I had the good fortune to meet Mr Momaday when he spoke to students and faculty where I taught in the 1980s. His presence and his writing made a significant impact on everyone, myself included.
The meaning and power he gives to Power are a crucial counterbalance to the power that confounds us every day on CNN, MSN, and Fox regarding our 'president' that it is staggering. Thank goodness we have thoughtful writers who keep us from going crazy.
Thought-provoking article. People tend to confuse power with force. As a child there was a boy in my school who everybody was afraid of, yet none of us had ever seen him fight. He wasn't bigger than us, but he had no fear. That was power. In 2003 America invaded Iraq to challenge a third-rate dictator. That was force, not power. We know this because of the outcome. Power is not having to use force.
From Alan Paton’s Cry The Beloved Country: “There is only one thing that has power completely and that is love. For when a man loves, he seeks no power, and therefore he has power.”
It saddens me that we have a President with little love or respect for the written word because, in the wrong hands, words can be hurtful- or even worse, dangerous.
@Sunny The President also, apparently, has a miniscule vocabulary. This means he cannot express--perhaps because he doesn't recognize--nuance. Part of the power of language is to articulate nuance--especially when we are trying to communicate with others.
As a semi-retired Reading teacher, I salute the author of this powerful article. Words matter.
@Margaret E. Costigan, Ed.M.
Agree, Margaret, very powerful and encouraging. As a writer who loves words and all they can do, articles like this bring hope at a time when words are misused and abused. Communication is key to our well being.
@Margaret E. Costigan, Ed.M.
Since the article said nothing about reading I find your comment fascinating. The article was all about communication without a written language. Where I live, one of the greatest thrills of a parent is to witness a child begin to read. The greatest invention in the history of the world is the written language. In a world today with huge numbers of illiterate adults, I find the glorification of oral storytelling curious. I now many adults in my own community that lead reasonably successful lives but are illiterate which holds them back from a fuller, richer life. I suspect illiteracy is a problem on Native American reservations. It undoubtedly is.
It’s the love of language that makes good readers (and writers) and that begins with story telling.
Mr. Momaday: I wrote my master’s thesis on House Made of Dawn at NYU 20 years ago and just yesterday I handed the book to my son who is taking a high school class on literature of the American west, telling him that was what they should be reading. The words of this essay speak so clearly to me of your old story, even over 20 years, like a voice from the past catching up to me, running to tell me what I felt then was true because isn’t it also still true? Thanks, New York Times, for this essay.
What a wonderful article, and a tremendous reminder of the long tradition of oral history and storytelling. I am currently re-reading Homer's Iliad, in a Stephen Mitchell translation. I can only imagine how powerful and enthralling the Iliad was when originally spoken so many thousands of years ago. Yes, words are powerful, and so is listening.
You can listen to recordings online, to Momaday reading his poetry and excerpts from his books. He has an incredible voice!
If you would like to hear modern poets reading their work, ask your local book store and library for the dates oftheir next poetry readings.
And then there's Bloomsday, each 16th of June, when volunteers read from Joyce's Ulysses. Search for local celebrations, usually held at Irish pubs.
I don’t think appreciation of a different culture necessarily means “superior “
I hope learning to read is at least as important as listening. Oral storytelling is nice but coming from a culture that had no true written language (symbols are not a written language) some of the sentences in the story is just the usual glorification of Native American culture as superior to other cultures.
Indeed, words are power, hopefully for good, and for bad unfortunately too often. Let our words 'speak' in as simple and direct a way, to tell the truth, and speak up for those unable to. Our conscience demands it...as it clearly knows (or should) right from wrong. This, especially in treacherous times, however Trumpian.
"It may be that the essential power of language is realized by word-of-mouth expression. The oral tradition is inestimably older than writing, and it requires that we take words more seriously. One must not waste words. He must speak responsibly, he must listen carefully, and he must remember what is said."
I "hear" this all the time—that the spoken word is older and more powerful than the written word. I usually "hear" this in written words. Mr. Momaday's eloquent words above are written, as is the beautiful Pollen incantation at the end of his article.
As for remembering what is said, I would argue that the written word has a better track record over time. This is not to take away from the power of the spoken word. But the power of the written word should not be underestimated.
