Thursday, January 05, 2006

What is in a Word?

Awhile back I had to take a trip to the Social Security office. Trips to government offices are always loads of fun - interesting people watching spot, that's for sure. Anyway, while I was waiting in line (a forty-five minute wait it was for a three minute transaction), I noticed this pamphlet:

"Social Security: If You Are Blind Or Have Low Vision - How We Can Help"

First of all, if a person were blind, he or she would not be able to see the pamphlet let alone read it. So why, "If You Are Blind..." Might I suggest, "If Someone You Know Is Blind."

Second...okay, there really is no second point. That first one was my point. But if you turn to page two, there is a special note that reads:

"Note: This publication is also available in Braille and on cassette tape. SEE Pages 31-32."

Again, a blind person would not be able to "see" pages 31-32 to know how to order the Braille or cassette tape publication because he or she is, uh, BLIND. Sure, there are the "low vision" types that potentially could read pages 31-32, but if your vision is so low that you need to read in Braille, chances are that you wouldn't be able to read the instructions on pages 31-32 (or even be able to see that there is a pamphlet that is addressed to the "Blind [and] Low Vision") to find out how to call and order such publication.

Which brings me to this point: why are we so crazy in America to have things "in writing." In most courts here, a firm verbal agreement has value (but not as much value if the printed word is notarized and signed in blood - even if the document is a farce).

Maybe I'm just fooling myself, but it seems to me that we hold to much stock in print - and this is coming from an Englishy type, mind you. There were many great works that survived via ye ole Oral Tradition (not to be confused with Orai Leland, who was a missionary in Africa). And the Word of God was written on our hearts (that's Truth with a capital "T") long before printing presses were ever invented. So to say that a word has worth only if it is written is an overstatement of the value of the printed word. Words first exist in our brains, do they not?

One time I worked as a banker. I was, in fact the Vault Teller. A stringy haired grungy looking guy in rumpled clothing walked up to the Drive Thru and wanted to deposit a wad of cash. I took the cash over to my drawer, counted it, and noticed that he was fifty dollars short. I walked back to the Drive Thru and let him know. "What?! What did you do with my fifty dollars?! When I counted it this morning, there was 1,500.00 there."

To make a long story short, the Manager told me that I had to take him at his word since I didn't count the money right in front of him - even though he could see me counting it at my till from the Drive Thru window. I couldn't argue with that. She was right. I made a mistake. I "ate" fifty dollars that day, and I had to be written up for it.

So you see, a person's word does have worth - no matter who speaks it. Of course, not everyone will tell the truth, but chances are that doesn’t change whether the word is written or spoken. Not everything has to be “in writing.” Yes, there is great comfort in things we can “see,” but argue that with a blind person.


pjd said...

The issue is not that the written word holds more importance than the spoken word; it holds more permanence. In theory, anyway.

If you say something, you can turn around a moment later and say the opposite and claim you said the first thing all along. Small children and Republicans are expert at this tactic.

If you write something, however, it has a permanence that can be witnessed after the fact by other people who were not in the presence of the original spoken word. Who among us has not used the phrase "etched in stone" to indicate that something was irrevocably committed? Etching something in stone is even more permanent than writing on paper, which is more permanent than saying something out loud, which has somewhat more permanence than a thought unspoken, unless you happen to be roommates with a mind-reader.

Two examples:
1. The Rosetta Stone. If this had not been etched in stone, we would be entirely ignorant of the meaning of many ancient writings. If its purpose had been satisfied by a purely oral means, it is certain that many of the ancient thoughts would not have survived to today.

2. The Bible. If the Word of God was written on our hearts long ago, then what use is the Bible? Answering my own question: The Bible gives permanence across generations. It also gives a sort of "standardization" of the Word of God. That is, the Word of God is no longer subject to a neverending game of "telephone," where one person misinterprets something or changes its meaning slightly. ("You mean it was 'celebrate', not 'celibate'?")

In the past 200 years, the written word has also enjoyed another benefit over the spoken word: Ease of distribution. By printing 10,000 pamphlets and putting them in every Social Security office, they can get that message to far more people than they can by telling it to them, at a far lower cost.

I am not trying to argue that the written word has full superiority over the spoken word. The written word lacks emphasis, feeling, texture, soul. You may be reading this using different inflection than I'm using in my mind as I write. Lyrics to a song rarely read better than they sound, the Partridge Family possibly withstanding.

And there is a rich history of things people should never have uttered aloud, let alone written down. I have been guilty of that myself more than once, and that's just this week. It can be quite distrubing, really.

bluesugarpoet said...

