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“Whoever knows the nature of the name… knows the nature of the thing itself, ” Plato observed in his Cratylus. To know is a complex verb, difficult but rich. According to the dictionary, it means “to have news of a thing,” “to know that it exists or what it is.” In classical languages, the concept of knowing was linked with being born. Thus by coming into the world others have “news” about us: their recognition of us is part of our birth.
Knowing the roots of the words at the basis of human relationships permits us to revive a world in which individuals existed as men and women or boys and girls with no middle ground. I will explain what that means. The ancestors of these appellations (woman, girl, man, boy) denoted a particular way of being that subsequent cultures have lost. As the meaning of the words changed, the beings themselves changed. Back then, before these semantic developments, it was understood that the condition of boyhood was synonymous with immaturity, and the divide between childhood and adulthood had to be put to the test of life. Moreover, youth and old age were not personal categories but attitudes of soul and mind. What follows is a sort of Indo-European family lexicon, and a portrait of a lost world.
The word comes from the Indo-European mater, formed by the characteristically childish elementary root ma- and the suffix of kinship -ter. In Greek it is mētēr, in Latin mater, in Sanskrit mātar, in Armenian mayr, in Russian mat, in German Mutter, in English mother, in French mère, in Italian, Spanish and Portuguese madre, in Irish máthair, in Bosnian majika.
The word comes from the Indo-European pater, formed by the elementary root pa- and the suffix of kinship -ter. In Greek it is patèr, in Latin pater, in Sanskrit pitar, in ancient Persian pita, in Spanish, Italian and Portuguese padre, in French père, in German Vater, in English father.
These terms are so ancient, so primordial that they have survived the history of languages and the geography of peoples. Since they were first uttered, these words have consistently been among the first spoken by human beings. They are solid words, like a brick house, like a mountain. It is our fathers and our mothers who teach us first to name things. It is natural that a child should first articulate ma- or pa-. There is no child who does not seek to be loved and held, who is not in need of care and protection from a mother and father. And we never forget these words; we hold them inside ourselves all the way to the end. Studies on Alzheimer’s and senile dementia patients who have spoken a second language throughout their lives, a language different from that of their country of origin, show that they refer to dear ones using their original language. Native language. Mother-tongue.
The classical etymology of the word man — meaning a human being — comes from the Latin homo, which dates back to the Indo-European root of humus, “earth,” a result of a primor-dial juxtaposition, perhaps even opposition, between mortal creatures and the gods of heaven. In the Bible, the Creator infuses earth with soul, creating the human compound. In French the term became homme, in Spanish hombre, a root that disappears in the Germanic languages, where we have man in English and Mann in German. The usage may now seem archaic, but it contains a universal idea.
The Greek ànthrōpos has a disputed etymology. According to some, it is linked to the words anō, “up,” athréo, “look,” and òps, “eye,” a very fine combination of roots that indicates the puniness of men faced with the immensity of the divine and bound to raise their eyes to heaven from the ground. According to others, it is a descendent of the term anèr, “male,” “husband,” corresponding to the Latin vir. In both cases, the condition of “adult man” is colored by the concepts of strength, energy, ardor — of overcoming childhood through tests of courage, which reverberate in the Latin and Greek words vis and andreìa.
Thus we have the universal concept of a human being who is small, humble, tied to the earth on which she has her feet firmly planted until the day of her death but not entirely material, puny but bent towards heaven - and also strong, therefore heroic, because she has succeeded in enlarging herself. In order to transition from girlhood to womanhood and from boyhood to manhood, one must pass a test. Through this test — or tests: the trials of a human life — girls and boys prove the measures of their strength, tenacity, and courage and in so doing become adults. Once the test is past, their nature itself is forever altered as their name is changed — no middle ground from girl to woman, from boy to man.
“Son” is connected with the Latin filius, “suckling,” linked to the root fe-, “sucking,” an affective and infantile term typical of the Indo-European -dhe, “to suckle,” which is found today in some Germanic languages as in the English word daughter or in the Bosnian one dijete, “boy.”