Language coupled with knowledge, compassion and empathy can enrich and redeem the lives of all inhabitants of planet Earth. Absent those partners, language weakens the bonds of civilization and hastens our demise. That truly is power.
Yes it is power. Because otherwise one is illiterate.
@Kathy Green Thank you, Kathy. Eloquently said and so true!
Reading begins with the love of language which story telling certainly encourages. Children love words. Why do you think Dr Seuss is so popular.
"Be still." Unspoken words also are powerful. How we frame our experiences in the language of our thoughts--if we take the time to do that--is critical to our sense of our selves as beings with or without power. The only way I can think, as opposed to feel, about my expeirences is to use language--even if I never speak. The choices I make to describe my experiences to myself can help me move beyond gut reactions to a sense of myself in a situation. I can dictate my reactions to others and to situations through the words I use first of all in my thoughts and then in speech. I can gain some power even over situations in which I have been a victim of something terrible through the words I choose to describe the situation. And I can also learn to see situations through a different prism, again through choosing different words to describe what has happened, what is going on. Talk therapy is often a locus for this kind of re-framing of life experiences by changing the words we use to talk about ourselves. By careful choices, I can reject the power I or others think they have over me. Victims of verbal abuse need this kind of help: in order to reject the power an abuser has had through the use of harsh words, one can learn to think and speak words that contradict or even negate the apparent power of the abuser. It isn't necessarily east to do, but careful choice of words can bring it about.
Beautifully said, thank you. The words we choose to invoke in interpreting the world, ourselves, and situations will decide our perspective even if they are never uttered - is there anything more powerful? Before writing, and even before oral address, language is powerful in determining how we see things, and then subsequently, what we communicate. As you say, the scripts that we hear from others are enormously powerful as well. Whole cultures are determined this way. In our current culture, where so much criticism and demeaning intent flows in everyday discourse, your comment is so meaningful. We can challenge these voices and choose our own kind words to still those that reverberate cruelly.
No question words have great power. Power itself is the fundamental force that moves the matter of which the material universe consists.
Words enabled humans to pass knowledge through time and space , creating societies that had the language and culture to accomplish that feat.
A transcendental undertaking.
My father has a progressive cognitive disease called primary progressive aphasia. The main symptom of the disease is loss of language. He struggles to speak, to find words. He struggles to interpret symbols -- the letters of the alphabet and numbers. He was a beautiful writer and sharp thinker. Loss of language for him, has meant loss of connection with others. And that, ultimately has been the biggest loss of all. Language is power in myriad ways.
"Language is what separates our species from all others. It is, as we understand the term, a human invention, a system of communication based upon sounds and symbols — words, spoken and written."
That's a very outdated view of language; more contemporary views include visual natural languages like American Sign Language. Language is not based on the medium, but how the brain processes information, whether auditory or visual. There is a lot of research backing this up. The biases against signed languages are deeply embedded in our culture....
Yes. And equally outdated is the idea that "Language is what separates our species from all others." A very superficial essay, notably lacking in both intellectual and stylistic "power."
That language is primarily a means of communication (though it sounds reasonable) is not necessarily true. Another possibility is that it was first a means by which thinking occurs and it is a happy accident that we externalized this medium of thought to allow communication with our fellow human beings.
A lovely little myth, Momaday gives us, by way of Lewis Thomas, a memorable prose poem. Thanks to both.
Your mind is pollen;
Your voice is pollen.
The trail is beautiful.
Now that is power.
The power of true hearing. In my work with members of the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes in Maine in years past, I learned the power of the talking circle: a "talking stick" is passed around the circle. Each member of the circle may speak for as long as he/she wishes when holding the stick. He/she then passes the stick to the person beside her. That person, in turn, may choose to speak or pass the stick on. No one may speak until the stick comes around to them. What happens in between speaking turns is that each person in the circle must learn how to listen --and must learn, more deeply, how to hear, before reflexively reacting. Must learn what it means to Be still.
Back in the 70's, one of the most important and thoughtful courses I took while working on my first Master's degree was General Semantics. It seems it is discussed rarely these days. "Language In Thought and Action" by S.I. Hayakawa (the earlier editions) should be mandatory reading.
