Words may have been born free, but they are everywhere in chains, subject to the rules of language. They don’t float around in nondescript clouds. They are tied to speech acts, shackled in links of meaning, struggling to live independently, fighting against referentiality, aspiring to freedom, but never quite getting it.
And most of all, they are not equal to each other. Language reminds us that inequality is built into the fabric of all things. A sentence is incomplete without a verb, a modal always requires a main verb, prepositions cannot sustain themselves without a noun or pronoun and articles don’t make much sense on their own. In the realm of language, some words are independent, but most are not, living and feeding off each other. And this wild ménagerie are the tools that help us get things done, create and communicate, build community, express the invisible, put hopeful flesh on bony dreams.
From time to time, words mutiny. This happens so surreptitiously that nearly nobody sees it happening. Words change meaning, shift into one another, evolve. Language is carried into this maelstrom from which new languages may emerge, while others decay and die. Some words become unrecognisable, others become so popular that they try to reduce all language to themselves.
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