Words Between Us

For Nat, turning 2.


It seems to me that, given the course of things, years will come when words will be no obstacle but catching each others’  meaning more than ever will elude. That’s my intuition anyway and I believe it has some claim to a foundation in observation. Look at all these linguistically competent pedestrians circulating the arterial pavement of my city in endless communication:

communicative hair
mobile eyebrows
flashing eyes
semaphoric nostrils
[ignore the mouth for a moment]
the angle of swinging arms
the gait: he ambles, she sashays, this one bounces of the balls of the feet, that one’s feet are walking in advance of the rest of him, all making tracts.

the clothing.

It is a strange habit of modern thought to think that our psyches are internal to us. There is nothing inside you except meat, plumbing, and electrical systems. Your soul is on the outside. Maybe that sounds like a heresy, but time will prove me right.

Two guys just walked past in onesies. See? Didn’t even have to wait until the last judgement.

There is no non-trivial way in which the quality ‘human’ can be separated from the question of meaning. Every serious ethical theory recognises this. It’s behind what Kant means when he argues that no other human should ever be considered merely as a means to your ends. It’s what we mean when we talk about human dignity. It’s why it is notoriously hard to provide non-circular foundations for our belief in human dignity or foundations that don’t accidentally exclude the most vulnerable. It’s a conviction that resists analysis because there is no state in which the elements exist separately. There is no human who doesn’t also, already, always, mean something to someone somewhere.

The words we speak grew up among us because we meant something to each other. The totality of language was spoken in the heartbroken cry of the first woman to grieve her dead child. We still speak like that sometimes, and so do the anguished lowing cows when the calves are taken from them for sale. But, humans keep on meaning stuff to each other. More and more complex meanings. Stuff that can’t be adequately said in one word, or 10, or 1000, or in 5 with a caress, or in a t-shirt and a hairstyle. It needs them all and more.

The Waifs put it rather beautifully in their song ‘Sweetness’:  You mean Stuff to me.

Perhaps more remarkably, what I am is a con-vocation an ekklesia of all the stuff you all mean to me. Y’all. God weaves his redemptive story through my life by placing the weight of his meaning against the destructive meanings communicated by others and too well-learned by me. That’s why Christians believe humans mean something—because we mean stuff to Him. I think we intuit how to feel about each other from our long association with Him, even when the relationship is strained. His way of being in the world has that kind of gravity.


I love watching my little boy Nat learning to speak. It started when he was only a few months old and realised that if he cried out at a certain pitch he could make the stairwell to our apartment echo. I used to walk up and down the stair with him trying it out. We took turns. We learned different sounds: how to make your mouth pop with your lips.  He would burble and I’d imitate him, and he would watch keenly. And then more and more the words began to pour out of him. Great long sentences of ecstatic utterance. No recognisable words but arms gesticulating, face intent. Pausing, waiting for reply. I would nod very seriously and hazard a guess from the context and as much ostensive definition as he could provide. And now, real words. New words every day. Granted, he has a funny accent but yesterday we walked through Eastwood on our way to eat dumplings and he learned ‘Lanterns’.
This morning he came into our bedroom, I was still groggily trying to shake off the night, and he breezed on in saying, ‘Hi’.
‘Hi’, I said, ‘…how are you?’
“Good” He said, turning on the ‘Li-light’.
I don’t remember him doing that before. He’s learned a basic conversational pattern. It’s beyond words.

There are moments when we still look blankly at each other, then squint, head on one side. Pondering the phonemes, stretching them into possibilities. He does it to me, like I’m the one struggling to express myself comprehensibly, like I’m the linguistic novice. It happens less often now though, but, nevertheless, we are still capable of sentences that perplexify the other. I treasure them up.

I think it likely, proper even, that as he grows and becomes more the self he will be, we will grow apart and become more obscure to each other. That seems to be the way of things. I can suffer that thought because I hope in a day when all hearts are opened, when what we mean will become clear to each other—the way it has always been clear to God. The eschaton of language: the day when the hairs of our heads, our eyebrows, flashing eyes, flaring nostrils, arms, feet, lips, t-shirts, all will spill out blessings, understanding finally.

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