“To possess language is to possess reality; to lose control of words is to forfeit one’s claim to reality,” writes Nathan Mitchell in Cult and Controversy.
The truth of this became clear as I read Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea, a book I received as a gift for Christmas. It’s a short fable, a cautionary tale, about how each and every letter of our alphabet matters, especially when that letter is deleted from the language, and all words containing that language must be excised from our lives.
At first, the islanders living on Nollop, a fictitious island off the coast of South Carolina, are not too worried. After all, only the letter “z” had fallen off the statue of the island’s hero, Nevin Nollop, the supposed creator of the pangram, “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog,” which sentence graces the memorial to its creator. When the first letter falls off, the island’s government decides that the incident is a message from beyond, from Nollop himself, inducing the islanders to stop their verbal and written laziness and to make better use of the language.
What’s the big deal, asked most of the islanders when the government directed that after a certain date the letter “z” would no longer be legal, either in writing or in speech. Severe penalties were put in place for those who erred in speech or with pen, and the islanders began to inform on one another, waiting to pounce on any unsuspecting neighbor who might mention the buzz of bees or how something oozed from a pie. Still, there was no widespread panic. What’s the loss of a simple z?
As the book progresses, it is determined by state-siders that the glue that holds the letters to the memorial has calcified, and all letters will eventually plummet to the ground. But the island governors don’t want to hear such nonsense. Nollop is speaking to them, they are certain, and they will enact Nollop’s wishes.
Once the letter “d” falls, Nollop has become all powerful in the minds of the governors, and, since the word “God” is no longer allowed, he has also become all potent.
The book ends with only five letters remaining in the island alphabet: LMNOP. But the islanders are saved by the discovery of a new sentence that uses all letters of the alphabet (pangram), with 32 letters total.
It’s a fun tale, not too meaty or drawn out, but it did make me realize how even seemingly insignificant constraints on language can have a repercussive effect on thought, on communication, and on neighbors. Words can be used to inspire or to incite, to heal or to wound, to convey truth or lies. But these must never be a law that prohibits free speech or writing, for the public’s good. Who, after all, is to decide that good? Language must be allowed to flourish, or rights will die.