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Word! The Language Column
At a Loss for Words

Illustration: A person with a speech bubble containing ellipsis points
Does silence heighten our senses – or make us talk to ourselves even more than usual? | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

Amid the ubiquitous chatter, Jagoda Marinić considers the power of silence. Can’t pauses and wordless gestures be significant and expressive too?

By Jagoda Marinić

People cast about for words even when they’re at a loss for words. I’ve always wondered why people don’t hold their peace rather than saying things like “I don’t know what to say” or “I’m at a loss for words”, why they just have to fill this moment of dumbfounded silence despite the feeling that no words can do justice to the reality of the situation. Do we really need to express the inadequacy of language instead of simply pausing for a moment of silence – and expecting others to do likewise? Couldn’t we accept the fact of being rendered speechless instead of talking over it, which often involves falling back on platitudes and hollow phrases? The Enlightenment, which sheds light on everything, seems to have left no room for silence.

The power of the pause

And yet, silence is a language too. As is the tranquillity it can bring. The same goes for rests in music and pauses between words in a conversation. How does the absence of words feel in a person’s presence? Does silence heighten our senses – or make us talk to ourselves even more than usual, so the silence outside gives way to a chattering commotion inside our heads? I generally admire people who know how to use pregnant pauses more than those who articulate their thoughts ever so eloquently. Eloquence is a matter of showing, whereas silence is a matter of revealing, humbly leaving it to others to see what they want to see. This, to my mind, is the more powerful approach. The American writer Toni Morrison epitomized such an approach. Hardly anyone uttered their sentences in such thoughtful silence as she did. You can hear whole essays in her pauses. This may be why I like reading poetry so much, because a good poem creates such a heavily charged atmosphere. When reading a poem, you get the impression at some point that each word makes the silence in which it was perhaps composed more audible. Generally speaking, a poem doesn’t really hit you until the last word has fully sunk in.

Talking fingers

I remember a reading I once attended at a huge church in northern Germany. Michael Krüger (b. 1943), a poet and former publisher of Hanser Verlag, read one of his poems to a handful of hushed listeners. The poem was called “Was noch zu tun ist” (What can still be done), if my memory serves. Krüger, who was already an old man at the time, was seated on a wooden chair in that outsized church with his book of poetry in his hands, enumerating his wishes for the time remaining: What should he do with the time he had left? Live? He read the poem aloud, but it was actually his body that was speaking, his hands, his fingers, on which he counted off one wish after another. One, two, three, four... The fingers didn’t say a word, but I’ll never forget how profoundly expressive they were. To this day, those lonely fingers, to which the poet assigned one wish after another, remind me that someday in each of our lives this moment of counting-off will come – when we ask ourselves what’s still possible. Fortunate are those who can count off their wishes for the time remaining.

It’s precisely when I feel at a loss for words, confronted with the limits of what can be said, that I feel the intensity of language most strongly. Fumbling for words that might be adequate to seizing the reality around me. At a time when words emerge less and less from silence, but from the collective flood of words, most of which just go in one ear and out the other. So much chatter, and yet hardly a word. We should bear in mind that speechlessness is a prerequisite for language.

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two 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.