Daily Archives: April 6, 2009


How many different things can be made simply by rearranging ordinary parts, and how much change can be made with the aid of a selfless partner! English spelling in general, and this word in particular, is a parable of this. The t alone makes one sound, but joined with an h they make another; the u helps the a make a different sound from the one it makes alone, and then it helps the r be the core of a syllable; and the e helps the g make the sound of a j. They make little wonders with ordinary parts through non-self-asserting cooperation. And such is the way of the thaumaturge. We may think miracles and wonders are the flash-and-bang province of great showmen-magicians, but those are really mainly masterpieces of misidrection and illusion. The real changes, the real miracles, are the small acts of creation and transformation that make up all of life.

Of course, the different sounds of English are not created by the written letters, really; the sounds come first, and the letters merely attempt to represent them. But the phonological transformations – be they synchronic, like [n] velarizing whenever it’s before [k] or [g], or diachronic, like [g] over time becoming a palatoalveolar affricate before a high front vowel (or that high front vowel simply no longer being pronounced) – are little wonders, produced physically by the constraints of our mouth and tongues and our inclination to exert less energy, but understood mentally by our flexible minds. The speaker of any language will have some sets of sounds that will sound like the same sound even though they are clearly perceptible as entirely different sounds to speakers of another language.

We cut up our sounds in different ways, just as we cut up our worlds in different ways. We have the ability to manipulate reality by artifically dividing it, and simply by rearranging it or changing our preceptions we create for ourselves new reality. And all with the same ordinary parts. The tongue touches the teeth and lets some air through; it touches slightly farther back and stops the air until displaced by a puff; it touches slightly farther back and stops the air but then lets some through; the larynx is still, vibrates, is still, vibrates; through several little series of such gestures we make a flow of sound that lets another mind understand that we want to communicate something, and, we hope, have some idea of what we want to communicate.

In language as in other behaviour, every person is a thaumaturge. And such creation follows each utterance, such joining: not just the feeling of the word or the shape of the sounds, but the echoes – dramaturge? theme? math? trauma? urge? – that add flavour, and where and how you can use the word: the tone, what it says about the speaker and the situation… This very word (formed from Greek words for “wonder” and “working”) seems more mystical and arcane than miracle-worker. And why, and how? That’s just how we’ve made it signify, through common understandings and patterns of use.