Gilbert: On written language

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(HOST) The four hundredth anniversary of Samuel de Champlain’s arrival on the lake that now bears his name has reminded commentator and Vermont Humanities Council Executive Director Peter Gilbert of two movies – and of the miracle of written language and reading.

(GILBERT) Given all the activity around the quadricentennial of Samuel de Champlain’s coming to Vermont, I watched again a powerful movie about the interaction between French Jesuit missionaries and the Native peoples in 1634 – when Champlain was Governor of New France.  The movie, Black Robe, is interesting for many reasons, but in one scene an Algonquin brave is talking with a French missionary.  The priest is writing in his journal.  The Indian asks him what he’s doing, and he replies, "Making words."

"Words!" the Indian says. "You not speak!"

And the priest says, "I will show you.  Tell me something — something I do not know."

The Algonquin thinks a moment, then says, "My woman’s mother died in snow last winter."

The priest writes, then walks over and shows his journal to another Frenchman, who reads, "Last winter Chomina’s wife’s mother died in the snow."

The Indian is dumb-struck, absolutely astonished by this apparently miraculous silent conveying of detailed information.

We usually take it for granted, but written language really is amazing. I like the scene in the movie because it conveys, with great force and novelty, something of the power of writing and reading.

There’s a similar scene I like as well, in another, albeit lesser movie.  It reminds me that written symbols on a page stand for words, and they, in turn stand for ideas; they can be stored indefinitely, then decoded, and turned into sound.

In The Thirteenth Warrior Antonio Banderas plays a diplomat from Baghdad to northern Europe in the year 922.  He joins a dozen Norse warriors to go fight a terrifying foe.  At one point, one of the Norsemen, dressed in crude clothes and furs, asks the elegantly dressed Banderas, "You can draw sounds?"

"Yes," he replies. "I can draw sounds.  And I can speak them back."

"Show me," says the illiterate European.

And so Banderas writes in Arabic in the sand.

How many of us would think of describing writing as "drawing sounds" and reading as "speaking the drawings back"?

Toward the end of the movie, when one of the valiant but illiterate warriors is mortally wounded, he points out that he is absolutely impoverished.  But, he says, "A man might be thought wealthy if someone were to draw his deeds, that he might be remembered."  He wants, of course, the Persian to write the history of his bravery, and of course, Banderas does.

It really is miraculous – to be able to know words, thoughts, and feelings of men and women long dead.  It’s a kind of immortality.  And what a great thing to help people learn to read – whether they be very young children or adults who, for any of a million reasons, never learned how.

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