Monday, April 13, 2009

Words Well Spoken

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah!

Oh, yes, George Frideric Handel, you got it exactly right.

After days of sopping rain. After the tease of an early spring. After the feeling that Lent would go on forever. Hallelujah!

For the azaleas that trim Savannah Avenue with hot pink pom-pom fringe. For the breeze that sets the branches of Mama’s Bradford pear trembling like a candle flame. For the sunrise that reflects off the surface of the pond like a silver dollar. Hallelujah!

Sometimes one word is all it takes to express the deepest emotion. Especially when it is a word like hallelujah, a word that begins and ends with breath itself.

Spring of my freshman year at Wesleyan I had Speech with Mrs. Hatfield. It was from her clearly articulated, but still solidly southern, mouth that I learned articulatory phonetics – bilabial, labiodental, bidental and glottal sounds. She taught us to say words slowly, to notice the position of tongue and teeth, to feel the rise and fall of air with each syllable. Mrs. Hatfield had a demonstrably proprietary interest in what linguists call Southern American English and her own use of it included a traditionally non-rhotic twist: The word ‘speaker’ came out sounding like ‘speakuh’ and Milledgeville’s most famous literary figure was ‘Flannery O’Connuh." She took a very personal offense at the impression of people in other parts of the country that all southerners elongated the long ‘I’ sound and was visibly horrified that there was someone (That would be me.) in her classroom at her fine women’s college who did just that.

It was, I admit, with a great deal of pride in my south Georgia forbears that I repeated after her, "It’s a nice night out tonight." She did not, as I recall, ask me anything about white rice.

Despite that, I was enraptured by the process of creating the spoken word and walked around campus, intoxicated by the scent of Japanese magnolias, saying words out loud, noticing that my lips pressed together to say purple, that my tongue curled to the roof of my mouth to say light and lavender and love and that my upper teeth tapped my lower lip to make the ‘v’ sound in the latter two.

It was love that I came to feel for the spoken word, as much as I had always loved its written equivalent. I learned to listen to the stories my grandfather told around the Thanksgiving table, the memories shared by the aunts shelling peas and shucking corn, the prayers my father offered in colloquial exchange with God. I heard the life force that flowed out of their mouths like a fountain. I recognized the power.

According to Genesis, God spoke the world into existence. "Let there be light," He said, curling His own tongue against the roof of His own mouth to utter four alliterative words that changed everything. The poetry of the creative proclamation echoed over the void to send water and earth and sky settling into their places. And when that single breath enlivened the human race I can’t help believing that it was more than just a puff of air, that it was a word, an invitation to join the conversation.

So now, at Easter, at the end of winter and in the brightness of spring, I can very well believe that the response to that offer, the acceptance of that invitation was probably just that one word: Hallelujah!

Copyright 2009

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