the uprooting of language

I am writing to you from a squally afternoon as the edge of the world blurs upon the heavy brown body of earth. When I look out my window I can see the sky's cold white breathing.

I have spent much of the day doing research for my next book and listening to wild poetry and thinking about how people reveal themselves, and refigure themselves, by how and where they speak. The potency of language isn't just within the words themselves, but in how you speak them or write them - and to whom you give them - and in what surrounding landscape you place them. I am reminded of how the old storywoman in my favourite tale from Driftways teaches about story medicine alongside lessons in flower medicine ...

"Words," the storywoman said. "You can pull them up by the roots and stick them in a vase and that's it. Or you can use them, each one, to nourish and cure." - The Storyteller of Cyriae. 

(I know I shouldn't quote it as I have more than once. I'm not really as shameless as I may seem. But there are reasons the story lingers in my heart.)

One of the things I heard in my listening and learning today was how a woman relearnt language by discovering the origin of certain words, and so realised many of our loveliest one had dark and twisted beginnings, and should be judged by that. Her idea saddened me. How many words ... women ... men ... have begun in the dirt, but transformed over time into something strong and beautiful? Should we honour what they have become? Or should we insist on the dirt? Is there not healing to be had for us in the healing of a word itself?

And yet, I also saw today how lovely words, words of peace and friendship, could taste sour - because I knew what had fed those words. And I knew the silence which had shaped them. So a heart was revealed, beautiful to those who read the words at face value, but unfriendly to one who had seen the roots.

Which though was more important? What I knew about this, and the sorrow it caused me? Or the peace and pleasure the words gave other people? For that matter, which impression was more real?

So what am I to do with the writing prompt offered today by ALM Writes? I must illuminate the word confer. But it is a two-faced word. It means to bestow upon, which suggests a hierarchy of power or right.  Yet it also means to meet together in discussion, which suggests mutuality, equality.

The origin is com + ferre - together to carry or to bring together, from which I can see how each definition grew. And yet the opposing spirits of meaning remain. The roots of the word tell me nothing real about it.

Just as the roots of a public statement tell me nothing about the real thought process behind it, and the past experience of a woman tells me nothing about her real self.

Words alone are not language. We create and recreate language from moment to moment with how we use sounds, silences, gestures, footsteps, to communicate with the world. So don't give me your eloquence, or your dictionary definitions. Instead, I want your whisper on the windswept moor of longing between us. I want your weeping-out of heavy and sonorous words. I want to see which way your face turns when you talk of shadow and light. I want to know if you confer understanding upon me, or confer with me for mine, yours, ours.


  1. I always initially misread confer as conifer and it carries both meanings to me in the image of the Christmas story of Mary and the fir trees - Mary and Joseph are journeying to Bethlehem and have to stop for the night with no shelter but the trees, which in those days all grew with their branches to the sky in silent prayer, the tree under which they rested gave up his heavenly vigil to reach down and shelter the couple, conferring shelter, but since then all pine trees conferred to do the same...

    I have been absent here a while, caring for illness in our family, but am SO blessed by your stories. Each one has me enthralled and I cannot pick a favourite. Thank you <3

  2. "I want your whisper on the windswept moor of longing between us."

    Yes. Oh my, yes.

  3. this one had my nodding my head, yes! yes! yes! so lovely and i hope you don't mind if i share it -- it's too lovely not to share.

  4. Beautifully said and photographed.

  5. I wish I had the ability to share so well as this. I have stepped into territory that I feel I'm butchering because of my words not because of my heart. I love how well you put this. So much. I think I'm going to enjoy these prompts, especially when they lead me to sites like yours. I'm very happy to have found your corner of the web.