Definition of word
(Entry 1 of 2) 1. a speech sound or series of speech sounds that symbolizes and communicates a meaning usually without being divisible into smaller units capable of independent use. (Mirriam-Webster.com)
Let me say something about words. If you have ever played Scrabble, you have probably heard a player say, “That’s not a word!” That’s a powerful claim given the nature and abundance of words. Even Saint Paul gets in on the debate of what constitutes a word when he wrote: We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans (Romans 8:26). Here, Paul would twist Mirriam-Webster’s definition of word by suggesting that while a speech sound is an important part of what constitutes a word, what is more important is to whom or to what a speech sound is directed. Paul says that groaning is, in fact, a speech sound that God can understand.
This being said, it is likely that we would settle for the prospect that God alone can make sense of our groaning. Really? What about parents of an infant who groans and cries, “I want to be held.”; “I need food.”; “I am not comfortable.” Some will argue here that this is communication and communication is not necessarily linguistic. If we accept this, then Paul’s ‘wordless groans’ is redundant. Maybe so.
It is a common belief that a baby’s first word is mama because m is a bilabial consonant. Try it for yourself, you cannot make any other sound than m when you open both lips and let some air out. You can even approximate the m sound if you keep your lips sealed. Easy-schmeasy and natural. The baby, however, is not intending to say mama. Sorry, mothers! The baby is just exercising his or her lips with expended air. What is interesting here is that to the mother, what is just a sound is received as a speech sound…a word is born. Dad or dada usually comes a little later when the baby’s tongue strengthens and is able to click against something called the alveolar ridge…our upper inside front jaw area from which teeth will eventually develop. Sorry dads, but lips are developed and used sooner than are alveolar ridges or teeth. I was talking to a dad the other day who is convinced that his son’s first word was Alexa because that command word which is also a proper name is what the baby hears so often during the day!
We can be very careless with words. Isn’t it true that we say words that come back to haunt us or we say words that we really don’t mean? The former circumstance turns into a regret while the former becomes what we call nonsense…literally a sound that is disguised as speech, but has no meaning. In either circumstances, we are often warned to be more careful with our words or to not say anything at all. Good advice, but how quickly speech sounds flow from our mouths!
It is also the case that we can be verbose, the overflow of words that have meaning, but of little value. In this case, we often say that someone is a windbag. The air is coming out and is heard as speech sounds, but is discerned to be no longer necessary to express a precise meaning. We often express our displeasure with verbosity with more verbosity, bla bla bla. The image of verbosity as a windbag is actually a linguistic mode: an intense explosion of air using two lips and a quick tap of the middle tongue before descending downward. A windbag is a bellow. It also expels a lot of air.
Speaking of verbosity, I may be teetering on the edge of being a windbag on the subject of words. That words are important there can be no doubt. Words can be beautiful as well as ugly. Words are always words whether they be neo-logisms (how’s that for a word?) or archaic. Some words have the power to convince us while other words fall to deaf ears. Words are definitive as in the last word or simply suggestive as in words cannot express what I am feeling.
Here in Panama where protocols about covid-19 are still evident, a public sign is used to directly attack the conveyance of the covid virus by unnecessary words. In the subways and transit stations, we often see a sign which shows a mime, with his finger over his lips. The words say in English, “Your silence says a lot.” When you open your mouth, you are projecting water droplets that may carry the virus…so be safe by being silent on trains, and busses. Makes sense to me and who else better offers meaning without a word, but a mime?