For the past three weeks I taught teaching Austrian students English on the campus of a girls boarding school outside of London. Every other day we met for lessons. We reviewed grammar: present participles, gerunds, the passive voice. On remaining days, we toured the County of Kent and surrounding corners of southeast England: Rye, Dover, Brighton.
My colleagues included an Australian, an Austrian, an Irishman, and a Scot. Each time we walked into a pub, the room buzzed like the beginning of the world’s most-told joke.
Occasionally on lesson days, a student asked me a question I didn’t know. Sometimes it’s just “What’s for lunch?” or “Why do Americans smile so much?” Sometimes the questions were grammatical and of comparatively little consequence: “Do I put the comma outside the quotation marks?” or “Why do you need ‘were’ in the subjunctive?”
Three days ago we took the kids to see Stomp in London. Walking around London as an American is an exercise in linguistic astonishment because one is everywhere confronted new iterations of one’s mother tongue in even the most banal contexts: “Way out” instead of “exit” and “takeaway” instead of “to go.” English surprises even the native speaker. Now imagine the look on an Austrian student’s face when she hears her five teachers pronounce the “o” in “stomp” five completely different ways.
Plus, England is a country so keenly aware of its literary history. Standing on the White Cliffs, one recalls Shakespeare’s Earl of Gloucester’s haunting bid: “From that Place I shall no leading need.” In Putney, the words of the Isaac Watts hymn emblazon the red brick underneath a corner sundial: “Time like an ever rolling stream.” In Hatchards, London’s oldest bookstore, one opens an edition of Auden and feels the words running by, lining the shelves and pouring out into the road: “And the river jumps over the mountain // And the salmon sing in the street.” And in the Tube, a pamphlet celebrates Irish literature with a Seamus Heaney poem:
A courier blast that there and then
Lapsed ordinary. But not ever
After. And not now.
There are no words in Stomp. In between feats of extraordinary and pulsating rhythmic accomplishment—harmonizing with paint cans and inner tubes—the performers gesture, even grunt, at each other to communicate, but verbal exchange is entirely absent. So too, was the feeling of sacrifice, forgiveness, or hope.
I think this is one of the powers of words: that they can compel us to understand, empathize, and pardon. If this is true, then it has terrifying consequences for language instruction: that language is inherently moral, that we don’t have all the answers, and that we might need more words to be sustained, guided, and made whole.
Like a courier blast, language comes quickly and flippantly, and lapses ordinary. But other moments remind of us its weight: Lying in a London park on the rarest of cloudless days, again reading Auden:
Let them leave language to their lonely betters
Who count some days and long for certain letters;
We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:
Words are for those with promises to keep.