From Syllables to Names
by Anita Sullivan
If we’re going to talk about words as if they were physical objects instead of mere puffs of air, we need to go way back in time to when people actually believed this sort of thing. In the ancient Hindu mythology of India, for example, the huge crossover from Nothing into Something was brought about by an “object” that resembled the sub-atomic particles of modern physics – that is, it was so “small” that people couldn’t perceive it with their senses, but only with their imaginations. And that object – too small to see with any magnifying device, too teensy to finger roll like a grain of sand – they called “the syllable.”
In the typical paradoxical fashion of Vedic myth, the syllable – the very first physical object in the universe – was refined into existence by listing everything it is not*:
… it is neither thick nor thin, neither short nor long, neither flame nor liquid,
neither colored nor dark, neither wind nor ether; it doesn’t stick, is without taste,
without smell, without eyes, without ears, without voice, without mind, without heat, without breath, without mouth, without measure, without an inside, without an outside. It does not eat and is not eaten.
Here, mythology and science are in agreement: This “basic object” is impossible to imagine, much less talk about, without resorting to metaphor. You have to make a second thing before you find out what is actually there first. It’s like kids with mud pies. Fueled by the energy of a mindless enthusiasm, they start digging into the muck and scooping stuff out. Then they pile that stuff somewhere else. The place they started with, turns into a hole. The hole is different from the new pile they have made. There’s no way to make something new without having two things going on at the same time.
Then what happens, of course, is that we all lose track of what is “first,” because it never really was the issue. So we’re left forever with both metaphor and whatever else we have also discovered – or made. This is the gods’ dilemma as well as ours.
Flash forward to our own era, and we have achieved a full separation between the physical and the spiritual, between the hard and the soft, the real and the imagined. Our syllables have glommed themselves into words, and these – although they have motivating power – we place firmly on the non-physical side of the spread-sheet. For us, words possess only the relatively soft and temporary power that comes through meaning – or, at best, through the sounds and rhythms we might hear from preachers, politicians, poets and the like. While
words might incite physical action, they do not possess the heft of the original syllable, which in the Vedic myth was also the footprint of an enormous cow.
Yet words are not totally non-material, are they? Spoken and written they involve breath, shape, volume – and the weight of our hands. (More on this in the next essay).
As we humans huffed and spewed syllables and other vocal noises into speech, something like a word-attention capacity must have grown inside us until it swelled into a small appendage. Maybe we came to count on our words so much that we forgot how the rest of the world also has a language.
At the very least, the new requirements of listening in a different way to one another (Shall we say, talking more and more about less and less?) would have privileged the latent and subversive power of passive voice in our language, going back to the time when we stood in the Garden of Eden being named. This is the part that has fallen out of our origin myth: that initial moment when “we” felt the weight of our own name come gently down upon us like a cloak of office. I like to think that this act occurred with all our senses simultaneously combined into an enormous symphony of receiving – a kind of full-species epiphany.
Soon enough we stepped out from the flat background of our former existence into a resonant space. We became anointed ones, beings who could simultaneously listen to and speak – words.
So stunning was this awakening of human consciousness that it hovers as a persistent theme in various mythologies, especially as a tale in which a creator god builds a set of living beings (like mud pies!), only to recognize, belatedly, that these creatures know as much as he does. Reluctant to destroy his beautiful creatures, he has to figure out a way to dumb us down. In many Central American native mythologies this is done by clouding the eyes of humans so they can no longer see as far as the gods, metaphorically expressed as “breath on the mirror.”
Eventually we newly-anointed, word-wielders began to name everything that was not us.
But naming was not as simple as it sounds. We didn’t just line up all physical objects into a row like soldiers and bark out a single noun for each. We all know there is more to language than just nouns. Words can shape-shift back and forth from verbs to nouns to adjectives, and everybody who has ever tried to learn a foreign language knows that people speak in phrases – in “clumps” of sounds – not in individual words.
And finally, here comes metaphor again. In early times people apparently did not separate their language from their mythology. If a man in Siberia mentioned a branch near a fire, he might use a word we’d translate as “gnarled stick.” But the term he was using referred simultaneously to the kettle hanging from the branch and the whole surrounding area; its full meaning would be “the hearth of the horned mother-universe.”
A Tzutujil Maya talking about a thirsty jaguar would refer to the animal as “a woman’s child of the Old Complete Being searching for the mouth of Our Mother because of the sharpness of Our Father’s Teeth.” Names were not abstract; they were connected to an entire worldview with its long trail of stories.
This “packed” quality of words is beautifully expressed by the poet Osip Mandelstam**:
Any given word is a bundle, and meaning sticks out of it in various
directions, not aspiring towards any single official point. In pronouncing
the word ‘sun,’ we are, as it were, undertaking an enormous journey
to which we are so accustomed that we travel in our sleep. What distinguishes
poetry from automatic speech is that it rouses us and shakes us into
wakefulness in the middle of a word. Then it turns out that the word is much longer than we thought, and we remember that to speak means to be forever on the road.
Our language began as a bundle – with simultaneous built into it, physically. Every named object contained, curled inside, the enormous nuclear-fission power of its story. In their way of speaking, people in early societies acknowledged that certain fragments of that story would remain concealed and potent, like a compressed spring hidden by cloth or stone.
I believe language continues to conceal much of itself in exactly the fierce, bristling way described above; but in order to release the catch on its sprung powers, we probably need to treat it more like a wild animal than a pet.
*Roberto Calasso, Literature and the Gods (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001), p. 156. He is quoting from the Brhadāranyaka Upanişad.
**”Conversations About Dante” by Osip Mandelstam, in the book Mandelstam: The Complete Critical Prose and Letters, edited by Jane Gary Harris (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1979), p. 407.
This is the second in a series on the physicality of language. Writing from direct experience with sharp, sly, and sometimes ham-fisted words, poet and essayist Anita Sullivan will speculate on some of the ways language may have worked in early societies as a part of the biological human toolkit – and how that has changed.
Anita Sullivan wanted to major in anthropology in college but ended up with an MFA in Poetry. Her career as a piano tuner allowed time to indulge in a narrow but (to her mind) related set of avocations: archaeology, folklore, oral tradition, translation, early keyboard temperaments and religious studies. She has published two essay collections: The Seventh Dragon (piano tuning) and Ikaria (Greek travel). She has a chapbook of poetry, The Middle Window, and a full-length collection, Garden of Beasts. She is a founding member of the poetry publishing collective Airlie Press in Monmouth, Oregon. Find her at www.seventhdragon.com.