Another one from the Navajo:
Beauty is above me.
Beauty is below me.
Beauty is around me.
I walk in beauty.
Lovely... thanks for posting this.
Thank you, Mr. Momaday, for all you've taught me about words--through this article and all the way up to it. Your students have been so lucky to work with you.
At UCSB in 1967, my freshman English class (Tues, Thursday, Saturday at 8:00 AM!) teacher was Mr. Momaday. Our classroom was in a trailer. He was less than enthused, as were we. So nice to know that he persevered.
I teach at a community college myself--and have worked in trailers, basements, and rooms in all the states of disrepair that you can imagine! I wish I could have been in that class with you...Best wishes.
Thank you for this.
I read your book years ago. It went to my heart.
Thanks to Professor Momaday for this apt and pertinent statement. It sends me back to the theology of the great Lutheran--and martyr to Hitler--Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to whom "creation" begins in the Word, not stone or inert things. As my nephew's wife finishes her first year as a teacher in the great grasslands of an immeasurably beautiful interior "reservation," I wish to say to Mr. Momaday that I am satisfied of one thing: our native speakers frequently meant more by "The Great Spirit" than too many of us have meant by other religious language. Thanks, again.
I am less impressed with the profundity of this essay than others.
But whether profound or mundane, it neglects the essential role of music in the development of humanity.
Long before the evolution of language as we know it, melodies, tones, harmonies and rhythms carried meaning and feeling among humans as well as other species.
Music is the voice of the soul. We neglect it at great peril.
"We" doesn't include me, I guess, insofar as for me music is language and language is music.
The internet is too full of trolls whose twisted sense of self importance allows them only to attack and spew hate. The art of listening is dying. You are killing it.
I love human language. But there is significant risk when we elevate it far above the complex and inherently powerful expressions of any and all sentient beings.
For over thirty years I've watched the power of personal narrative transform the attitudes, behaviors and beliefs of thousands of recovering alcoholics and addicts. I was moved enough to return to school and earn a masters degree in creative writing, knowing it is not only the power of those words that transformed me; it was the authenticity with which they were delivered. We would be well served as a culture to revive story-telling as a tradition.
Many, many years ago I was asked what power was, by a speaker who was standing on a box in Hyde Park, London.
I replied that, in the abstract it was nothing.
But if it provokes fear, it is real, and that is why we must go to war every few years...
As for the destroyed Navajo nation...from Wikipedia....
"Main article: Long Walk of the Navajo".
Power is rarely in words, it is most often in blood running in the dirt.
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God"
That was a written word.
"A word is worth a thousand pictures." Elie Wiesel
I remember reading some of your work in both high school and a Native American literature class probably 20 years ago.
What your essay misses is the use of Word Magic in Black Magic.
That is the key tool to disempower marginalized people like the First Nations people. You almost seemed to grasp this as you alluded to the "spell" of words.
It is nice to say things are sacred or not. All things are sacred, or they are not.
First nations people need to wake up from the spell of words and begin a resistance movement of their own. Sadly I have heard and learned only too well how the spell of drugs has gimped your people, the people of the world, the planet.
Sitting Bear was a legendary Kiowa warrior well into old age. Among the sacred ten bravest warriors in his tribe.
After being captured by the U.S. Calvary along with his fellow warriors White Bear and Big Tree, he began to sing the ' death song' of his warrior society. None but his fellow Kiowa knew what was happening. Sitting Bear was killed by his captors after attempting to get a weapon from one of them at the end of his song.
Language and culture are inextricably intertwined by specific color aka race ethnic sectarian natinal origin history and experience.
I taught indigenous youngsters on an outer island in Hawaii. They still have an oral tradition, too.
Oneness with nature denominates indigenous cultures. Oral tradition's life blood is words; its tissue is language. There's no eternal fat.
This fine and finely written article resonates.
Can they read and write? Isn’t that far more important?
Yes, they are more important. I had my students record their grandparents' stories and then condense it all into writing without losing the oral flavors. Then they interneted those stories to Native Americans and Alaskans and received stories back.
