Word! The Language Column
Fruitful words

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Children's language has a beauty of its own | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

Our columnist often finds himself thinking of his late beloved grandmother and her folksy sayings. She was a woman who practised what she preached. Her wise words of advice often come to mind, especially in hard times.

By Hernán D. Caro

In those oft-recurring moments when I don’t know what to do, when I’m anxious about life, I find myself thinking about my late grandmother. More precisely: about things she used to say, which I still cherish like talismans. Words that might sound banal to some, but which give me strength, hope or simply comfort.

Call to action

Yes, I know: what’s in a word anyway? We’re all familiar with some variants of the old saw “Actions speak louder than words!” Whether it be didactic aphorisms (“Fine words butter no parsnips”), exhortations (“Talk’s cheap!” “Practise what you preach!” “Put your money where your mouth is!”) or wise and yet rather glib-sounding maxims (“If you’re going to talk the talk, you’ve got to walk the walk”). In my Latin American childhood, which was heavily influenced by Christian lore, these sentiments were often couched in biblical terms. I often heard people say, “Ye shall know them by their fruits”, which was a quote – whether we knew or it not then – from the teachings of Jesus according to the Gospel of Matthew.
All these phrases express the same thought: you may say whatever you like, but if your words aren’t followed up by deeds or, worse still, are contradicted by your conduct, then they have been fruitless. You can tell who someone really is by their “fruits”, not by their prattle and blather. And yet it’s the words of my grandmother that see me through and buoy me up me when I’m beset with doubts. How come?

Words as signposts

It’s because words and deeds match up in certain special people. And if what those special people said in their lifetime is all that’s left of them, their words become powerful signposts for us. My mother’s mother was a simple, unremarkable housewife who never had it easy, didn’t go to high school, led a very modest life – and yet, it seems to me, grasped some important things. And she lived the way she talked. I’m still moved to this day when I realize how some of her sayings build on and complement each other. They’re like elements of a philosophy of life which she never articulated in full, but which I treasure nevertheless.
Sometimes my grandmother would say, “You can’t take it with you when you go.” So there’s no point in amassing material riches, since you can’t take any of it with you into the grave. Consequently, all the objects she left us after passing away would have fit in a single suitcase – whereas the grieving relatives and friends who showed up for her funeral couldn’t all fit into the church.
She often rounded out that caveat about amassing wealth with a slightly contradictory piece of advice that could be audacious, even risky, depending on the situation: “If someone offers to give you something, say yes!” This was her way of saying: life is now, so make the most of the opportunities life throws your way, don’t hesitate to accept them. Because you never know when they’ll come again. Nor did she confine this life-affirming curiosity and generosity to herself, but often extended it to others as well. Whenever I showed up at lunchtime with a friend and asked if he could eat with us, for instance, she’d reply with a blasphemous locution that I truly relished: “If there's room for all of us in hell, there must be room here, too.” So the friend got to stay for lunch.

Carpe diem!

I’ll never forget my grandmother – or, for that matter, a number of her sayings, one of which in particular has been echoing in my head lately: “Everything comes and goes.” The meaning is clear, though it’s hard to act consistently on that basis, to bear in mind at all times that the troubles, worries and fears that plague us won’t last forever. But neither will success, triumph, elation: these things, too, will pass. And yet, coming from my grandmother, the motto wasn’t discouraging. On the contrary, it was a source of enduring encouragement, and the logical foundation for the generous principle by which she lived: “Carpe diem!”

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every four weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.