The further we move away from the linguistic essence, from the primeval universality of the Indo-European roots, the more complicated things become, and the more the words grow apart and differ from Romance languages to Germanic ones. The notion of “boy” or “girl” as adolescents still unprepared for adult life does not surface until the fourteenth century. This concept is a foreign loan that dates back to the late Middle Ages and derives from the Arabic raqqās, meaning “gallop,” or “courier,” or more specifically “boy who carries letters,” a term of Maghrebian origin probably spread from Sicily through port exchanges in the Mediterranean, which was so rich in Arabisms. (We may note that this etymology has been made irrelevant by the conditions of modern work, in which many adults are treated as boys who carry letters, thatis, are employed in infantilizing jobs that do not make full use of their adult skills.)
“Young” is a very pure and powerful word, and an imprecise one, not tied to a registry concept, in the same way that “old” is not. It clearly comes from the Indo-European root yeun-, from which the Sanskrit yuvā, the Avestan yavan-, the French jeune, the English young, the Latin iuvenis, the Spanish joven, the Portuguese jovem, the Romanian juve, the Russian junyj,the Lithuanian jánuas, the German jung. “Young” is the calf or foal tenaciously striving to balance on thin and trembling legs, trying and trying again, falling ruinously to the ground untilit stands up, bleeding and covered with straw — but ready to go, to walk, to wander. Youth is strength, a drive, an arrow already fired.
At the opposite extreme of the life cycle is the old, the elderly, which means worn out, weary, weak, too tired to move, to go further — like a car worn down by too many roads, a car that suddenly stops, the engine melted. Elderly is the worn sole of a shoe that has walked too far. It is the hands of the elderly, like cobwebs that have caught too much wind in life. This idea comes from the Latin vetulus, a diminutive of vetus, which means “used,” “worn out,” “old.” In French it is called vieil, in Spanish viejo, in Portuguese velho, in Romanian vechi. Old age is an attitude and not an age, it means stopping, even surrender. The string of the bow collapsed, the quiver empty.Love
Love is a pledge, as the etymology shows. The notion of betrothal, the ideas of bride and bridegroom, derive from the Latin sponsum and sponsam, from the past participle of the verb spondeo, which means “to promise,” corresponding to the Greek spèndō. In French it is called époux and épouse, in Spanish and Portuguese esposo, esposa. The original meaning of those words lay in the idea of the indissolubility of the promise of love. Once made, it cannot be revoked. The trust and the faith expressed in the promise were so sacred that they were celebrated by the couple with a libation to the gods.
In the Romance languages, however, the meaning of that promise has slipped into the future, to the rite that has yet to happen, in the word fiancé, which derives from fides in Latin, which means “faith.” It is this faith in the promise of love, in its futurity, that gives strength to lovers such as Renzo and Lucia, made immortal by Alessandro Manzoni in Ipromessi sposi, who did everything possible to fulfill that promise of love contained, primordially, in the definition of “betrothed.”
As I mentioned, the word comes from the Indo-European root ma-, a universal utterance of affection, which has as its basis in the elementary sequence ma-ma. This childish word has identical counterparts in all Indo-European languages, a sound of affection that extends beyond borders in the welter of different languages around the world.
Memory is often full of italicized passages, experiences that remain fresh despite the passage of time, but sometimes deletions overshadow the italics. For a long time
I had forgotten the sound of the word mom. I could not say it anymore because I had not said it out loud for over fifteen years. I had even stopped thinking it.
Stabat mater, "the mother stood" next to the son, reads a thirteenth-century religious poem attributed to Jacopone da Todi, which later became universal in the Christian liturgy to indicate the presence of the sad mother next to the suffering son. Once, beside me, the daughter, there stood my mother. We celebrated our birthday on the same day, she and I: born premature, I was, as long as we both lived, her birthday present. When I was a child we always had a double party for the “women,” as my father called us. Since she died, every birthday of mine has been cut in half. And since then I have never been sure of exactly how old I am.
