From Hand to Mouth
by Anita Sullivan
Sticks and stones may break my bones
But names will never hurt me
To regard language as physical, we need to notice our own weight in the world. We are more than the mere lumps we would be if “being” were the only verb and “doing” did not exist. For humans, developing the capacity for language involved additional ways of doing – with both our voices and gestures.
A common assumption is that human language was oral long before it was written. Many mythologies privilege “the Word” as the origin of the universe, by which they usually mean a sound as well as a meaning (a different idea from the Sanskrit syllable). If we assume language is a thing that can have a beginning, and that humans existed for a while without it, then at some point a unique human attention capacity was mysteriously activated by something we were doing with our bodies, not just our voices. We began to feel the tension between the “soft power” of meaning and the spontaneous daily physical acts of bellowing, grunting, clapping, gesturing, jumping, grimacing, pointing, hissing, etc.
For some reason we began to want more specific results from these familiar gestures and noises. Gradually we worked them into a full-bore language. Our voices especially seemed to intrigue us, so we taught ourselves to sing and to pronounce. At the same time, though, we were dreaming up new tasks for our hands.
So far as we know, humans have been making meaningful marks with their fingers dipped into various gooey mixtures for countless eons. We’ve also used tools to scratch marks onto sticks, bones, and rocks; we have drawn lines in the dirt but also onto just about any surface that would sustain the impression, including of course, our own bodies.
Peoples all over the world who do what we call “rock art” (in Australia, going back at least 50,000 years, and possibly of a similar age in parts of Africa) have generally called it “writing” rather than “art.” There is no consensus among archaeologists, art historians, and the participants themselves as to what these marks signify, but it is generally assumed that they were, in most cases, not random doodling exercises.
Rather, people were communicating something either local and practical (“Here is a dangerous whirlpool.” “There’s water in a little tunnel nearby.” “This is where the landslide happened seventeen moons ago,”) or were speaking a kind of pidgin-code that allowed adjacent groups to exchange information without speaking the same language. They may also have been communicating with the spirit world.
All of this was language, but it was silent – analogous to sign-language perhaps – but in any case a visual code to make complex connections with other people, with the larger world and with the cosmos. I believe that writing and speaking developed simultaneously, neither “emerging” from the other, but superimposed, intertwined in a huge variety of ways. This allows for a kind of whole-body understanding of our language development rather than confining it mostly to our heads.
Besides rock writing and other meaningful marks on objects hard and soft, there exists an entire language of gesture that we inherit and practice from our pre-hominid ancestors, which we loosely refer to as “body language.” Gesture is refined into a highly articulate speech called sign language, and who is to say that humans with full hearing capacity did not communicate this way, deliberately and with great complexity, in many early cultures? Dance, mime, the martial arts, and entire sets of specialized, coded motion patterns (tea ceremonies, for example) offer ways for humans to extend the physicality of language beyond the vocal.
The silent part of our speaking, though, especially involves the hands, with their huge complex of nerve-endings, tendons and skin sensitivities. Axel Munthe, a Swedish physician who wrote a best-seller in 1929 about his life, was awed by the mute healing power of the human hand. Speaking of his dying patients, he said, “Why, even after the power of speech had gone and the terror of death was staring out of their eyes, did they become so peaceful and still when I laid my hand on their forehead?”
And then, this wise physician continued:
One day, one of my best friends [then in the lunatic asylum] hit me on the back of the head with a hammer he had got hold of in some inexplicable way, and I was carried unconscious to the infirmary. It was a terrible blow, my friend was an ex-blacksmith who knew his business … . As I lay there in the infirmary a whole week with an ice-bag on my “head of a bear” and no visitors or books to keep me company, I began to think hard on the subject, and not even the blacksmith’s hammer could make me abandon my theory that it was all in the hand.”*
At this point I feel myself wanting to shout “from hand to mouth!” and here’s why: The human hand is amazingly sensitive in both giving and receiving the highest and most concentrated of human energies. Dumbly it moves across surfaces, and inside our bodies explosions take place.
“Things have their secrets,” said Heraclitus over 2000 years ago. “What you touch knows what you think,” says Vancouver, BC poet Daniela Elza in 2013, as if in reply. If we assume Heraclitus meant every thing, then that includes us. Through a variety of finely practiced acts of touching, the healer’s hand, the lover’s hand, the artist’s hand can act as a transformer, taking in the unvoiced secrets of things and transferring the shape, form, force and full body of them into an emotional response within us. We are then able, with our minds, to translate that response into words. Voila! We have changed one element into another; we have made electricity from coal and fire; we have translated the physical world into language.
* Axel Munthe, The Story of San Michele (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co. 1932), p. 52.
This is the third 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.