Sunday, March 2, 2008

Words are tools

Words are our tools, we writers like to say; 
The tools of our trade as we labor every day. 
And certainly that's true, as far as the saying goes,
But we have no monopoly, as everybody knows. 

Not just necessary tools are all the precious words
for the erudite authors and the loquacious nerds,
But necessary, really, to let human life persist,
For without any words, even thoughts cannot exist.
   (Janet Muirhead Hill, 2008)

Words are essential tools indeed. I have a grandson with verbal apraxia, which is a motor speech disorder characterized by inability to plan and produce the specific series of movements of the tongue, lips, jaw, and palate necessary for intelligible speech. The same problems can occur in adults as a result of stroke or other brain injury, but childhood apraxia is present at birth. There is evidence that it is genetic, though the exact cause has not been found. 

Apraxia is terribly frustrating for the affected child, because they're often highly intelligent. They know what they want to say, but cannot communicate it. Uncorrected, it will remain a problem, some sources say, for a lifetime. My grandson, with speech therapy, has made great improvement and no longer suffers from the esteem-crushing defeat he used to feel when he could not make himself understood. I mention this as an example of  how important our words are to life and happiness. 

What if we had no words at all? What if we didn't even know what we wanted to say; had never heard a human voice or any model for expressing thoughts vocally? I recently caught a TV documentary on feral children. Studies show that those who have little or no human contact or interaction in their first few years of life lose the capability to learn to speak. And without speech, they are unable to function independently in society. 

Except for the limited few mentioned above, we all use words everyday. What is important to our personal identity and self-worth is how we choose to use them. Are our words a true reflection of what we believe? Or are they used to deceive and manipulate? Do our words, as John Gardner suggests they should, improve the human situation? Looking at it that way, we see our responsibility to choose words carefully, but even more important, to speak, and not remain silent when we have something to say. As Henry David Thoreau said, "Say what you have to say, not what you ought. Any truth is better than make-believe."  

I sincerely invite your comments. 


Janet Grace Riehl said...

I'm in love with language and with words, but living with my mother after her stroke (she could still speak, but not with her former brilliance)...and being with her before her death...was one of my life experiences that taught me our humanity is encompassed by far more than words.

Janet Riehl

Janet Muirhead Hill said...

the point you make. Definitely, words are not all there is to humanity, but even when they cannot be vocalized, I think they remain to frame our thoughts, dreams, and everything we do and see. Once we have words, we may lose our voices, but as long as our minds function, I don't think we lose our words.

My father was unable to speak intelligibly after having a stroke. What a terrible loss that was for him. He struggled to make us understand what was in his mind and on his heart, but often failed, and had to sit and helplessly watch as the advice he was unable to express was ignored. Yet, of course, he still had his humanity as well as a clear mind and a heart full of love for his wife and children. He didn't stay around long after he lost his ability to articulate words, to walk on his own, to take care of his basic bodily functions. Yet during those difficult last few months of his life, he became dearer to me than ever.

Janet Muirhead Hill said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Janet Muirhead Hill said...

Oops, the beginning sentence got deleted and then my comment posted twice, and I can't figure out how to moderate my own comments....

It should have said, "Janet, Thanks for your comment. I have to agree with the point you make....

Mary Cunningham said...

Thanks for writing about your grandson's affliction. I can't imagine the struggle he's had. How old is he? I hope he has continued success.

I can't imagine not being able to form thoughts and sentences. It would be very frustrating to me.

Janet Muirhead Hill said...

Hi Mary. Thanks for your sympathetic response. My Grandson is four. He's been in speech therapy for 15 or 16 months, since a little before he turned 3. Had we known then all we know now about apraxia, we would have had in treatment sooner. We saw how highly intelligent he is and how dextrous, coordinated, aware and curious. We just thought his talking was a little slow but would come, as other developmental skills came early. He'll probably continue in therapy at least until he starts school, maybe longer. His therapists are optimistic about his progress.