The Miracle of Speech
by Norman Fiering
Human speech is able to serve as a lever by which the commitments of
astonishingly large numbers of people may be lifted and shifted. I refer here not
to the obvious power of oratory to move crowds. Consider instead the muted
inauguration of the new president of the United States or of any peaceful transfer
of political power. In January 2009, the allegiance of 300 million people was
instantly but gently moved from one point to another by the oath of office taken
by President Obama.
This large country, possessed with enormous power in many forms, tip-toes at
the moment of transfer with the delicacy of a ballet dancer, lest any suggestion
creep in of coercion as opposed to consent or free will. A mammoth pivoting on a
pinhead by the simple enunciations: “Do you solemnly swear to faithfully
execute. . . .?” “I do.” The deed is done merely by the miracle of articulated
speech, that is, the meshing of speech and response. An order is issued in the
form of a question, and the response is, I will do it.
This is, of course, the wonder of democracy, its boisterous, hard-edged
contention in the end subdued by a vote, that is to say, by essentially spoken
“yes”’s and “no”’s, which are translated by the ballot box or a computerized
version thereof, into some mechanical action. The “voice” of the people is no
metaphor, since we all do say “yea” or “nay,” in effect.
Moreover, the presidential transfer in the U. S. goes back, as well, to a meeting in
Philadelphia in 1787 where also what were originally spoken words were
embodied in the Constitution, which we reverence and to which we defer, but
which we also allow to carefully metamorphose under the command of the
speech of a group of justices in a court room, or sometimes by more voting in the
amendment process. Spoken words determine both individual lives and the fate
Thus we are bound together, one might even say spiritually unified, not by
“words,” as is sometimes said, not by “language,” as is also asserted, and
certainly not by mere “talk,” but by living speech, which is language backed up
by conviction and commitment, that is, by full accountability, and backed up
even by putting one’s life or one’s freedom on the line: “This I have said. I stand
by it. You may quote me. I am responsible for what I have said.” Sometimes even
we hear, at moments of the greatest crisis, “I know I may die for what I have
Thus is speech, which strangely we take for granted as though it was part of the
natural order of things. But real speech is decidedly unnatural, or perhaps
“supernatural” is the more apt word if freed from the connotation of
We are regularly reminded by those who entirely miss the point that even bees,
whales, and chimpanzees have language. Indeed, chimps have language, but
they don’t take oaths that bind 300 million other creatures, or utter promises that
last a lifetime, such as “I do” in the marriage ceremony, or pronounce a verdict in
a courtroom that determines life or death, or issue an order that is still in the
process of fulfillment after two millennia: “And he said to them, Go you into all
the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” (Mark 16:15). All religion
hinges on ancient spoken injunctions. Speech creates vast corridors through time
and links the generations.
The foremost analyst, or better to say, prophet, of man as the speech-making
animal, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, died only in 1973, and is still not widely
known. Everything stated above is directly derived from his writing and
speaking. He made discovery after discovery about this strange power, little of
which has been absorbed by the learned world, despite his thousands of pages of
published writings. His friends and those he inspired, such as Franz Rosenzweig
and Martin Buber, or W H. Auden and Walter Ong, are far better known.
If speech is so evidentally fundamental to human society, Rosenstock-Huessy
said, let us probe it to its depths and discover how it performs its magic. This
exploration of the power of speech, it turns out, reveals God, man, and the world
anew. Indeed, “God is the power that makes us speak,” Rosenstock held. In a
supposedly disenchanted world, lacking in mystery and miracles, the irreducible
magic of speech remains as potent an elixir as ever, although it is often degraded
and in need of revitalization.
Great spoken words echo through the centuries, calling us forth. While at the
other extreme, in the tight intimacy of the family, the infant is called into life by
the direct address of his parents and others: “Jimmy, we love you, grow and be.”
Indeed, the magical and transforming reassurance, from cradle to grave, of
directly hearing those words, “I love you,” has not suffered in the slightest from
the reductionist investigations of neuroscience, which sometimes purport,
absurdly, to “explain” love.
Grade and rank your knowledge, Rosenstock frequently urged. The product of
the laboratory deserves no privilege over what you know from direct, personal
experience. The filter of education can destroy our ability to receive our
experience as primary evidence.
In Rosenstock-Huessy’s “grammatical method,” even the vast enterprise of
natural science in the past six centuries may be classified as a particular exercise
of speech, one of only four necessary forms of speech–– that form which properly
relates to the dead and objectified elements in the world, the eternally
repetitious, ahistorical, external world of space. After love has happened to a
person, as a unique event, the psychologist, or whomever, comes along and
studies its generalized form, but as Rosenstock says, there is no “I,” “you,” and
“we” in it. In fact, “nature” and science are categories of the the world that
specifically exclude speech. Science is an essential, invaluable part of the grammar
of mankind, but it always comes after the real action is spent, and it is conducted
in an unemotional whisper.
Rosenstock-Huessy’s “grammatical method,” which cannot be explored here at
length, and his thought taken comprehensively, restores a social balance that has
long been terribly distorted. In his work, all human endeavor finds its particular
rightful place: art and literature, sports and play, law and politics, science and
philosophy, technology and industry. Nothing is lost or expunged or rejected;
they are all profoundly and freshly understood. But all of these modes of human
experience are at last put within the perspective of a whole view of who man is.
Once the lesser gods in society are recognized as such, they can no longer be
objects of worship and reverence as they typically are in our time. Grammar,
Rosenstock said, “will ascend beyond the grammar school, and become from a
dry-as-dust textbook-obsession, the open sesame to the hidden treasures of
Such an assertion is hard to believe, but a fundamental re-consideration, for
example, of the huge bias towards space as the primary dimension in human
affairs (we ludicrously regard time as merely the fourth dimension of space) has
revolutionary implications, as does the unseating of our adherence to the
standard subject/object distinction. Both of these matters are addressed by a
new understanding of speech and grammar.
The grammatical method is no academic exercise, no series of metaphysical
abstractions. Rosenstock’s writing is always extraordinarily grounded. He has no
recourse to transcendence or to retreat from the world. He had lived through
World War I as an officer in the German army and witnessed the suicidal
catastrophe of European culture, an internecine slaughter beyond
comprehension. From the time of an epiphany he had in 1918 until his death in
1973, Rosenstock-Huessy devoted his life to the study of where and how Western
Civilization went off track, with World War II and the Shoah only a confirmation
of his worst fears.
He challenged academe, he challenged the nation-state, he challenged the
Christian churches. At the time of the crisis of World War I, he wrote, the
prevailing idols––the universities, the churches, and the state––all had “piteously
failed. They had not been anointed with one drop of the oil of prophecy, which
God requires from our governors, from our teachers, and from our churches. . . .
Not one of them had any inkling of the doom or any vision for the future beyond
mere national sovereignty.” (3)
The author of hundreds of published articles and books, as recorded in Lise van
der Molen’s Guide to the Works of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy: Chronological
Bibliography (1997), Prof. Rosenstock-Huessy remained always at heart a
philosophical historian, although he acquired the voice, as well, of a Judaeo-
1. “In Defense of the Grammatical Method,” in Speech and Reality , 9.
2. “Metanoia: To Think Anew,” in I Am an Impure Thinker (1970).