THE POWER OF SPEECH: A Short Story in a Strange Tongue

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THE POWER OF SPEECH: A Short Story in a Strange Tongue

I recently spent a rather distressing luncheon engagement with a moderately well-known author. Aside from hearing much invaluable gossip about better known writers than my friend, I was also treated to a complex deconstruction of language and literary theories that I did not think interesting or even appropriate over a long lunch.

For our first cocktails my friend was diverted into a discussion of the free verse of Jules Laforge and T.S. Eliot's debt to this much neglected French master of the late 19th century, the anniversary of whose death my companion was observing that very day.

Over smoked salmon the monologue was on current models of analysis of idiomatic language and by dessert wines, as I am now forced to recall, I was listening to certain translations from the Greek, a language I have not been blessed to understand.

This was not seen as any other than a minor inconvenience by my companion.

She continued over ports and coffee.

As the end of this increasingly unpleasant afternoon drew upon us I realised that my friend was actually speaking in a different language. I was reduced to silence by the sheer intensity and number of polysyllables, impenetrable aphorisms, oblique asides and phrases in Latin.

This unhappy incident put me in a mind to recall an elderly aunt who lived happily in the country for many years.

Rather late in life this robust woman became extremely religious as is the custom of the elderly and feeble-minded. She began to fall prey to many and various senior figures of unscrupulous religious sects.

My uncle tolerated this aberration in her behaviour for some months and in fact watched with what I suspect was mild amusement as more and more bizarre figures appeared to speak with this sad old woman.

One weekend however my uncle took her to a church in Mt Roskill. It was one of those modern, sterile buildings constructed with the money of the innocent and lost, and presided over by the rich and manipulative: lawyers, aspiring politicians and building inspectors for local councils. You know the type.

In the course of the afternoon my aunt fell into speaking in tongues, that curious phenomenon considered a sign of true communion with God.

Regrettably, my aunt did not stop her inarticulate babbling when the others did.

Frightened and somewhat helpless, she found that she had lost all power of ordinary speech and, despite knowing the Lord was at her side, she could no longer communicate with her fellow man.

Doubly tragic when, I imagine, she had important truths to impart.

Certain members of the church, elders as they style themselves, were distressed by this unexpected turn of events. Some of the more simple in the congregation took my aunt's increasingly fevered ramblings to be A Sign and a crowd gathered filling the carpark. But the elders recognised the potential damage to their church if this fact were to become widely known.

Sad to report, my aunt never regained her power of ordinary speech. She simply spewed out odd sounds which no one could understand as she sat in the lounge of the house in Hillsborough that the elders bought her.

The last time I saw my aunt she was sitting, bird-like, on the corner of the settee in her new home, her shoulders drawn up high, her face thin and deeply etched.

The light from her eyes had all but gone, and just a faint flickering of a pleading for release was discernible in her gaunt expression.

She looked no happier for her singular and sad communication with God.

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