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From First Words to Last Words

Man’s first words on the moon were in a way as memorable as man’s first step on the moon. When Neil Armstrong landed on moon’s surface on July 20, 1969 in a special landing vehicle of the Apollo 11 mission and stepped out onto the vast, desolate area, his first words, relayed by NASA to television and radio stations all over the world, were ‘That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’

It was indeed a remarkable sentence, meaningful and relevant and obviously believed then as an extempore reaction from the astronaut at that great moment that the entire humanity would cherish. But it later became known that it was not at all a spur-of-the moment remark and that it had been in the making for about three to four months.  Armstrong had considered several, several options before finally hitching on to this sentence. But the sentence he practised and perfected was ‘That is one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.’ On the moon surface he forgot that ‘a’ before man.

Once that extempore aura was gone, and it was known that the sentence was learned by rote, I think the remark lost much of its character, its color.

The first words spoken by people as infants are mostly wiped out from memory. There are a few exceptions because some parents meticulously maintain records of all important matters relating to their infants’ growth, including their first speech. Invariably the first words uttered by infants are about mamma or papa, but there are occasionally other meaningful words as well. One such was said to have been uttered by George Orwell (Eric Blair in real life) when he was just eighteen months old.

A growth chart kept by his mother said that the infant was once down with a severe bout of bronchitis and perhaps to explain his miserable feeling he uttered the word ‘beastly.’ According to critics this word somehow found itself in all his books, except, strangely, in the most beastly of them all, The Animal Farm.

In recent times the term ‘First Words’ has acquired a new meaning and new significance. It is the name adopted by institutions in various countries that deal with pre-school speech and language programs, helping early identification and treatment of speech and language disorders.

In the scheme of things envisaged by nature for the normal growth of a child the ability to listen is perhaps a pre-requisite for the ability to speak. That is why a child born with hearing impairment usually develops into one with speech disorders as well, if not total inability to speak.

WHO estimates that around 466 million people worldwide have disabling hearing loss and 34 million of these are children. Unless their hearing impairments are identified early and appropriate remedial action taken, it is possible that as they grow up the faculty of speech would be alien to them. For many of them, therefore, there may not be any first words to boast of or any continuing interaction with the beauty of words altogether.

But all is not lost to the hapless people who are unable to hear and unable to speak. They can effectively communicate with each other, and possibly with their families, in a visual-manual mode of language, the Sign Language. In linguistic terms, sign languages are as rich and fertile and complex as any spoken language, having their own grammar, syntax and lexicon. Linguists who had studied many sign languages had found that they exhibited all the fundamental properties that existed in all languages. The communication through sign language is rich and vibrant and can encompass any topic under the sun, from the very simple to the highly complex, abstract and lofty.

Most countries and localities have their own sign languages, but they are not mutually understandable, though there may be some similarities in the manual signs and facial expressions used by the practitioners.

One of the most remarkable of such sign languages was the Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL), once spoken by a predominantly deaf community in Martha’s Vineyard, a small island off the Massachusetts coast in United States. The preponderance of deaf people in the Island was on account of a genetic strain that some of the original settlers from Kent in England carried. At one point of time, one out of four people in the island had total deafness. And the community developed its own way of communicating between deaf people and between the deaf and the hearing people. While for centuries that was the norm, the incidence of deafness in the island declined in later years, possibly on account of a heavy influx of settlers from the mainland. The use of the local sign language also declined. When the American School of the Deaf was established to set a standard in visual-manual communication, the students from Martha’s Vineyard contributed their own local version of sign language to enrich the American Sign Language system. But when they returned to the island they carried with them the ASL for communication, gradually forcing the MVSL to the background. When the last person in the island with genetic deafness died in 1952, the MVSL also lapsed into oblivion.

It is a long way away from the world of the deaf to the boisterous, garrulous world of the hearing. And how much do they talk! From birth till death! Some studies say women are more talkative than men and that an average woman speaks about 20,000 words per day and an average man 7,000. Whether this is true or false, taken together this would mean that an average person speaks about 13,500 words a day. And an annual count would be 4.9 million words. For a person in his or her seventies the life time tally would be 343 million words.

In this fast and heavy and prodigious outpouring, akin to what Malcolm Muggeridge would describe as a ‘monstrous Niagara of words,’ how many are likely to be meaningful, to the point, precise, exact? And how many are good, soothing, pleasing or palliative? Probably not many! All the rest are inconsequential words, or containing a good sprinkling of bad words, swear words, expletives, obscenities, profanities and what not, the kind of pedestrian vocabulary we often encounter in what goes by the name social media.

There are many people who put a premium on good words. Like, for instance, Muggeridge. He was so fascinated by words that he did not want to do anything else but to use them:

‘From the very beginning of my life I never doubted that words were my métier. There was nothing else I ever wanted to do except use them; no other accomplishment or achievement I ever had the slightest regard for, or desire to emulate. I have always loved words and still love them, for their own sake. For the power and beauty of them; for the wonderful things that can be done with them.’

And what are the wonderful things we have done with the words, with their power and beauty, in our lifetime? Is there any word or sentence that we said that is remarkable and long lasting? Out of the ‘monstrous Niagara of words’ that we said in our lifetime, is there at least one, single, meaningful ‘quotable quote’ from us? We may search far and wide and deep for that nugget from our past, but I am not at all sanguine about its outcome. The search in all probability will be an exercise in futility.

So the best option will be to forget the past and concentrate on the future. Mark our vocabulary, use words that are proper, good and soothing. Strike out abuses, hurt words and profanities from our lexicon. Say something or write something, including in the social media, that will be remembered even when we are gone.

I do not mean preparing to deliver our own ‘Last Words’ when the time comes. That may be tricky as there is no guarantee that we will deliver it the way we wanted. We may not even say anything at all, as it may just be a grunt or a groan. The going, as it is said, may not be with a bang but with a whimper.

As for Last Words, then, it is better to follow the example of Pancho (Francisco) Villa, a one- time fugitive turned Mexican Revolutionary. The Last Words attributed to Pancho Villa when he was gunned down in 1923 was : It can’t end like this. Tell them I said something.


More by :  P. Ravindran Nayar

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