I found myself in a situation last week in which, far from the first time, I used the expression “words fail” in describing my response to a shocking piece of news. It is a common enough phrase, and is valuable when, in the moment, our limited vocabularies cannot convey the sentiments we feel at that precise time. It is also a shorthand way of demonstrating the significance of such a moment in that the richness of our language makes the communication of almost any series of emotions relatively straightforward for most of us – and the greater our command of the English language, the easier it should be to represent ourselves through it.
As educators, we know that language acquisition in young children is both highly efficient, and of crucial importance for their development. The ‘language gap’ between children from disadvantaged contexts and their peers can be above 19 million words of spoken and written experience by the time they start school – and such a gap once opened is extremely hard to close.
So, the week after World Book Day, I feel compelled to put pen to paper (or more precisely tap finger to keyboard) to express my thanks to all of those children, parents, staff and governors in our schools who promote and embrace the joy that comes from the written word. Cynics will, and have this week, made comment on costumes superseding reading – and just how “literary” is Star Wars or Wonder Woman? However, for those of us who see reading as an experience as opposed to an activity, developing a culture amongst children that embraces all that writing can give is more important than the finer details of what constitutes quality. James Patterson wrote: “There are kids who love reading, and kids who are reading the wrong books.” I believe that, and I see that in our schools. Finding a ‘hook’ to get children to read may necessitate compromises on quality which, we hope, they’ll find for themselves as they begin their reading journey.
My own reading journey has most recently taken me to Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens”. A chapter within this book was the prompt for this blog. When discussing the development of civilisations, Harari refers to the earliest written records belonging to the Sumarians of Mesopotamia. This civilisation was remarkable. They are responsible, through their use of “base six” numbers, for the 360 degrees in a circle, and the 24 hour day. They also used “base ten” for economic transactions and describing quantity. Their written records are solely, in effect, receipts for the buying, selling, and renting of goods, and title deeds for ownership. Their language is described by Harari as “partial” (meaning that one could not write everything that one could say). They had no written poetry or fiction for example, or written legal statutes and histories. Other “partial” languages include those of the Inca and Mayans in the Americas. Conversely, Latin, Greek and more latterly English are “full” languages in which all spoken words can be written. So, apart from when “words fail”, there is the opportunity to convey feelings, emotions and meaning through written as well as spoken word. With this freedom, poetry, fiction, and a wealth of genres therein, were and are able to flourish.
However, Harari conveys in his book a warning for the future. He argues that the truly universal language now is number. Like musical notation, and Sumarian, number and mathematics is a “partial” language. It is also the language of the computer, and the language of money. Indeed, this Blog has been converted into a series of numbers in order for it to be recorded, and shared. The ubiquity of the “arabic” numeral (although these actually originated in India) has made number a truly global language:
In modern times, not even all numbers are equal. The world is dominated by the “zeros and ones” of the Information Age.
Perhaps reading, and enjoying the experience it gives, is part of our defence against a return to a “partial” language – of txt spk, Insta, numbers, and emojis? If we lose the richness of our language, our young people are much more likely to find that “words fail” them far more frequently than their parents do. ☹
Thanks for reading – and not just this Blog! K?