Every January I get closer and closer to the age my mother was when she died. Meanwhile, like the turtle in the paradox of Zeno, I move further and further away from that lost, skinny, lonely girl who was between the third and the fourth year of high school when her mother died of a cancer as swift as a summer: she fell ill in June and passed in September, on the first day of school. For years I never told anyone of my early loss, it was one of my surgical choices. The silence gave me relief from the empty words of the others: poor girl, so young. I discovered a new space inside me, a sorrow that I did not know before and could now explore, unseen, unheard. I was an orphan.
It seems impossible to admit it now, like all the admissions of the “imperfect present perfect” that we are, but there was a
long period in which I practically stopped talking. I am fine was the only sentence in my stunted girlish vocabulary. Not until I was seventeen did I begin to understand the value that the ancients attributed to words — and I began to respect them in silence with an uncompromising loyalty, learning to say little and to keep almost everything quiet.
After high school I moved to Milan, enrolled at the university, and started a new life, which I call my second one. For years I never said anything to the people I met, to my friends, to my boyfriends, about my mother’s death. As a daughter I was mute. Anyway, almost nobody ever asked me. My silence was unchallenged. And then, with the publication of my first book, in which I shared my passion for ancient Greek, my third life began — my linguistic life, the era of saying — the advent of the words that I use to make everything real, especially death.
I remember the exact moment that my verbal mission, my reckoning with mortality through language, started. I was presenting my book to the students in a high school in Ostuni when, at question time, a sixteen-year-old boy asked me, with the frankness of those who believe that I must know the most intimate things in the world because I wrote a book on Greek grammar, “Why in Greek is a human being also called brotòs, or destined to die?” “Because death is part of life,” I said, almost without thinking about it. I was disconcerted by the rapidity of my response: I already knew the answer, even if I had not read it in any book or treatise. I reminded myself that I had no need of a book to know this. She had died; I had lived it. And so on that day I reclaimed the first word that I uttered in my life, like so many of the women and men who have come and will come into the world and have gone and will go out of it. They
gave it back to me, those high school boys. I started to say mom again.
My mother, mine, who went away a long time ago and whom I resemble so much, the one who taught me my first words.
The ancients believed that there was a perfect alignment between the signifier and the signified, between word and meaning, between name and reality, owing to the power of naming, to the descriptive force of a word to denote a thing.
The Greek adjective etymos means “true,” “real,” from which the word “etymology” was later derived. It was coined by the Stoic philosophers to define the practice of knowing the world through the origin of the words that we use — the words that makes us what we are. I fell in love with the strange study of etymology in high school, and never gave up trying to understand the world according to it, to squeeze what surrounds me out of the language that surrounds me — notwithstanding my friends’ teasing that I cannot say anything without a reference to Greek or Latin.
Many centuries later, taking up a thought of Justinian, Dante remarked in the Vita Nuova that nomina sunt consequentia rerum, “names are consequences of things” — that is, words follow things, they are upon them, they adhere to them, they reveal reality. Reality’s debt to language is very great. Words are the gates to what is. And to what is not: the opposite is also true, that if something has no name, or is not articulated in thought or speech, then it is not there. Silence about a thing does not mean that it is not real, but without a name and without words it is unrecognized and so, in a sense, not here, not present, now and now and now again, among us.
Much that cannot now be said was once certainly said, about things that were once here but are gone, about a reality that has been lost. Dust.
Two years ago I read an article in The New York Times that left me with such uneasiness that I was prompted to look more deeply inside myself and the people around me. The journalist declared that these first years of the new millennium are the “era of anxiety.” “The United States of Xanax,” he called the present era in his country’s history, after the most famous pill among the anxiolytics, whose percentage of diffusion in the population, including children, is in the double digits, and whose cost at the local pharmacy is slightly higher than the price of an ice cream and slightly less than a lunch at McDonald’s. Depression — that disease of the soul that until the twenties of the last century was considered as incurable, as inconsolable, as its name, melancholia — is today no longer fashionable, said the Times. It has been usurped. The years of bewilderment in the face of the abyss sung about by Nirvana — and which led to the suicide of Kurt Cobain — are over. Instead we suffer from a different kind of disease, an anxiety that makes us disperse ourselves busily, and scatter ourselves in the name of efficiency, so as not to waste time but insteadto manage it frantically. And as we strive not to lose time, we lose ourselves.
