“She had always wanted words, she loved them; grew up on them. Words gave her clarity, brought reason, shape.” Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient.
Words. Why do I love them so much? There’s just something about this unit of language that never ceases to amaze me.
The simple act of rolling a word around my tongue and sampling the possibilities it holds for expression brings me such delight. For me, just enunciating the different syllables that make up a word is a synaesthetic experience. It is like a culinary explosion of tasty morsels in the mouth when each morpheme collaborates with others to form a meaningful word. It is like seeing a rainbow in all its polychromatic glory when the sounds fall into place and you make sense of the word. It is like listening to a piece of beautifully haunting music which tug at your heartstrings as you make the connection between word and meaning. It is like solving a jigsaw puzzle, painstakingly arranging the pieces in their proper order until the complete picture appears.
I take pleasure in sounding out words, in learning how to pronounce them. I get excited when I am able to distinguish between different sound groups and understand why they differ from or are similar to each other. When I hear or read a word I am unfamiliar with, I hasten to Google as soon as I can to check it out. I look up the meaning and listen to the pronunciation thanks to the sound effects on online dictionaries. Then I say it out loud, over and over again, to get used to saying it right and make it stick.
This fascination with words, my mother tells me, started as soon as I could speak. I was a stickler for using the right words to express thoughts and concepts. I have been told of several occasions where I corrected grown-ups for mixing up words, for using the wrong word or for being a bit liberal with their use. I recall one in particular. We lived in London but often went to Birmingham to see relatives. I do not recall where my mum was but it fell to my aunt to take the kids to the cinema. When buying the tickets, she was asked how old I was, she replied that I was two and a half. It was free for children under three. To my aunt’s consternation and in spite of a previous warning not to reveal my true age, I piped up, “no, I’m three and a half.” Needless to say, she was not impressed and still tells the story till this day.
I learnt to read when I turned four. That is when I began to decipher and decode those incomprehensible squiggles on paper. What had previously been just black markings on white paper then became keys to opening endless doors to wondrous worlds and experiences for me. That was when I began to understand the relationship between the spoken and written word. That was revolutionary, a major breakthrough for a small person.
As I grew older, my love for words grew deeper and wider. At school, I excelled at things like composition, spelling and dictation. In my spare moments, and many times when I should have been doing something else, I would often bury my head in one book or another, lost in the world I was reading about. Thanks to this preoccupation, I landed myself in trouble more times than I care to remember yet none of the punishments meted out were enough to put me off my favourite pastime.
I love watching my sons play with words. Apparently, they have inherited my love for words and I couldn’t be more delighted. They are both very particular about the use of words and how they are pronounced and crack me up again and again with some of the stuff they come up with. Once, EDU, the younger one, wanted more cereal. I asked him to finish what was on his plate first. He promptly reminded me that it wasn’t a plate but a bowl . The other day, we were driving home from visiting relatives and Mo Cushla and I were discussing the annoying phenomenon of abbreviating and making acronyms of words that people can’t be bothered to write out in full. We mentioned some examples, ‘HBD’ for Happy birthday and ‘LLNP’ for Long life and Prosperity. WEO overheard and asked what HBD stood for. When we told him, he retorted, “HBD? Happy birthday day? That doesn’t make any sense.”
It was exciting to watch WEO learning to read. It was like going back in time and reliving my experience of learning to read. I would encourage him to sound out and then blend the sounds to make words. Sometimes I would get impatient with him when he seemed not to get it. I had forgotten what it was like when the print on paper didn’t make any sense. Fortunately for both of us, one day the penny dropped. He could read and we have not heard the last from my little scholar since. His brother is now learning to read and even though, he doesn’t quite get it yet, he’s keen to learn. I am a lot more laid-back with him, having been through the experience once, I know it’ll come to him one day so I am not sweating the small stuff.
Until then, I’ll just keep enjoying our shared love and fascination for words.
“I love bright words, words up and singing early;
Words that are luminous in the dark, and sing;
Warm lazy words, white cattle under trees;
I love words opalescent, cool, and pearly,
Like midsummer moths, and honied words like bees, Gilded and sticky, with a little sting.” Elinor Wylie
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