From Myth to Mouth

From Myth to Mouth

Pentecost 66

A writer uses adjectives to describe his/her thoughts. They also sometimes make up words to portray facets of the story that exist only in the tunnels of the mind, down that long circuitous hallway we call imagination.

Most recently the female British author has become famous for her innovative use of Latin and the new words contrived to tell the story of her main character Harry Potter. Rowling utilizes language not only to illustrate the mythological voice of her novels but also to emphasize the not-in-our-reality setting. She does this by using both word combinations such as “animagus” but also phonetics as in “mudblood”.  Animagus is a blending of the words animal and magus which was an ancient Persian priest or magician. Mudblood takes two fairly familiar words in the English language, mud and blood, and then uses their harsh consonant endings to illustrate the meaning of the word which is a very deep insult to one’s lineage.

The story goes nowhere without words. A dance can illustrate a story but the oral tradition is what makes it last. After all, one could not do a review or advertisement for the ballet “The Nutcracker” is one could only use hand gestures. Most of us are completely unable to imitate the exquisite movements of the dancers and so, we are left with words to convey the beauty and the story of the ballet.

The volumes of literature that has passed down through the generations of mankind have not all been classified as mythology and yet, for many, their stories are as powerful and meaningful.   It is a debate of long-standing just how many great classics have their foundation in the myths of the cultures of the world. From these stories language has been born.

Earlier today I bumped into a table, never realizing that my actions would be described by a term first invented by William Shakespeare in his play “Romeo and Juliet”. Another classical writer famous for inventing words was Lewis Carroll. His “Alice in Wonderland” added such words to the dictionary as chortle, galumph, and burble.

The great romance classicist Jane Austen is generally thought to have been the first to use the term “dinner party”, although there is no actual proof of this since most English dinners were attended by large numbers of people. J. R. Tolkien   first coined the term “tween” which refers to someone at an in-between age before reaching their majority, an age of indeterminate nature since it varies from culture to culture.

Even science has taken terms from literature and mythology. Scientist Murray Gell-Mann explains: “In 1963, when I assigned the name “quark” to the fundamental constituents of the nucleon, I had the sound first, without the spelling, which could have been “˜kwork’. Then, in one of my occasional perusals of Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce, I came across the word “quark” in the phrase “Three quarks for Muster Mark”. Since “˜quark’ (meaning, for one thing, the cry of the gull) was clearly intended to rhyme with “˜Mark’, as well as “˜bark’ and other such words, I had to find an excuse to pronounce it as “˜kwork’. But the book represents the dream of a publican named Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. Words in the text are typically drawn from several sources at once, like the “portmanteau” words in “˜Through the Looking-Glass’. From time to time, phrases occur in the book that are partially determined by calls for drinks at the bar. I argued, therefore, that perhaps one of the multiple sources of the cry “˜Three quarks for Muster Mark’ might be ‘Three quarts for Mister Mark’, in which case the pronunciation “˜kwork’ would not be totally unjustified. In any case, the number three fitted perfectly the way quarks occur in nature.”

To some the term “nerd” is an insult but to many it is a compliment. It was first published in print in the story “If I Ran the Zoo”, written by Theodore Seuss Geisel or as he is better known, Dr. Seuss. Some of the more common everyday terms invented by Shakespeare include alligator, leapfrog, and eyeballs.

Some words have changed in their definition since they were first used. In Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver Travels”, a Yahoo was a make-believe species. Today it can mean a barbarian, an exclamation that it often found in print but seldom verbally uttered, and, of course, as the name of one of the first and

Two writers invented words to portray, as Rowling did, mythical worlds. Horace Walpole wrote a letter to friend in 1754 and explained his use of “serendipity” to describe pleasant happenings of the heroes of his Persian fairy tales, the location of which was the imaginary land of Serendip. Sir Thomas More called his 1516 book “Utopia” and people still argue over its intended meaning. Was Sir Thomas More describing a perfect society or an ideal society? The word can be defined as meaning “no place” or “good place”. Whichever was his intention, Sir More ended up being beheaded for treason

What seems to be just a good tale told around a camp fire or used to illustrate a home truth becomes an integral part of our culture and our language. The myths of yesteryear may seem distant and ancient and yet, we still use their terminologies today. The centaur is just one example.

In 1993 Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her acceptance speech explains the power of our stories, the power of our myths, the power of the word with which the tales of mankind are told. ““Is there no context for our lives? No song, no literature, no poem full of vitamins, no history connected to experience that you can pass along to help us start strong? You are an adult. The old one, the wise one. Stop thinking about saving your face. Think of our lives and tell us your particularized world. Make up a story. Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created. We will not blame you if your reach exceeds your grasp; if love so ignites your words they go down in flames and nothing is left but their scald. Or if, with the reticence of a surgeon’s hands, your words suture only the places where blood might flow. We know you can never do it properly – once and for all. Passion is never enough; neither is skill. But try. For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul. You, old woman, blessed with blindness, can speak the language that tells us what only language can: how to see without pictures. Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation.”

The power of the word can be life-changing. “We speak not only to tell other people what we think, but to tell ourselves what we think. Speech is a part of thought,” says Oliver Sacks. It is how most of us communicate. The physical gestures that accompany our words are but accessories. What we say matters as an audible witness of what we believe and hold dear.

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