The author of the article cited the case of Sarah, a 37-year-old woman from Brooklyn working as a social media consultant who, after having informed a friend in Oregon that she was going to visit her over the weekend, was seized by worry and fear when her friend did not reply immediately to her email. A common experience, perhaps: how many times do we fear that we have hurt a loved one without knowing exactly how? Is such worry a sincere concern about the other, or is it anarcissistic, self-focused guilt? How often are we out of breath as if we were running when in fact we are standing still?
But Sarah took her worry to an uncommon extreme. Waiting for the answer that was slow to arrive and that presaged her worst fear, she turned to Twitter and her 16,000 followers, tweeting, “I don’t hear from my friend for a day — my thought, they don’t want to be my friend anymore,” adding the hashtag “#ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelsLike.” Within a few hours, thousands of people all over the world followed her example, tweeting what it meant for them to live in a state of perpetual anxiety, prisoners of a magma of indistinct, inarticulate emotions. At the end of the day, Sarah received a response from her friend: she had simply been away from her house and had not read the email. She would be more than happy to meet her, she had been hoping to see her for so long. A few days later Sarah remarked without embarrassment to journalists who were intrigued by the viral phenomenon: “If you are a human being who lives in 2017 and you are not anxious, there is something wrong with you.”
Is that really so? Must we surrender to this plague of anxiety? Are we supposed to forget what we know — that friendship is measured in presence and memory, and not in the rate of digital response or the speed of reply? Are we required to infect our most significant relationships with the spirit of highly efficient customer service? Is it a personal affront if a loved one or a friend allows herself half a day to live her life before attending to us? Have we so lost the art of patience that we must be constantly reassured that we have not been abandoned? Are we living out of time, out of our time, if we do not agree to be prisoners of anxiety? Must we conform and surrender and live incompletely, making others around us similarly incomplete?
I think not. It is perverse to regard anxiety as an integral and indispensable part of our life and our contemporaneity. It is difficult to admit, especially when we are unhappy, but we come into the world to try to be happy. And to try to make others happy.
Sarah may have suffered from an anxiety disorder, a serious illness that required appropriate treatment, or perhaps, as she later admitted, she simply felt guilty because, too busy with her work, she had not communicated with her friend for months and was now embarrassed about her absence, about suddenly making herself heard. When we abdicate the faculty of speech, we can only reconstruct the thoughts and feelings of others by means of clues. Often we interpret them incorrectly. Silence confuses us.
I was once like that. There was a time when anyone could read the words senza parole — “speechlessness” — on my wrist. It was the expression that I got tattooed on my skin when I lost my mother : I can’t say a word, I don’t want to speak. It was my first tattoo, an indelible warning whenever someone held out his hand to help me. I pushed away from everyone after my mother died, especially from myself. I even dyed my hair black so as not to see in the mirror a reflection which resembled the mother I no longer had.
But “speechlessness” is now the word I hate most, because I understood later, much later, that the words you need to say are always available to you, and you have to make the effort to find them. Just as Plato said, words have the power to create, to form reality — real words, which have equally real effects on our present. As Sarah’s sad story reveals, the absence of words is the absence of reality. Without words there is no life, only anxiety, only malaise.
I covered up that tattoo in Sarajevo, a few days before my first book was published, because I had finally found my words. When people smile at the black ink stain that wraps my right wrist like a bracelet, I smile too, because only I know what is underneath, the error that was stamped on my flesh that I have now stamped out. How much life was born after the muzzle was destroyed!
Whatever production of ourselves we stage, there will always be a little detail — a precarious gesture, a forced laugh, an uncertainty, an imbalance — that exposes the inconsistency between what we are doing and what we really want to do.
We are not films, there is no post-production in life, and special effects lose their luster quickly. We are perpetually a first version, opera prima, drafts and sketches of the tragedy or comedy of ourselves, as in that moment at sunset in Syracuse or Taormina when the actors entered the scene to begin the show.
