One of my four grandchildren is staying with us for the month of August, and two others were just here for the last week. It’s been a houseful of activity, playgrounds, and pools, dinners in the backyard. It has been a week of seeing Great Horned Owls and wild turkeys, and for the eldest of the kids, backpacking with her uncle and then with her granddad. My four-and –a half-year-old grandson occasionally lapses into a language he calls “Wormish,” spoken by Lowly Worm and his kind. He will ask some grown-ups if they know what certain English words are in Wormish. He usually makes some kind of very odd noise for the Wormish word, but sometimes he says nothing, and just grins. Then we know that the Wormish word for “milk” for example, is a “silent word.” Wormish has a number of silent words, and sometimes, Wormish being very flexible, a word will be a silent word one day and an articulated word another.
For a four-year-old, this experimentation with language is just fun. It’s fun to think about the idea that there are other ways to say things, that different people (or characters) have different words that mean the same things as the common language that surrounds us. However, for me, the idea of silent words is interesting on several levels. When I think about words, I think about printed words (silent in their own way) or vocalized words (clearly not silent) but it also presses me to think about other kinds of words.
My son J. and his girlfriend have adopted a magpie. This bird does not speak English, but he clearly communicates with them. (Is he speaking “Birdish?”). This bird will come into their cabin and quickly observe if anything has changed since he was last there. He inspects the change and sometimes even goes so far as to move things back to their familiar positions. My son also knows a great deal about other bird communications. As we sat at the picnic table eating dinner, the chickdees were scolding. “We are annoying them,” he said. Later, as he looked out the kitchen window, he commented that the birdfeeders were suddenly empty and the yard was silent. “Some kind of accipiter, Cooper’s Hawk or Sharp-Shinned, is circling,” he said and went out to look.
Humans beings are well-tuned and at the same time, tone-deaf to the silent words around us. We are good at gross clues. We notice if someone doesn’t answer us when we speak, for example, but do we think about what that silence means? Only sometimes. And sometimes we get it wrong. We tend to be very ego-centric beings. If we say something and someone doesn’t answer, we tend to take it personally, rather than tuning into what else might be demanding the listener’s attention. Like the birds that become silent at the entrance of a Cooper’s Hawk, a person may not answer a question because she has become wary of something other than the speaker. Her attention has been drawn to something else, something unusual and something that, maybe in the distant prehistoric past, might have been dangerous.
We are surrounded by noise that is often just noise. My son, who slept in the back yard this week, complained that Sheridan was too noisy, trains, the early Saturday morning paper delivery, cars on the street. These are noises that most of us take for granted. We ignore them. But I wonder what we would learn if we paid more attention both to the human background noise and to the noise of the natural world that also surrounds us.
For several summers many years ago, my husband and I worked at a remote boys camp situated on the side of a mountain in Vermont. Although cars did not come up the dirt road to the camp during the camp season, we sometimes brought vehicles up the road during post-camp clean-up and pack-up times. We could hear the rumble of engines from about a half mile away. Should we have wanted to, that would have given us plenty of time to disappear from the campsite if we didn’t want to be found, like the birds that disappear from the back yard as the accipiter flies over.
As the semester is about to start, I want to remind myself to pay more attention to the “silent words” of my students. What silent word is a student saying when she asks for an extension on a paper, or she doesn’t show up for class? It could well not be about me, but it could also be about something I can help her with if she comes to me. I would like to be able to hear the “silent words” half a mile away, and not be taken by surprise. I would like to be able to understand the things that make a student seek silent cover in the back of the room, like the chickadees retreating silently to the bushes as the hawk flies overhead.