Yes, but even small children know the Truth when they see it. Just because people like to deny, ignore, or cling to what is not the Truth doesn't make it any less true. I am burning my computer to take away the permanence of those words.

Seriously, I wouldn't disagree with what you've said. I know that's the way it is. Permanence. People have a love affair with that idea. But we were born to die, and all things will eventually crumble and deteriorate and dwindle into non-existence according to the original form. Something has to last beyond the physical then. I suggest that the idea is perhaps the more important and permanent form.

Written words clearly are important and useful. Guttenberg capitalized on that idea (did I mention that printing is my family trade?). But if the ideas were not written down word for word, punctuation for punctuation would the ideas be any less plausible - any less important - any less permanent?

Years before there were pen and paper (and before it was economical to mass produce in stone) there were stories being told all over the world that were passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. Stories were told by the Ancient Sumerians of a great flood in The Epic of Gilgamesh; another work, the Bible, written by people of a different religious tradition and ethnicity, corroborated the flood story, giving both texts some level of validity (not that either needed the corroboration). More recently (as in the past hundred years or so), scientists have studied soil samples in various regions that would lend further veracity to the flood story.

But that infamous flood happened almost a half of a century before it was cuneiformed out on stone tablets or etched onto ancient scrolls. How did the tale of the flood (and the other now infamous historical tales) survive the telling and re-telling with out being tangled in the "telephone" misinterpretation web for over four hundred years (and perhaps longer)?

Written words. Important - yes, economical as far as distribution goes - uh huh, exact - possibly. But even if all written words everywhere were to simultaneously burst into flames, would the reconstruction of those tales only be a shadowy simulacrum of the original? Let's hope that there is something behind the words that has more tangible and permanence than only what is written.

Mimi said...

I think pjd has hit on the value of writing: with all the possible modes of revelation, God chose to make heavy use of WRITING. When in Zion...

bluesugarpoet said...

Yeah, I forgot about all of the letters He wrote to speak to Adam, Noah, Jonah, David, and Mary (and those few are only the tip of the iceberg).

"Dear Mary,
You will be pregnant, but don't be afraid.

How would God have ever got anything done without writing?

Gracie said...

I think blind people preferred things etched in stone. It was easier to read.

pjd said...

Two responses:

1. How do you know that the ancient stories (e.g. the flood story) were not modified through the Telephone Effect over generations of telling and re-telling? I do know that many ancient cultures put a high value on story tellers and lore masters, and they were apprenticed similar to other trades so that they would know the exact telling as it was told previously. Still, if the stories "survived" for 400 years, how do you know that the version eventually written down is the same as the one originally told?

2. The written word is fading in importance now. As anyone who has seen THIS knows, Powerpoint will soon rule the world!

One bonus thought: If all the written materials in the world suddently burst into flames and disappeared from electronic media, much that is beautiful would be lost and much that should be discarded would be destroyed. The essence of life, of Truth would not be affected because as you point out, it is independent of its manifestation. Truth is. I think we all agree with that, though we may disagree on whether God was its author.

But there is other value besides the essence. The written word is like the body of an idea in the same way that a rose is the body of a Flower. We can argue whether Flower exists without its rose-body, or whether Flower is any less important without its rose-body. But the fact remains that the rose-body has value in and of itself: beauty, aroma, component of habitat for other creatures.

If all the flowers of the world were suddenly destroyed, would the world be diminished? The idea of Flower still exists, and we can remember Flowers and their physical characteristics.

OK, maybe I need to get some lunch to get my blood sugar back up to "coherent". In any case, I think you get my points: The fact that something is written does not make it more True; it only makes it more portable and demonstrable to others. In our society, which relies on communication and intricate relationships and rules, portability, demonstration, and standardization of certain ideas is an important component.

bluesugarpoet said...

Actually, you've articulated my point quite beautifully - both word and idea are important.

So if that is the case, if the original idea was in tact after four hundred or more years (such as the flood story), then it doesn't matter if the story was told word for word exactly the same. (Side note: the job of the story teller was, in fact, a fairly important job in ancient communities since it was up to them to learn, tell, and pass on the history and literature of the people; but maybe I am just biases since I see the inherent worth of history and story.) The fact that the same story is told by two different communities says something about how truth can be revealed regardless of the inadequacies of humans to get the words exactly right (although it isn't unfathomable that it could actually happen).

All that being said, I really like your "body" idea. I like bodies in general (and in specific).

Gracie said...

I feel bad about the blind people not being able to see the flowers. At least they can touch them and smell them. That's nice. Flowers are nice.