Today we all live entangled in a bizarre situation. We have the most immense repository of media in human history and we no longer know what or how or with whom to communicate. I am convinced that we have never before felt so alone. The reason is not that we are silent. Quite the contrary. We talk and talk and talk, until talking exhausts us. But the perpetual cacophony allows us to ignore that we communicate little of substance. We tend to say the bare minimum, to speak quickly and efficiently, to abbreviate, to signal, to hide, to be always easy and never complex. We seem, simultaneously, afraid of being misunderstood and afraid of being understood. The human act of saying has become synthetic, a constant pitch, a transactional practice borrowed from business in which we must persuade our interlocutors in just a few minutes to commit everything they have. Our speech is an advertisement, a performance. Joy is a performance, pain is a performance — and a speedy one. If we do not translate our sentiments into slogans and cliches, graphics and “visualizations,” if we do not express ourselves in the equivalents of summaries, slides, and abstracts, if our presentation of our feelings or our ideas exceed a commonly accepted time limit (reading time: three minutes), then we fear that nobody will have the patience to listen to us.
We have swapped the infinity of our thoughts for the stupid finitude of 280 characters. We send notices of our ideas and notifications of our feelings, rather like smoke signals. Is there anything more like a smoke signal than Instagram stories, which are similarly designed to disappear?
Brevity is now the very condition of our communication. We behave like vulgar epigrammatists, electronically deforming the ancient art of Callimachus and Catullus. We condense what we have to say into each of the many chats on which we try desperately to make ourselves heard by emoticons and phrases and acronyms shot like rubber bullets that bounce here and there as in an amusement park. We refuse subordinate clauses, the complicated verbal arrangement — appropriate for the complexity of actual ideas and feelings — known as hypotaxis, fleeing from going hypò, or “below” the surface, and preferring instead to remain parà, or “next,” on the edge of the parataxis, the list of the things and people we love.
We refuse to know each other and in the meantime we all talk like oracles.
It is a fragile paradox, which should be acknowledged without irony (that hollow armor) and which demands love rather than bitter laughter: the less we say about ourselves, the more we reveal about ourselves. Only we do it in a skewed, precarious way. And we do it deceptively, even treasonously.
Our brevity is only a postponement of what sooner or later will be expressed, but in a twisted way. Surely others have observed the tiny breakdowns, the personal explosions that plague any person forced to live in a perpetual state of incompleteness. Have you never seen someone who, finding herself without words, ends up screaming and madly gesticulating? Everywhere we end up sabotaging the image of perfection that we impose on ourselves with small, miserable, inhuman actions. An unjustified fit of anger on a train: a wrong seat, a suitcase that doesn’t fit, a crying baby, a dog, an insult at the traffic light, and suddenly we are hurling unrepeatable shrieks out the window before running away like thieves. Or perhaps you have observed another symptom of this unhealthy condition: anxious indecision — an unnerving slowness to order at the restaurant, you choose, I don’t know, I’m not sure, maybe yes, of course not, in front of a bewildered waiter, while we collapse as if the course of our whole life depended on the choice of a pizza.
Once upon a time, revolutions were unleashed to obtain freedom from a master. Today the word “revolution” is thrown around in political discourse, but in our inner lives it makes us so afraid that we prefer to oppress ourselves, to renounce the treasures of language and the strengths they confer. And so silence has become our master, imprisoning us in loneli-ness. A noisy silence, a busy loneliness. The result is a generalized anxiety that, when it explodes, because it always explodes sooner or later, makes us ashamed of ourselves.
When we give our worst to innocent strangers, we would like immediately to vanish, to erase the honest image of ourselves unfiltered. We tell ourselves that is only what we did there — on the subway at rush hour when an old lady cluttered us with her shopping bags, or in the line at the post office, annoyed because we lost our place while we were fiddling with the phone or with a post on Facebook in which we commented on something about which we do not care and about which we have nothing to say because there is nothing to say about it. That is not who we really are. It was a mistake. It was not representative — or so we tell ourselves.
If we are ashamed, if we want to disappear after these common eruptions, it is for all that we have not done, for all that we have not said, to these strangers and to others we have encountered before. By remaining silent, or by speaking only efficiently, before the spectacle of life, without calling anything or anyone by name, without relishing descriptions, not only do we not know things, as Plato warned, but we do not even know ourselves.
Who are we, thanks to our words?