When the words we want to use shoot up
of themselves -- we get a new song. 

-- Eskimo Poet and Shaman Orpingalik

Words come from somewhere, and I write them down. The words in the previous sentence arrived unbidden as I was waking up this morning, and I obediently scribbled them down on the notepad I keep by my bed. The thought is expressed in the first-person singular, suggesting that I thought the words up myself. But the truth is I have no idea where they came from. This is not to suggest I am hearing voices – at least none apart from the one that normally expresses itself in the first-person singular inside my head. I can’t say, of course, whether thoughts originate there, since I have noticed the stuff I listen to with earbuds on my iPod also appears to be playing inside my head, even though it actually originates in a small electronic device manufactured by the Apple Corporation. All I know is that words come from somewhere, and I write them down. This is what writers do.

I’ve thought a bit about how meaning first attached itself to sound and we got words. There are various theories about how this happened. Noam Chomsky – the only linguist that most of us can name – has held sway for half a century with the theory that a single genetic mutation in one individual resulted in the sudden emergence of language in humans. Others believe the capacity for language evolved incrementally, like other human attributes separating us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Humans are by no means the only creatures that communicate by making sounds. Dolphins, whales, elephants, bonobos, even prairie dogs seem capable of holding at least a rudimentary conversation. As to whether their various whistlings, chirps, grunts and low rumbles constitute actual language, opinion is sharply divided. Linguists are currently so dug in on their respective opinions they are no longer speaking to one another on this subject.

Whether or not animals throw actual words around, human beings are the only creatures that write them down. They have been doing this for about 5,000 years, starting with Egyptians and Mesopotamians. (Technically, the Mesopotamians began with numbers rather than words, so they could keep track of their business dealings.) Unlike the spoken word, their thoughts were no longer limited to whomever was within earshot. Nor were they limited in time, as evidenced by the fact that we still know what the Mesopotamians and ancient Egyptians had to say thousands of years after their respective civilizations have disappeared. Thousands of years hence archeologists may excavate the ruins of the temple we call the Lincoln Memorial and find words inscribed there that were once spoken by the bearded figure seated in the rubble.

Once the thought is written down, the words take on a life of their own. But this leaves unanswered the question of where the words come from. For now, Orpingalik’s characterization above will have to suffice. The words shoot up of themselves, and so we get songs, poems, stories, prophecies and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. Our focus tends to be on who said them rather than on the words themselves. But maybe we should be less concerned with the instrument and more with the music. Maybe the words come because they need to be said. As for who says them, that may depend on who is there to receive them when they shoot up of themselves.

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