LINGERS: They stay in the subconscious of children to emerge in their adult life later
OUR life is lured by rhythms just as our minds are turned to metaphor. We are, consciously or unconsciously, in step, in tune, in the jingly jangly movements that wrap into a harmonious whole. I once followed a long graffiti in the Covent Garden area of London, wall-painted prose with beats that led to the end of the lane. I went there last week but they were gone, obliterated, probably by some fastidious council workers. But the memory lingers, the spirit thrives and every time I see that wall, it is as if the words are etched there still.
I felt the dance anew.
Babies learn speech through rhythms, hence the enduring beauty of nursery rhymes. I often take friends who visit across a famous bridge, and on its deck their memories turn to song, "London bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down..." It is the rhythm that sticks in their heads, anon and for evermore.
Children are attracted to speech and sounds early in life, they hear the beats and the constant repetition of sounds and the ups and the downs of words that started for them as meaningless, beating noises in their heads, and the beats stay not as sounds but as forms that they crave later on in their adult life.
As grown ups we unconsciously look for these rhythms. In songs most certainly, but in prose too we are alert to the constant beatings, drummings of words. Listen to Lincoln's Gettysburg address, listen to Martin Luther King when he had a dream, repeated in leit-motif, to his very powerful oratory.
Homer used poetry to pass on words that he wanted to home into his listener's memory, messages to be remembered and passed on. This was before writing and everything went through words of mouth. The iambic pentameter used in English translations of the Iliad convey this very effectively, how words are strung up together by the rhythm, by the song inherent in the flow. Poets keep the integrity of their poems that way because once the words are locked in the shape of poetry it will be impossible to tear them asunder.
We see this also in Malay oral tradition, in the songs of Pawang Ana, for instance. I call them songs because they are so evocatively atmospheric and beautiful -- by the rhythms and by the rhymes. Rhymes are rhythms too for their recurrence, and these are integral parts of our inner cravings for harmony. Pawang Ana did not write but sang his stories, and he understood the underlying forces very well.
These undercurrents hold as truths in all languages.
They give answer to the question why we are so entranced and grabbed by words is rhythm and poetry. Word matching, harmony of sounds, length and syllables are essential knowledge in the craft of writing, be it a letter or a long passage, a novel or an essay.
And as we "see" and understand the world only through our senses, the only way we can know it and understand it is through metaphor because the referent to everything can only be through what we already know. "Oh, I see," you may say in reply to a statement. "I can feel your pain," is another metaphor rich statement of empathy. In his Malay-English dictionary, R.O. Winstedt Malaynised the express train as 'kereta api sombong'- a proud train - and a picture was conjured in my head of a woman sitting somewhere outside Kuala Kerai, with a bundle of goods to sell in the market on her head, trying to stop a train wheezing by.
We could have invented a new word for 'express' as in trains, but then the idea of conveying a meaning is lost. So Winstedt imported something that we already know, a train, that is like a stuck up, uncaring person that doesn't respond to you waving there frantically.
"The metaphorical hint allowed the listeners to cotton on to the meaning more quickly than if they had had to rely on context alone, giving the word an advantage in the Darwinian competition among neologisms," says cognitive scientist Steven Pinker in The Stuff of Thought.
We understand inaccessible concepts through metaphor, oh how I wish all those who write in Malay and simply use English words to fill a sentence would learn to know. We are now living in an age of simple transference of ideas: Precinct? Presint. Location? Lokasi. "Apa itu 'platform'?" 'Peletfom' lah. "Oh, why didn't you say so?"
"The mind," says Pinker, "is a metaphor-monger."
Through metaphors we can frame how other people see. There's 'urban blight' and it led to the disastrous 'urban renewal' programme in the United States in the 1960s. 'Invasion' and 'liberation' are two more of Pinker's examples of how we accept ideas: try pairing those words in turn with Iraq.
Words are our reality in more ways than we know. That makes me sound like a linguistic determinist, I know, but they have powers to lure and to heal. We are not by our words that we are, but we can sooth and lull by them still.
Wan A. Hulaimi is based in the UK New Straits Times Opinion Columnist 15/12/2013