“To Give a Being Like Me Language” – Akwaeke Emezi on Toni Morrison

After Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison died just a few days ago, I thought a lot about what her work meant to me, and I read a lot of tributes to her. The piece of writing that struck me most is this letter by nonbinary writer/ogbanje Akwaeke Emezi:

The elderspirit of you leapt into my head the day Professor Mayes played a VHS tape from her archive of an interview you gave after you won the Nobel Prize.
‘I stood at the border, stood at the edge, and claimed it as central. Claimed it as central, and let the rest of the world move over to where I was.’
Your words reached like an arm of fire out of that television screen, and I swear they were just for me. This is the you I know. It is no small thing to give a being like me language.”

Their letter was published by Them.

The letter may be the most beautiful, center-challenging – and in that combination most Morrison-like – piece I read these days. Morrison’s writing meant a lot to me, but I can barely start to understand what she meant to people who live closer to the edges than I do.

My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences. And it was the concern and caring of all those women which gave me strength…

This is not simply a war language; this is an American language. In Sharif’s rendering, “Look” is at once a command to see and to grieve the people these words describe — and also a means of implicating the reader in the violence delivered upon those people.

A Poet Subverts the Defense Department’s Official Dictionary Natalie Diaz reviews Solmaz Sharif’s poetry collection Look for the New York Times.

We do things with language, produce effects with language, and we do things to language, but language is also the thing that we do. Language is a name for our doing: both “what” we do (the name for the action that we characteristically perform) and that which we effect, the act and its consequences.

Judith Butler Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. (1997) 7-8


If you’ve been following the Greek financial crisis, you’ve
certainly seen that old cliché “it’s all Greek to me” in the headlines. Wall Street Journal language columnist Ben
Zimmer says Shakespeare probably popularized the phrase, but he didn’t actually
come up with it. Its true origin is a bit of a mystery, though Zimmer says there’s
a pretty good guess:

Back in the days before the printing press, medieval monks
would copy old Latin manuscripts to preserve them, but the Greek alphabet threw
them for a loop.

“And so if
they were copying a Latin manuscript, and they came across a Greek quotation in
a manuscript, they might have trouble actually trying to copy that part,”
Zimmer says. “And so as a kind of a cop-out, they might just write in
Latin, Graecum est, non legitur, which
means, ‘This is Greek. It cannot be read.’ ”

It All Greek To You? Thank Medieval Monks, And The Bard, For The Phrase

Image: Greek flags fly
beside those of the European Union in Athens. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)