Losing vocabularies

One of the defining features of modernity is the loss of vocabularies. Postmodernity is the awareness of this loss. That’s where we are.

Vocabularies are treasures rich of significance. And some have been lost. They are worlds lost beyond our horizon.

We need dictionaries to help us recover lost worlds, and to make us understand where we stand relative to them. A dictionary of the middle ages contains words few understand today. If you pick up a copy of the text of Magna Carta, much of its vocabulary (in English translation) wouldn’t make any sense. Wainage? Scutage? Novel disseisin? We’ve lost these terms because we’ve lost the world underlying and reinforced by them.

To recover a world is to recover its voice. To recover its voice is to recover its vocabulary, which is nothing more than the sum total of all its voces, which is the Latin word for both words and voices. Forgotten worlds beckon and call (vocant) from below our horizon for a chance to make their voice (vox) heard. They whisper to us using words (vocabula) we no longer hear because we no longer understand.

For all its clamour, the world we live in is less noisy than we think. We need to bring old and new voices (back) to the surface, to let them address us in poetic but also urgent ways. And we need to discover lost as well as uncharted worlds – and let ourselves be called by unsuspected voices.

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