Earlier today I was listening to a lengthy lecture by a polyglot (a speaker of many languages), who was talking about his efforts to learn obscure natives in Central America. One of the languages he knew was represented by a recording of a woman singing a beautiful song she had composed herself in that language which has moving lines about not being alone because she has brought the wind and rain with her. The woman happened to be the youngest native speaker of the language, having learned the language from her mother, to whom the song was dedicated, and she is no longer alive. In part because of this, the song takes on all kinds of layers. On the surface level, the song memorializes the singer’s mother. On another level, the song is about the rain in due season that cools the land. On yet another level the song is about not being alone despite singing in a language that is seriously endangered, and which could easily become moribund if its decline is not arrested by more people learning it, especially outsiders giving it legitimacy.
It should go without saying, but the purpose of language is to communicate . For communication to exist, there must be a few elements: there must be a speaker, an audience, a signal, and there must be comprehension. In the absence of all of these things, one does not have communication. One may have attempted communication, desired communication, or miscommunication, but not communication. Perhaps this sort of thing seems trivial, but it is not, because the world is full of signals but not as full of communication as we might wish. The reasons for this are legion, and given the difficulties we have at communicating, it is a wonder we can do it as much as we do. For one, we must be able to convey what we want to say into meaning. One of the managers where I work has a habit of speaking so poorly in spelling and grammar that what she is trying to get at is often mysterious–her abilities to send meaningful signals are meager at best. At other times we may work hard at sending a message but may have no audience, because one cannot connect with others who would be willing to hear the message and respond to it if they knew it. It is the effort of publishers and authors seeking to prevent this that accounts for a large part of the free books in my library. At other times we may send a message and it may be heard and responded to, but we are too good at coding our message for it to properly understood. I have this problem a lot, I must admit, and I imagine I am far from alone in that.
While reading about endangered languages , I remember reading an interesting story about an old woman who had experienced a traumatic experience as a child and the story was trapped in a language that she had not been able to speak with anyone for decades. When faced with someone who spoke the same language, her horrified flashback poured itself out in a language that hardly anyone on earth knew, and she may have even forgotten what had been encoded inside of her brain for a long time. If we are continually unsuccessful in sending out a message, we will often stop sending it in order to preserve ourselves from the strain and torment of sending out a message that no one responds to. Our problems with communicating with others stem from a variety of sources. Some of us are not very good at sending out messages to others. Some of us are not good at recognizing the signals that are others are trying to send, going through life blissfully ignorant and unaware of what others are sometimes desperately trying to communicate. Others among us recognize that some attempt at communication is being made, but either we can make no sense of it or we misunderstand it, and so we respond inappropriately. Many of us, perhaps most, struggle with all of those problems. I know I do.
Let us return to where we began, though. Why would a woman sing a moving song in a language that hardly anyone can understand and interpret? Even among those outsiders who knew the language, it was thought that the song was some sort of nature ode to the wind and rain and trees until she explained its meaning herself. A few reasons appear at least somewhat obvious. For one, she was honoring her mother in the language her mother taught her, and how can we better honor someone than in a language they understand, or would be able to understand if they were around. For another, there were probably aspects of her thoughts and feelings that she could only convey in that particular language. Sometimes we have the tragic reality that the deepest parts of ourselves are locked up in places that few would be able to understand if we expressed them. And as much as we might want to put a brave face on it and say that we talk to the wind or the rain or the trees, however sympathetically they might respond, we can no more understand the meaning in them as they can understand what we are about. And yet some of us are compelled to sing into the silence anyway, in the hope that perhaps someone is listening after all and can respond to our heart’s song with one of their own.
 See, for example: