The Word

 ◊  Saint Eusebius of Cremona, pray for us

A short little reflection on words by Romano Guardini, The Rosary of Our Lady:

The word is something very rich, alive, even mysterious: a formation of sounds and consonances by which the speaker gives the listener a glimpse into the inner realm of thought. To a certain degree this might be done by a simple exclamation — an outcry of fright, joy, or affection — although this could not be called a real word. A word comes into existence if the sound expresses not only an emotion or a situation but also an association, a perception, and a reality.

While I speak, the word floats in space, as it were, and what was formerly closed within me is now open. Those who hear the word can grasp its meaning. Then it fades away, and its meaning is inside again, in my own self and in those who understood it.

But with all this something has changed: the meaning became a word and it remains a word. Before it was only the gist of being and life, the inner word that man speaks to himself because he cannot live a spiritual life without living in words. Now it has been spoken, pronounced, and stands open for all time. After speech has died away, its place is no longer in outward audibility, but in the memory of those who heard it. But this memory is a real place in which the word can be found again and examined, and from which it can at all times step into open speech again.

Something else has happened, too: so long as I keep silence, I carry the meaning within myself and am master over it. Even if the other person guesses the meaning, I still have not spoken. But when I speak, I transfer it from my own reserve into the domain of the other. I risk taking it out into the open and thus into danger. Now I cannot extinguish it any more, because what has been said has been said. So speech is the beginning of history — the beginning of that which happens, with all the consequences.

It is said sometimes that the word is spiritual, but that is not true; the word is like man. It has a body like a mortal: the form of notes and sounds. It has spirit, again like man: sense that becomes manifest in the audible. And it has, like man, a heart: the vibration of the soul which fills it. The word is man himself, in his finest and most agile form. That is why the word has such power.

And this is so not only because of the word’s outward vibration; if it were only that, the roar of the sea or the sound of a siren would be more mighty. Neither is this because of its emotion, because one might try to detach the emotion from the word — in fact, the manner in which modern man reads today points in that direction. Again, this is so not only because of emotion; in many cases, a mere gesture or a cry expresses much more. No, the power of the word is explained by the fact that it exists like any mortal, and therefore penetrates into the very essence of life. Who has not come to know the sustaining and comforting effect of a “good word”: how its truth engages the mind; how its beauty gladdens the senses; how its sweetness can actually be tasted? But who does not also know how an evil word sinks like a thorn deep into one’s soul, so deep that even after years it seems to smart? The word is more than mere communication; it is power, substance, and form.

This is not only true when the word has just been spoken; it is true also when it continues to vibrate in our memory. The word is not only the self-expression of the person who speaks, but also the assumption that this person can speak at all: it is speech. In the course of time, words and their arrangement have expanded and developed into a world of sense-configurations within which the individual has his roots.

The language a man speaks is the world in which he lives and strives; it belongs to him more essentially than the land and the things he calls his home. This world of speech consists not only of the words that put it together, but also contains sentences filled with meaning: proverbs, for example, thoughts of wise and noble men, songs, or poems. They can confront the individual at any time and exercise their power.