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by William H. Benson

December 28, 2006

     At the encouragement of a family member, I slowed down for two hours last Friday night to watch a video: Alkeelah and the Bee, and strangely enough, I liked it.  It is the fictional story of Akeelah Anderson, an 11-year-old African-American girl with a talent for spelling words.  She attends Crenshaw Middle School in Los Angeles and wins the school’s spelling bee.  She goes to the regional contest and wins that.  She then goes to Washington D.C. to participate in the Scripps National Spelling Bee Contest.

     In the process of preparing, she meets a UCLA college professor who coaches her and who tells her, “Akeelah, you can win the national contest, for you have a brain like a sponge.”  She makes friends with the other spellers, and she discovers that her family and friends want to help her succeed.

     In the process of preparing for the national contest, she memorizes the spelling of five thousand words, such as xanthosis—the yellow discoloration of cancerous tumors; argillaceous—of or relating to clay; ratiocination—the process of exact thinking; prestidigitation—sleight of hand; pulchritude—physical comeliness; and logorrhea, excessive and often incoherent talkativeness or wordiness. 

     Although Akeelah and the other national spellers reside in a verbal universe quite apart and superior from that of the common person, human beings build much of their lives upon language, and upon its building blocks, the individual words.  Words surround us, define us, determine us, emanate from us, strike us, soothe us, and comfort us.  With assistance from facial expressions and body gestures, words communicate any number of moods and ideas.

     Words have the talent of leaving traces of themselves as they course through our brains, and these traces we call memories.  It seems to me that poetry or lyrics set to music burn even deeper into our brains than without the music.  We can hear a song after the passage of decades, and it stimulates a series of associations, memories, emotions, and attachments.  A radio station in Denver plays music from the 70’s for commuters on the way to work, and they call it the “morning glow.”

     Here it is Christmas, and we reflect upon the shepherds standing upon those Judean hillsides caring for their flocks.  They heard the angel’s message, and then they heard the heavenly host singing.  From the perspective of the shepherds, the angels were the superior beings, capable of greater movement and possessing a deeper insight and knowledge of a spiritual universe quite separate from ordinary men and women.

     But from the perspective of the sheep, it was the shepherds who were the superior beings, for it is they who have the greater movement, and they have language and words, communication tools that the dumb and brutish sheep cannot even dream of possessing.

     Logos was the Greek word for Word, and it referred to the Greek philosophy that reason was the controlling principle in the universe.  Christian writers then attached an additional meaning to Logos: that it was the divine wisdom which manifested itself in the acts of creating, governing, and redeeming the world.  In the dictionary you can find “Logos” immediately after logorrhea.

     At one point in the movie, Alkeelah’s coach tells her: “The question we should ask of ourselves is not ‘Who am I to believe that I am brilliant, talented, and gorgeous?’, but rather ‘Who am I not to believe that I am brilliant, talented, and gorgeous?’”  Because men, women, boys, and girls possess words, we all dwell in this Word, in this Logos.

     The verbal or literary is a way of conceiving the universe, as is pure mathematics, and yet each have their limits.  The literary critic Northrop Frye wrote, “Whenever we construct a system of thought to unite earth with heaven, the story of the Tower of Babel recurs: we discover that after all we can’t quite make it, and that what we have in the meantime is a plurality of languages.”  In other words we end up with “logorrhea”.