Language is powerful. Too bad our President wields language as a weapon as irresponsibly and maliciously as someone who randomly and malevolently discharges a revolver.
Ah, I beg to disagree. Our species is not the only keeper of a language, a system of communicating with one another. Whales communicate through sound that can travel hundreds of miles under water. The common wren has a repertoire of at least 50 distinct songs. And I have heard the wailing trumpeting of elephants mourning one of their beloved dead.
I agree, but then heard Momaday add that writing sets us apart. My Mom used to ask how I dealt with ill animals everyday when they couldn’t tell me what was wrong. I told her that, unlike humans who could talk, animals never lie. And though they do, indeed, have communication, we alone use writing.
@Sarah I completely agree with you. Every day, we learn more about non-human animals - about their intelligence and their ability to communicate.
I didn’t read anything in the piece about writing. It was all about oral communication.
The world is full of well intentioned and inaccurate "truths" about life.
Self knowledge-to know what it means to be fully human-is power.
Words arising from that limitless foundation are powerful. One must have that foundation first.
Most are eclipsed by a buggy, primitive software program installed in our earliest years. That program was unconsciously written by parents, family and culture which instructs how life works.
That hard wired ignorance limits and eclipses our magnificence. Limits the reality of each of us: that we are whole, limitless complete, sublime - and ordinary.
But that program insists we are less than that, far less, and less than most others. Imagine the words that emit from that conditioning.
Imagine the contribution when words arise from freedom of that conditioning.
Now that's being the change. That's sacred. That's the greatest contribution one can make to one's Self, family, community, country, organization and civil society.
Words arising from peace of mind are wise; words arising from the incessant chatter of fears and desires cause disturbance. Both cast spells.
Be careful what spell you want to cast.
Still adopting and using the word "Tribe" is the most dangerously effective way to belittle and marginalize the achievement, and even the recognition of the existence of the "other." People are People; everywhere.
Language is more powerful when it is deconstructed.
Throughout our lives, we use words as weapons and shields, diversions and rationales. The words we use can add meaning to emotion or demean those same emotions. Look, I love words and their power, their music, their specific meanings and connotations. Each new word is a treasure to be, well, treasured and used and celebrated and shared. Words on paper or pixels are fine but the real magic is in their being uttered aloud. When I write or read, I hear the words, not see them. I hear their music and majesty and many meanings.
My wife and I created consciously this open space between where we can say, "This is what I heard. Is that what you wanted me to hear?" For almost twenty years, it's prevented arguments that would have grown out of inexact usage or implied meanings.
As a species, we are horrible communicators. Mostly, we exchange words without understanding what the other person actually understands. I've watched people violently agreeing and disagreeing because they didn't actually what the other person was saying.
The power of language?
I don't think the human race can stand the powerful use of language, language developed as powerfully as it can be and used as a tool to describe humanity and the natural environment and to envision what we might become. In all ages the more powerful, accurate, honest uses of language have come into conflict with authorities religious and political and economic, and closed, guarded, prescribed by power use of language has been the norm if not outright censorship of what can be said and written.
It would appear humanity prefers the language of math and physics powerfully developed, and it's routine to hear scientists speaking of math and physics as superior at describing not only natural reality, but as measure of human or social reality. Furthermore math is quite peculiar in comparison to language in that it's not nearly so subject to censorship as language; in fact it appears humanity finds language painful as a tool to describe itself and solve its problems and has instead opted for the language of math and physics to describe reality and form its future social conceptions.
We seem by math and physics today, and of course by technology, to desire to form machines which can stand to be different and perform division of labor or act in unison because humans cannot do so and certainly cannot stand to have their differences and similarities pointed out by language, which is to say our actions and language is failure, but math and machines a future.
This essay reminds me of the book "Word-Struck" by Robert MCneil. I also grew up with a love of words and fell in love not only with Sanskrit but English. Since the latter is not my mother tongue, I had to learn many words by looking them up in a dictionary, which got me interested in the etymology of words. E$specially in the case of English, which has enriched itself by borrowing words from a variety of languages, one learns history through etymology.
I agree with Sarah that humans are not the only species that use language for communication.
