Sunday, November 05, 2006

Caught in the Web of Words

In Arabic, there’s a single word that expresses “the pleasure one gets from listening to music.” One of my former writing students told me this recently. Her first language is Chinese, English her second, she knows smatterings of French and Spanish, but she wanted to learn Arabic because her own pleasure in music is so intense; she feels a thrill that hovers between the erotic and a yearning for eternity when she listens to some compositions. The Arabic word itself might evoke the essence of what she responds to in music. She saved her money for a year so she could go to a language institute in Oman. I asked her what the word is; she said her Arabic is too rudimentary, and that there are too many versions of the language; she’s still trying to track it down.
I asked her about Chinese poetry, which I’ve been told translates badly into English and she said, yes, because a line of Chinese characters contains a universe of meanings and if you aren’t steeped in the nuances, you miss them.
Elizabeth Murray wrote a loving memoir of her grandfather, James A. H. Murray, who created the Oxford English Dictionary. She called it Caught in the Web of Words. My student is caught in that web, drunk with language, wanting more, deeper, wanting meanings and layers. She wants to go to writing school, to an MFA program. She has a lot to learn; I’ve taught people with a better sense of style, or structure, or craft, but I haven’t taught anyone as passionate about words, the raw material of our craft, as this young woman.
I think whatever we’re writing, however we’re writing it, we must all come to our craft because of the love of the word on the page. I envy my student; I’ve gotten to be almost sixty with only one language, and half of another, and I don’t have the time or the energy to master a third really well, but I would love to know how to say in one word, the deep pleasure I get from Mary Oliver’s poetry.
--Sara Paretsky


ab said...

What a wonderful post. Thanks, Sara.

The Home Office said...

Anyone in love with words would do well to also read another book in which Dr. Murray figures prominently, "The Professor and the Madman," by Simon Winchester. It's an excellent look inside the creation of the OED, and two men without whom its creation may not have happened.

Michael Dymmoch said...

What an elegant essay.