Death of a Language
My wife, Paula, died three years ago after a long illness. Paula and I were married a few weeks after our college graduation and we were together for forty-four years. We completed our educations, embarked upon careers, had two children, traveled, and spent summers in Westhampton Beach. We dealt with the same friends and family. We constantly discussed our experiences with one another.
As most couples surely do, Paula and I developed our own vocabulary, peppered with references to events, places, people, impressions and ideas we shared. We would say to one another such things as “it was like that little house in Sag Harbor,” or “she behaved like Julie,” or “I felt the way I felt after Hurricane Sandy.”
Over time these references became a sort of linguistic datum by reference to which our conversations took place. We didn’t realize that the language we had developed would be incomprehensible to anyone else. By the time I sat in the hospice with my children watching Paula take her last breath, the references Paula and I developed in our speech had become deeply engrafted metaphors known only to us.
Since Paula’s illness was lengthy, I had time to think about the losses I would experience when she died. I knew I would lose the closest person to me in my life, the mother of my children, my best friend, my tireless companion and ardent supporter. I didn’t know, however, that I would also lose my language.
Since Paula’s death, I’ve tried many times to express to others thoughts I could easily have expressed to Paula. My efforts have been tedious and futile. Sometimes I will describe things to which I want to refer at great length, only to realize I haven’t explained what I intended. I cannot convey my thoughts without the analogies and comparisons Paula would instantly have recognized.
When I think about this, as I frequently do, it occurs to me that language relies upon three kinds of metaphors. First, are words themselves. If I stand next to a tree and point to it while saying “tree,” any sentient listener will understand what I’m saying. Second, there are groups of words such as “black as coal” or “rough as sandpaper” that have acquired the status of universal metaphors.
But the third kind of metaphor is different. It consists of references that have meaning only to someone familiar with the specific things to which reference is made. Paula’s death removed those metaphors from my vocabulary. No collection of words, however carefully selected, suffices to capture the subtleties only reference to a shared experience can impart. Without such references my speech is left with only shards of what was once a full vocabulary.
The extent to which Paula’s death has dismantled my language came home to me last summer. I met a fifth-generation boat builder at his boatyard in eastern Long Island. Frank Willoughby instantly reminded me of the Judge for whom I clerked after law school. I recalled, when I looked at Frank and listened to him, the almost palpable honesty, guilelessness and respect for others that characterized Judge Fairchild. I remembered the time I told Paula of seeing the Judge greet United States Senators and maintenance men with equal courtesy and respect. I remembered the times Paula and I were invited to holiday dinners at the Fairchilds’ home. I remembered telling Paula of Judge Fairchild’s resignation without comment from an organization that had refused admission to a qualified black man. If I had been able to say to Paula, “I met a man today who reminded me of Judge Fairchild,” I would have said everything I wanted to say. Without being able to refer to our shared understanding of the Judge, there was no way I could convey the feelings Frank aroused in me.
Before Paula died I read an article about a woman who was the last surviving speaker of a vanishing language. I was fascinated by the article and tried to imagine what it must have been like for the woman when there was no longer anyone who spoke her language. I didn’t realize then that one day I would understand how the woman must have felt. I didn’t know that one day my language would, for many purposes, become a dead language.