Words alone, without context, experience, or the history of the period they are a part of, are just hot air. Children like words because words help complete the experience they are enjoying, such as getting a dog to fetch and bring back a ball. Shakespeare’s great line, “ Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war!” Is great oratory and will move a theatrical nation to civil war. Words are part of dramatic life, not individual things to be glorified in the abstract. They werent invented for themselves but to complete, further, tell about, entertain, inform other humans of some experience.
Words are truth fragments twisted in endless ways to form the fabricated stories of our existence. These stories may be helpful medicine or evil potions. But they should never be mistaken for reality. My concern is for the masses trapped by words.
Point taken. Tomorrow's essay deals with that aspect exactly. Many other angles will be covered over the course of the series, between now and June 1. They appear here, along with last year's Big Ideas series -- https://www.nytimes.com/spotlight/the-big-ideas
-- Peter Catapano, series editor.
Did we have power before we had language? I suspect we did. Is there not power in a stare? Or in a movement? Or are these stand-ins for language? I agree with the writer who pointed out that humans are not the only species that have a language. But words be they spoken or signed are tools that so far, only humans use to express or implement language. Even if my dog goes to the door and barks, she may indicate she needs to go outside, and her bark may be different from that she may use to welcome me home, we humans have not yet included barking within the definition of word. Yet barking is also a tool to implement language, and it has the power to express an urgency. This is a topic that deserves more words.
Infinite power is not a zero sum game. It is a stone thrown in a lake that ripples outward to the shore. Words are the pebbles we use in community. Community is the lake that keeps us alive. Thank you for your beautiful words.
For many semesters my freshmen college students read The Way to Rainy Mountain. The language, the cadence, and the story captivated them. I got so many good essays from the class afterwards.
But that is not oral story telling. It’s writing.
No, power is power.
Nowadays many biologists would argue that language is found in species other than homo sapiens and indeed in orders other than the primate order.
And what is your answer to propaganda? Here the use of words is to empower might over right, to generate fear and hatred of the Other, to destroy belief in government and in working with others . . . . Words do have power — to destroy as well as to create.
Point taken. Tomorrow's essay deals with that aspect exactly. Many other angles will be covered over the course of the series, between now and June 1. They appear here, along with last year's Big Ideas series -- www.nytimes.com/spotlight/the-big-ideas
I think Mr. Orwell described the wonder of language simply by creating its opposite in his book “1984” — Newspeak. When we lose words, lose connotation, and restrict vocabulary, we actually lose the ability to think.
Inspiring, well-written articles such as this one are how I justify the financial outlay for a digital subscription to The New York Times. Thank you, writer Momaday and the NYT!
I have read many times your beautiful history of the Kiowa people The Way to Rainy Mountain. A fine example of the power of words.
But is it truthful?
Most likely language starts when a species with the ability to vocalize —- gains enough security to focus on immediate needs. Millions of years ago, . . . In an unstable environment where predators grossly outnumber humans —- the most crucial sounds or utterances were grunting and groaning that translates into Run, See, Smell, Water, Bad, and Kill. We use words to placate our desires.
Do not move
Let the wind speak
that is paradise.
Ezra Pound Canto CXX
I dunno. Judging from my FB and Twitter feeds, about 99% of word communication is blather, and half of the rest is narcissisistic self-indulgence.
Initially I was reminded of the Mark Twain quote; "The difference between the right word and almost the right word was the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug." then I reminded myself that words themselves are merely collections of sound that are agreed by consensus to have a certain meaning. First comes the concept behind it; and the power derives first from the concept.
What your essay made me think of is the great power of fathers, specifically the power of a father's words to a child. Having a loving father is an inestimable gift for a child, and the words said by that father carry great weight for rest of the child's life.
We don't acknowledge this fact often enough, and honor it.
thank you for all you do for our people. I was an audience when you read and spoke about House Made of Dawn. The peaceful, alive way your words made me feel that day almost 50 years ago have stayed with me - I think of you often.
What a strong and beautiful creation story. Children gathered to play, and at the end of the day there was language. I weep in freshness and joy.
