Why Today’s Letters Don’t Look Like The Sounds They Represent.
Outside The Box.
You are reading this in English using letters, an alphabet. In our case, it was established in its essential form by the Romans two millennia ago. They weren’t the first to have a written language, the Greeks and Babylonians had them long before the Romans. Only the codification of language into abstract figures – images – is only one way of communicating that doesn’t involve direct speech. Robert Graves wrote about such things in his seminal work “The White Goddess” which is as revealing as it is profound. It isn’t a book for the unwary, nor is it an easy read. It isn’t meant to be.
The concepts he deals with are subtle in ways that actively strain the way we think today. He takes us back to a time when people weren’t abstracted from the real world in the way we are today.
I will explain:
Letters in the past came out of the world the Ancients lived in. After all, there was little else in their lives. There was no abstraction in any shape or form, and reality really was real. Sure it was tough and creature comforts were few, that didn’t make it entirely unpleasant. So what did they do for letters? Back in those days, there were oak and ash trees just as we have today. They were as different then as they are now. That is to say in quality, quantity and distribution. The Hazel bore nuts that were edible, the oak and ash didn’t. You could feed pigs on oak nuts, but not ash. These things were known, but not codified. There were those who could see these things. What’s more they had the consciousness and the imagination to do so.
Most people wandered through their lives with as little awareness as they have today. For this codification came slowly, and from many directions. Flowers, insects and birds all became more distinct in the awareness of men in ancient times. They came into focus out of dreamy always-the-same surroundings. It is hard to distinguish things that are the most ordinary part of your life. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible. It remains as hard today as it was then – indeed it is harder today because we have isolated ourselves with our thinking. However, just as then, there are a few people who can distinguish these things. Which, in a circuitous way, is what this article is really all about.
So how do you find “letters” in the things around you? Let us take swallows. They seem to arrive out of nowhere around the time of the spring equinox. They fly around where there is fresh water and keep to the skies. At the time of the autumn equinox they have gone as quickly as they came.
Let me make one thing clear: whist this is observation there is no “academic science” going on with mathematical explanations that can be proved or otherwise. This is purely down to you and your observation. Your reaction: you are the judge and final arbiter. No peer review, no proof, no nothing. You either decide or you don’t. That is how decisions are made – either that or you let others decide for you in one way or another. If you let others decide for you, you cannot claim to be free. If you see something, you see it. It is the reaction you have to this happening which is important here.
Now look at a robin. As a bird, it is very different from a swallow. A robin is always there in your garden. Bobbing around looking for worms you may have dug up. They are also friendly. What is more, they are always there. That they migrate is unimportant as this isn’t something you are usually aware of. Robins are robins after all, and don’t have names or national insurance numbers. One robin is as like the other as makes no difference. So: we have two species of birds, with completely different characters.
Understand that this character is consistent and absolute.
There have been robins and swallows in Europe for the last 30,000 years or more. Long enough for them to be robins to us, with a consistency that is totally foreign to our ever changing modern day world.
Look at a holly tree. It doesn’t lose its leaves. A willow does. A willow also likes living near water. That the leaves come in the spring and leave in the autumn lead to there being certain character traits in common with the swallow. Likewise there are plants that reappear each year after dying back for the winter, and there are plants that are annual. One that reappears each spring and likes being near water is the reed. In this way you could say that reeds, swallows and willows share something in common. They are, as it were, the same “letter”. They are an expression of the same thing. They share a certain commonality or character. A robin would be more akin to the holly tree with its evergreen leaves and bright red berries.
So robins and holly both express one thing in common. Swallows and willows something else. That something else is equally real, even if it is analagous. That analogy is far closer to reality than any modern letter is to the sound it represents. How these living forms came to express a seemingly arbitrary sound is the issue tackled exhaustively by Robert Graves in “The White Goddess“.