The Silence in the Words of Children

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For any of you who have ever stopped and marveled at the purity and simplicity with which children speak their many first words – and especially for those of you who also have wondered at the silence words break – one long and one short contrasting passages from Max Picard’s beautiful 1948 book, The World of Silence.

“The child is like a little hill of silence.  On this little hill of silence suddenly the word appears.  The little hill becomes quite small when the first word of the child is spoken.  It sinks beneath the pressure of the word as if by magic, and the word tries to make itself look important.

“It is as though with the sound that comes from its mouth the child were knocking on the door of silence and silence were replying:  Here I am, Silence, with a word for you.

“The word has difficulty in coming up from the silence of the child.  Just as the child is led by its mother, so, it seems, the word is led by silence to the edge of the child’s mouth, and is held so firmly there by silence that it is as though each syllable had to detach itself separately from the silence.  More silence than sound comes out through the words of children, more silence than real language.

“The words a child speaks do not flow in a straight line, but in a curve, as if they wanted to fall back again into the silence.  They make their slow journey from the child to other people, and when they arrive they hesitate a moment, to decide whether they should return to the silence or stay where they are.  The child gazes after its word as it might watch its ball in the air, watching to see if it will come back again or not.

“The child cannot replace by another word the word it has brought with difficulty out of the silence;  it cannot put a pronoun in place of an noun.  For each word is there as it were for the first time, and what is there for the first time, what is quite new, naturally has no wish to be replaced by something else.

“A child never speaks of itself as ‘I’, but it always says its name:  ‘Andrew wants…’  The child would think it were disappearing if it were to replace its own name by a pronoun — its own name that has just come up out of the silence with the word and is there as it were for the first time ever.

“The child’s language is poetic, for it is the languge of the beginning of things, and therefore original and first-hand as the language of poets is original and first-hand.  ‘The moon has got broken’, says the child of the new moon.  ‘We must take it to mother to mend it.’

“This child’s language is melodious.  The words hide and protect themselves in the melody — the words that have come shyly out of the silence.  They almost disapper again in the silence.  There is more melody than content in the words of the child.

“It is as though silence were accumulating within the child as a reserve for the adult, for the noisy world of the child’s later years as an adult.  The adult who has preserved within himself not only something of the language of childhood but also something of its silence, too, has the power to make others happy.

“The language of the child is silence transformed into sound.  The language of the adult is sound that seeks for silence.”

and yet we come to this:

“Silence no longer exists as a world, but only in fragments, as the remains of a world.  And as man is always frightened by remains, so he is frightened by the remains of silence.

“Sometimes in a city a man suddenly collapses and dies in the midst of the noise of the highway.  It is then as if all at once the shreds of silence, still lying around, amongst the tree tops by the roadside, suddenly descend on the dead man.  It is as if these remains of silence had crept down to the silence of the dead man in the roadway, and there is a momentary stillness in the city.  The remains of silence are with the fallen man in order to disappear with him into death, to disappear through the fissure of death.  The dead man takes the last remains of silence with him.”





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