Meaningful Noises

My wife’s uncle is an inventor and a very successful businessman with hardly and artistic bone in his very fit body. You might think he and I have very little in common, but in fact he has always recognized the connection between the artist and the entrepreneur, and enjoys talking about the vagaries of writing and publishing. Once we landed subject where there was considerable professional crossover: writing technology. My uncle-in-law observed that there were now numerous software options for the writer. I agreed that there were. “But does the technology actually make the writing any better?” he asked dubiously.

It was such an unexpected question that I nearly didn’t understand it. It took me a moment to understand that as an inventor he viewed a given technology’s value by its evolutionary expansion of human potential. The argument could be made that computers and writing software are doing just that, but Shakespeare wrote with a quill. There isn’t a piece of technology in the world that will tell you what word should come next, which is the biggest challenge facing every writer since writing was invented.

And I happen to believe that language remains humanity’s single greatest invention. That these noises coming out of our mouth actually mean enough to cause another human being to weep or laugh or unclench a fist is miraculous if you pause to think about it.

Sometimes I wish I didn’t spend my days wading through words; sometimes I think my life would be purer if I had been a composer. More often, however, I return willingly to these meaningful sounds. Words are the lens through which I understand life. I do not know what it is I know until I have put that abstract knowledge into words.

For there, in language, knowledge becomes something outside of me and knowable to another human being. No matter how often I do this, I still find this sharing of thought through words beautiful and mysterious. It shouldn’t work, and yet it does. I’m sure the first words invented were “Fire” or “Run!” but this couldn’t have satisfied for long. Even squatting in a cave, one of us must have thought, “Wooly mammoth. Yum.” And one of us must have looked across the cave at the other cave squatters and found a prehistoric word for “delicious.”

But why? Because it would help us live longer? Because it would keep us warm in the winter? No, one of us would have said this only because it was true, which always has been and always will be reason enough to say anything.

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