love at first click, and forever enchanted, I said yes to a lifelong passion. It is one I never interrupted with formal classes or instruction (although those who view my photographs have often hinted such training might technically and artistically advance my use of the camera and images I create).

But that’s the thing with avocation (“a calling away”); it isn’t formal at all. It’s deeply intuitive, and sensual, and private. My camera and I have a relationship like any artist has with her tools: photography is one way I make love to the world, and who wants interruptions from “professionals” when she’s making love?

For me, time with my camera, like time in the garden, is a form of holy engagement. The world is always revealing, bearing, translating, and sharing communications from Spirit; I know this is true. Most of our lives, I think, are spent sending and receiving messages within a sadly constrained and diminished end of the language spectrum. We hold our lives, others, and the Sacred in such small and indifferent regard, as though love, life, and meaning could be neatly and summarily corralled only by words and behaviors of our own invention.

When we engage in art of any kind, we’re called away from false interactions. We shatter these ego-created boundaries, both the singular and collective, and let the world and Spirit speak to us and through us in other languages, those which our hearts have always understood and beyond the boundaries that separate us from self and other.

When I leave a film, or dance, or play, or art exhibit, and the first tendency of my companions is to analyze the feelings and responses washing over us, I leave them, too.

Everything doesn’t have to be put into my words, or yours. Everything doesn’t need to be evaluated, packaged, and labeled. We are still, always, at least in part, wild and in wilderness, and that is wonderful. And terrifying. And delightful.

When I set out with my camera, the world speaks in what is and isn’t language; it’s closer to music, and requires deep listening. Slowly, my learned language leaves me; the inchoate within finds resonance with dust, and wind, and angles of light. A kind of emotional and spiritual articulation emerges as I interact with the Sacred through my camera and enter the holy flow… The tree branches may begin the story, and then the birdsong continues until the river and clouds conclude a chapter in two voices. Patterns and rhythms, sometimes synchronized and at other times in syncopation (but always perfect), begin to create meaning, and I know I’m woven into this story as tightly, tenderly, and purposefully as hawk and stone.

When I am anxious, distracted, or rushing through my life and the world, I am utterly disconnected from these songs and stories all around me. But when my camera and I set out, my thoughts still and my spirit opens her doors and windows, and the Holy rushes in with messages about how we are loved and made to love.

I read a wonderful story this week about a woman named Vivian Maier, whose photographs were discovered posthumously. Thousands of photos were discovered by a young relator who—thankfully—recognized their value. These photographs were taken over the course of Vivian’s life, which was largely lived in the shadows of the wealthy families she served, caring for their children. I understand Vivian’s need to record and engage, and I understand her choice to leave the photos, once developed, in boxes. The finished photograph isn’t the point; the point is to make love to the world however and whenever we can.



When I Heard the Learned Astronomer  ~ Walt Whitman

When I heard the learned astronomer,

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,

When, I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wandered off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Looked up in perfect silence at the stars.


© Copyright of all visual and written materials on The Daily Round belongs solely to Catherine M. O’Meara, 2011-Present. Unauthorized use is strictly prohibited, without the author’s written approval. No one is authorized to use Catherine O’Meara’s copyrighted material for material gain without the author’s engagement and written permission. All other visual, written, and linked materials are credited to their authors. Thank you, and gentle peace.