Thank you for this timely essay. Words are not the thing, but rather pointers. In zen tradition; "the finger pointing to the moon is not the moon". We live in this world of description. The words God, consciousness, awareness or love, could just as easily be the words blizen, flutten and wassel because they are meaningless in themselves and we attach all the meaning based on our cultural conditioning. Words are attempts to describe the formless - this shifting world of apparent forms. That is why many of the words used in politics, advertising and religion have no more meaning than the sound of barking dogs.
I hope the spoken word is not glorified too much. If that’s all one can do it means they are illiterate.
This essay brings to mind the beautiful power of the Book of Genesis. Words that are not entirely factual....but are Truthful. It is for this reason that President Trump is the ultimate speaker of Truth to the power of the Establishment.
President trump’s “words that are not entirely factual but truthful,” you say. What is truthful about Trump’s Obama birther slur? What is truthful about his claim that the Charlottesville neo-nazis & klansmen are “good people”? Where’s the truth in denying climate science? The only truth this man sees is that sowing hatred, confusion, and division is a path to power.
Lol. Pollen huh? Works if your enemies are bees.
In the beginning was the Word...
Professor Momaday's words are so lovely that for a few moments I lost myself in my own romantic trust in words as power. I thought with pleasure of Toni Morrison's words in her Nobel prize acceptance speech, where she, too, spoke of "Language as power," noting that "language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names."
But then my heart sunk as I thought about Orwell, Fox News, the orange monster and the 10,000 lies, impending war in Iran, 22 (or 23) candidates turning on one another, the news from Alabama, the media's "words" unable to stop any of this beyond the valiant efforts of the few. The chorus in Greek tragedy, hand-wringers in black rending garments, the rawness of the photograph, children in cages, the musicians in Auschwitz, a single child washed ashore
In my lifetime, I never thought..... I drift into the ineffable…. Now there's a word.
Yes, the trail can be beautiful, or it can be filled with terror and menace. Can these words save us? You needn't answer. Just rock me, please.
Beautifully written, you have harnessed the power of the word!
Every time President Obama spoke I was in awe of the breadth of his vocabulary and his command of the English language. Through his words he comanded power, compassion, intelligence, knowledge and truth. When he passed the baton to the newly-elected President Trump he advised him to remember that "words matter." It is abundantly clear by his embarrassing, erratic, ignorant and incoherent use of words often with serious implications and even dangerous consequences that Mr. Trump did not heed the wise "words" of his predecessor.
@HMP Perhaps you meant to say "passed DOWN" the baton? Way down.
Thank you, N. Scott Momaday, for your life's work and your wisdom and the beauty and power of your words.
“Words are sacred.” It is unfortunate we can’t restrict our communication to Momaday’s rarefied register. But the humanities and languages are atrophying in curricula heavy with STEM subjects. We live in a world where the most powerful language is composed, not of sacred words, but of 0s and 1s. There are apps for regular language. Algorithms are already beginning to do our communication for us – relieving us, in the name of efficiency, of the need to struggle to put words together in a meaningful way. Programs like Descript do it for you: “At Descript, our mission is to … use technology to take away all the things that get in the way of your ability to express your creative intent.”
Even before the Digital Age language was a fragile mechanism upon which to hang reality. Language is metaphoric, a pale reflection of what we seek to describe. At best, it can strongly suggest, but never capture. If the first word was God, and God is incomprehensible, then words are incomprehensible.
In the realm of religion, myth and poetry words have emotional power. “In the beginning was the Word…and the Word was made flesh.” But words can’t be flesh, unless you believe they can, or if you can appreciate the beauty of this metaphor which attempts to illustrate the ineffable. In this realm words are released from the bonds of semantics, syntax and grammar.
Poetry is better suited to frame the complexity of the human condition – but what chance does it have against 0s and 1s?
In Manhattan & various US cities Playwright Dr Larry Myers theater foundation Playwrights Sanctuary is mentoring newer & younger poets & dramatists. Authorized by the late Edward Albee, Dr Myers has gone "on the road" as Director of The Jack Kerouac Literary Group (endorsed by late Kerouac executor/brother in law John Sampas. After 40 years of university teaching ( 30 at St John's U & 10 at Cincinnati & Kent) Myers empowers theater personel to investigate, embody & dramatize key social issues such as native American issues, LGBTQIA & elders problems.
