Do you love words?
Not just speaking them. Or the pleasure of listening to or reading them. But the actual words themselves?
Do you delight in certain words? Think others are ugly? Do you believe that words have the power to thrill, wound, move — even to heal?
In “The Sacred Spell of Words,” N. Scott Momaday, an author, poet and playwright, writes:
Words are powerful. As a writer, my experience tells me that nothing is more powerful. Language, after all, is made of words.
Words are conceptual symbols; they have denotative and connotative properties. The word “power” denotes force, physical strength, resistance. But it connotes something more subtle: persuasion, suggestion, inspiration, security.
Consider the words of Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”:
Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war;
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.
We might be hard pressed to find words more charged with power to incite, to inflame, to affect violence and destruction. But there are, of course, other expressions of power in words.
They can be especially personal. They can touch our sensibilities in different and individual ways, perhaps because they have different associations for us. The word “Holocaust” frightens me because survivors of the Nazi death camps have told me of their suffering. Notwithstanding, the word is intrinsically powerful and disturbing.
The word “child” delights me; the word “love” confounds me; the word “God” mystifies me. I have lived my life under the spell of words; they have empowered my mind.
Words are sacred. I believe they are more sacred to children than they are to most of us. When I was first able to make my way in language, my Native American father, a member of the Kiowa tribe, told me stories from the Kiowa oral tradition. They transported me. They fascinated and thrilled me. They nourished my imagination. They nourished my soul. Indeed, nothing has meant more to me in fashioning my view of the world. I came to understand that story is the engine of language, and that words are the marrow of language.
Several years ago I was on a stage with the Kenyan paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey in Chicago. We were speaking on the subject of origins, specifically the origin of humans. Mr. Leakey argued that we became human when we became bipedal, and his argument was convincing. But I begged to differ: Surely we became human when we acquired language, a point of view I continue to hold.
Students, read the entire article, then tell us:
— What power do words hold for you? What has shaped your connection to words, whether you are drawn to them or not?
— Do you feel you are able to articulate your thoughts and feelings effectively or eloquently in words? How do you best communicate to others?
— Do you find Mr. Momaday‘s argument, that words are power, to be persuasive? When have you experienced the power of words? Do you agree with the writer that “language is what separates our species from all others?”
— Mr. Momaday ends the article with a Navajo formula to make an enemy peaceful:
Put your feet down with pollen.
Put your hands down with pollen.
Put your head down with pollen.
Then your feet are pollen;
Your hands are pollen;
Your body is pollen;
Your mind is pollen;
Your voice is pollen.
The trail is beautiful.
Why do you think he chose this Navajo formula to illustrate the power of words? If you had to convince someone else about the power of words, what line, phrase or quote would you choose and why? Feel free to use a song, poem, speech or story for your illustration.
— Finally, give us your personal take on words:
• What’s your favorite word?
• What word do you think is the funniest?
• What’s the ugliest?
• What word makes you feel smart?
• What word do you find intimidating?