In the beginning. That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. To be or not to be—that one just six different letters. Jesus wept—two words of nine characters made from only seven letters. But, man, pretty powerful when placed in the right position, no?
What power comes from the concise and clear ordering of just 26 letters!
I can’t write, my students say; my grandmother said; my very own demons say when something needs to be said but I’m at a loss of words. The history of English has turned and spun back on itself, argued with endings and double negatives, trampled meaning, treasured nuances, made murderers of us all, and unearthed muses to slipknot a string of letters, tie together thoughts like popcorn for a Christmas tree, individual kernels only able to dangle dutifully due to one common thread.
I do. Rest in Peace. Go to Hell. I quit. Fuck you. I love you—that last, most dangerous combo comes in at just 7 letters.
The English language, more specifically the alphabet, was not alphabetical at first, made that way in the 1300’s on Syria’s northern coast. Today, we slaughter its beauty with a cacophony of sounds whose aesthetic value is lost in translation while simultaneously softening hardened hearts with poetry and prose for the ages. For nearly a millennium this alphabet whose letters lay the way for understanding in multiple languages, has dictated decrees, is uttered by infants one syllable at a time until by age five they’ve mastered the twenty six consonants and vowels. What circles of wonder are children’s faces when someone’s tongue pushes out “toy” “treat” “your mommy’s here” “your daddy’s home.”
Plato said “Wise men talk because they have something to say, fools, because they have to say something”; Socrates said “false words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil.” The sins of our fathers forever condemn us to hell but for confession, penance, and absolution.
Forgive me father for I have sinned—29 characters but just 14 letters.
Of all the languages on the planet, English has the largest vocabulary at more than 800,000 words, all from those same 26 symbols.
There are roughly 45,000 spoken languages in the world, about 4500 written today, but almost half of them are spoken by less than a thousand people. English, though, is the most common second language on Earth—translated or original, the Magna Carter, The Declaration, The Bible, the Koran, the Torah, the tablets tossed by Moses and a death certificate are all reassembled versions of the same twenty-six triggers.
I have a dream—eight letters.
Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country—fourteen.
We the People–seven
Billowy is one of only a few seven letter words whose six letters remain alphabetical. Spoon-feed is the longest, at nine letters, whose seven letters are reverse-alphabetical.
We can talk, us English. We can spin a yarn, chew the fat, beat the gums, flap the lips. We have the gift of gab, we run off with the mouth, we can spit it out, shoot the breeze, talk someone’s ears off, or just talk shop, talk turkey, talk until we’re blue in the face, be the talk of the town. We can, for certain, at just seven letters, bullshit.
My point (7 letters) is that (3 letters) sometimes, despite our skills (4 letters) with the English language (6 letters), we are often left, at just six letters, speechless.
Like in the hospital that day.
I had aged three decades, you not one day. The light lingered through a dangling blue curtain and bathed your face, your hair, your cry, and when you breathed, you gasped hard, jerked backwards, and then you were fine, and there, for the first time, I knew I knew nothing about language; that Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth, would be worth nothing to me had they been muses in my mind feeding me phrases to capture what I saw when I saw you. There are no words. No language has been invented to allow me enough expression that others can read how I felt, how every day suddenly had been renewed, every hope, every single possibility, the innocence, the honesty, the complete aliveness where no life had been. No. It has never, can never be captured with twenty six times twenty six letters.
Perhaps some symphonic phrase might come closer than the limitations of language. This is the frustration of poets, the complete sense of ineptitude of writers. To define that first breath, the slight lean forward, that light through a blue curtain at just that moment. Language, for all of its potential, can impose such limitations.
I said hello. And nothing ever again would be bathed in silence.