the tree of meaning

robert bringhurst, linguist & author of the elements of typographic style, encounters stories in their natural environment

featuring silk screen prints by todd stewart

What is it that people say when they’re conversing with the world? They sing songs and tell stories. They make poems, in other words: lyric poems and narrative poems. And wherever there is language, that is what happens. Wherever in nature there are humans, there are human languages, and wherever in nature there are languages, there are stories. If we dress that statement up so it sounds like it belongs in the university, it will say, Every natural human language has a literature. But in its own unprintable way, every nonhuman language has a literature too. If something speaks well, literature is what it has to say.

Literature, in fact, is as natural to language as language is to human beings — and for human beings, language is as natural as walking. Language, in fact, is as natural as eating, which all living creatures do. Humans have a proven ability to out-talk and out-eat everything else on the planet, at least in the short term, and some people seem immensely proud of that. Why, I’m not quite sure.

Scripture — that is, writing — is a technology, but a seemingly simple technology, like fire. Unlike fire, however, writing is not — and in the long run can’t be — a cultural universal. This may be why mythographers (myth writers, as distinguished from myth tellers) usually say that writing wasn’t stolen from the gods but was freely given to humans instead.

Any society that wants this technology can obtain it, but only those prepared to pay the price, in social self-absorption and bureaucratic overhead, can keep it. And like other potent technologies, writing radically alters every society into which it is introduced. It involves, after all, a kind of ritual mutilation of the intellect, a sort of cerebral circumcision.

People often notice that language helps them think — and then they sometimes ask, Are there other ways to think besides in language? Doubtless a good question; but that, I think, is not the way to ask it. What the question means is, Are there languages to think in other than the ones in which we talk? And the answer is, Of course! There are the languages of mathematics, the languages of music, languages of colour, shape and gesture. Language is what something becomes when you think in it. Life as we know it thinks, it seems, in nucleic acids. The forest thinks in trees and their associated life forms: asters, grasses, mosses, fungi, and the creatures who move through them, from annelids and arthropods to thrushes, jays and deer. Humans often, but not always, think in words and sentences.

Ideas, according to Marx, do not exist apart from language. Many others say the same. They are asserting that the only way to think is in the speech of human beings. The entire natural world stands as proof that this is false. Yet in a broader sense — a sense that is equally alien both to Marxist and to capitalist values — I suspect the claim is true: where there are ideas, there is language. Mythtellers, however, are prone to remember (and writers to forget) that the languages of words are not the only kind of human language, and that the languages spoken by humans are only a small subset of language as a whole. Some deeply human stories tell us this is so.

(adapted from the tree of meaning: thirteen talks & reprinted with permission
from gaspereau press)

Robert Bringhurst is an internationally renowned poet, author, linguist, translator and typographer. His vast array of intellectual and cultural interests includes mythology, architecture, linguistics, type-setting & design, comparative literature, oral ecology and art history. Bringhurst’s mastery of a multitude of subjects makes possible his informed and riveting cultural analysis, as well as his soulful, inspiring understanding of the fundamental interconnectivity of all things. His two most recent books, The Tree of Meaning: Thirteen Talks and Everywhere Being is Dancing: Twenty Pieces of Thinking are companion volumes whose essays explore the relationship between meaning and language, culture and ecology, while visiting many subjects in between. Born in California and raised in Utah, Alberta and British Columbia, Bringhurst now lives on Quadra Island.

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