Words are power, writes Momaday. Indeed. Sadly, words are too often used to mask truth. No examples needed here. That words are power is forgotten or never realized by both political camps. Culturally, words are used in such a binary fashion that all too often the world of children gets divided between them-us, good-evil --the very thinking which has brought us to today's impasse. Jared Diamond, in a recent interview on countries in crisis, stated that the crisis the United States is entering has its cause in polarization. When we fail to teach our students -- be they college or grade school -- words which seek common ground instead of polarize, we are nourishing polarization. When our political leaders -- left and right -- use the same polarizing words, we are that much closer to fracturing as a society. Momaday ends his essay with "a Navajo formula to make an enemy peaceful." As with many noted writers, Momaday's voice stands alone.
In Physics, Power equals: a unit of Energy divided by a unit of time. [Power = (Energy/Time)]. As Power's numerator increases and its denominator decreases, the amount of Power delivered increases. And, importantly, Energy can be defined as equal to: (Force x distance); where Force is equal to (mass x acceleration). This externalization of the word or concept, Energy, certainly helps us to internalize and appreciate the succinct, forceful quip from Shakespeare, which delivers a brief, brilliant burst of elucidating energy.
The sociologist Lev Vygotsky proffers the social development theory of language in which external, or social communication in words, is followed by the internalization of these words into cognition by individuals. Thus, words in social interactions act as scaffolding for words in individual ideation.
Yet, it is the very human errors in word deliveries, or types of oral mutations, that can result in new words or neoligisms, and their accompanying innovative thought pathways.
[5/15/2019 Wed 2:42pm Greenville NC]
I had the pleasure of taking a class from Momaday at Cal in the 60's. It is wonderful to be able to "hear" his voice as I read his written words. Now, how does THAT work??
My colleague at the University of New Mexico with whom I share my Egyptian graduate assistant. Great human being. Have him tell you the stories of Georgia O’ Keefe! So proud of him and UNM!
"This is not the end. This is not the beginning of the end. But it is perhaps, the end of the beginning."
Sir Winston Churchill on the invasion of North Africa, November 1942.
Perhaps the best single word.
General Anthony McAufiffe, during Battle of the Bulge, 1944, when replying to a demand to surrender.
Momaday: "Mr. Leakey argued that we became human when we became bipedal, ..."
That misrepresents and oversimplifies Leakey's views.
First, Leakey does not say "we"; he uses the word "species". Momaday is conflating modern humans with prehistoric species from which modern humans evolved.
Second, Leakey uses the term "bipedal ape".
Third, Leakey argues 'that we are justified in calling all species of bipedal ape "human"', because "the adoption of bipedalism was  loaded with evolutionary potential".
Thus, Leakey views the "adoption of bipedalism" as an *essential* event in the evolution of modern humans.
However, Leakey commits the teleological fallacy when he uses the word "adoption". Species do not "adopt" anything; they simply evolve.
Leakey also equivocates, because he uses the word "human" without qualification to mean "bipedal apes" and "modern humans".
Quotes are from "The Origin Of Humankind" by Richard Leakey. (p. 13)
"Power is language."
Also, power isn't language.
I think, had I made a third at that debate between you and Mr. Leakey--
--you'd have driven me out with clubs and imprecations.
But here goes.
I cannot imagine or conceive of human beings inventing, I don't say "a language"--human beings have certainly done that--
--but inventing the CONCEPT of a language. For the very first time. Untold eons ago. And then, having done that--
--proceeding (as it were) to the nuts and bolts. Getting common consent, agreeing--
--upon the SOUNDS that denote particular things. Actions. Concepts. The whole battery of articles and adjectives and prepositions and adverbs--
--and hey! What about this?
Particles. As in ancient Greek. Tiny words that SHADE the meaning in some subtle way. For example--ego. "I." Egoge--"well, I for one."
The more I think about it, the more inconceivable it becomes.
What I CAN conceive of is human beings coming (as it were) direct from the hand of their Creator, ALREADY talking--
--and the languages breaking off (as it were) from that one, original mysterious language.
