Being Reminded of the Importance of Language

I recently ushered for a play which turned out to be a multi-level, heart wrenching, language fest. All in a little over two hours.

  • It was a play about a family with three adult children, one of whom had been born deaf, all of whom were living at home.
  • The parents were both writers.
  • The play was set in England, so the cast used British accents. I’m a sucker for accents, especially a British one. Extra points regardless, for that.
  • The father was an opinionated SOB. He liked to yell insults to anyone and everyone. He didn’t discriminate in this regard.
  • The mother was more compassionate, containing most of her yelling to the father.

Throughout the play, there was a theme about how language affects who you are because of its being a kind of template for how you see and experience the world. At the beginning of the play, the idea was that without language—without actual spoken words, that is—there was no possibility for a rich emotional life. Anything other than spoken language was considered inferior, not a true language.

Of course that premise was turned on its head when the deaf son fell in love. The woman had been born to deaf parents, was losing her own hearing, and had been part of the deaf community for her entire life.

When the deaf son learns sign language from his new girlfriend, the father, outraged, challenges that sign language couldn’t possibly be as capable of expressing concepts and emotion as the spoken word.

By the end of the play, the father experiences a change of heart. His original opinions about spoken words being the only valid form of language change. In fact, every character’s world was upended, old paradigms blown apart, opening the possibility for healing to begin.

As writers, our tools are words, and the emotions we can create with them.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to be reminded in such a visceral way that language makes a difference—regardless of what form it takes.

The play was Tribes by Nina Raine.

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