And so--what was it?
I don't know.
But I do agree with Mr. Momaday. There is indeed something mysterious and godlike about human speech. One recalls a phrase that recurs in Homer:
Epea pteroenta proseuda. "he spoke (to him or her) winged words." Words that accomplished what they were supposed to accomplish. Words that were real WORDS, you might say--
--not mere sounds flung into a void.
"power is language" is an academic (and clichéd) response to the question. the palestinians have language -- how are they doing?
there are five principal sources of power in the modern world: technology, wealth, infrastructure, government, education.
ask mr. momaday, who may know, how native americans fared against western armies, money, settlements, treaties, schools.
truth is not power; it can't even set you free. truth is recognition of the way things are, perhaps the way they always will be.
power, as thucydides brilliantly documented, is an ephemeral thing. you have to exercise power to keep power, but you can exercise power too far and be undone. enduring power requires a via media of power.
P.S. - the road sign pictured in the article is first of five:
if you crashed
while writing verse
your pen has swerved
from bad to worse.
"there are five principal sources of power in the modern world: technology, wealth, infrastructure, government, education."
You left out "religious faith".
And the Ancient Greeks had all of those, although as your faithless omission suggests, they did not necessarily consider them all equally important.
Sadly, the power of language is not well correlated to truth.
As a species, we're much more likely to believe a good story over actual evidence. A well told story is self-consistent, appeals to emotion, and leaves behind confirmation biases that potentiate its power over time. None of which makes the story truthful.
Narrative is the Petri dish of the humanities. The author creates the organisms, the nutrients and the conditions, then fools the reader into believing the development that ensues and the conclusions that follow.
Heck, even real Petri dishes in a laboratory lead to wrong conclusions on a regular basis.
I love a good story. I even try to write them occasionally. But I've spent enough of my life attempting to answer questions that have objectively correct answers, right and wrong, without interpretation, that I cringe whenever language and stories are used as proof of anything. Too often it leads to tragedy.
@hammond There was a line in the film "Absence of Malice" when Paul Newman, the target of a critical newspaper article, told Sally Field, the journalist, that the story she'd written about him was, indeed, "accurate--but it wasn't true." As a journalism major, I found it a great example of the way language can spin, pro and con, depending on the way the writer goes about it.
N. Scott Momaday's piece is such a welcoming reprieve from the news of today, indeed the disheartening events of every day. We have right within us and surrounding us an aura of what can be beautiful, inspirational, and uplifting..the spoken and written word. Its power is awesome, both in a transcendental, or, sadly, in a destructive way. But let us focus on the Peace along with the Power of language. Juxtaposed with the hateful rhetoric that is all too pervasive during our present socio-political paradigm, are those kind and compassionate conversations we have with our loved ones. And there are those words of enlightenment from teachers, scholars, mentors, and scientists. On the opposite side of that spectrum, where tweets from an amoral president are relentless, we have the authors of poetry, memoirs, and novels who employ words and bring them to an art form. Yes, power is language, and language is power. Our test, our goal is to use it well.
A person has power when the people he or she leads think it's in their best interest for this person to have power. When that person acts in ways that bring about the success of others, both superiors and subordinates on the org chart, he or she will retain that power. And if the person with power does not operate to help other succeed, I guarantee you that person will sooner or later lose that power. I don't care what the position, from president of the U.S. to foreman of a construction crew, when the person with power does a poor job of serving others, that power will be taken away. That's how things work.
I was in prof Momady's class when he received the galley print of "House Made of Dawn". He was a large, imposing man with a storyteller's voice who read these galleys as he received them. I was mesmerized by the clarity of the story and the evocation of the culture. When my children became old enough to travel and understand, we spent many vacations in the southwest. I was transformed by his story, and the high plains of New Mexico and Arizona became a spiritual resting for me. Do words have power...I think so.
Words and language might be powerful, but most have a very short shelf-life.
The spoken word is fleeting and ephemeral and usually disappears at once if not written down. Oral survives only if recorded.
And the written word, the sheer mass of makes it impossible to persevere.
Many libraries at some point cull their collections, either giving away or throwing out (sic!- ok re-cycle) volumes of "power".