By Hannah Francis
"Patient woke up unable to speak", "Wife cannot understand him", "Unable to answer questions": Such are the admission notes I read each morning when I go to see new patients who have arrived from the emergency department.
From around our first birthday we start speaking our first words. From that point forward we don’t think too much about language, it comes naturally and fluently as we grow. We start combining words as we enter into toddler years, and we can soon make demands, ask questions, and sing songs. Imagine the shock and distress then, if you suddenly lose your ability to communicate. Unable to think of the words you need to say, maybe your tongue and lips won’t move, or your voice has stopped producing sound.
As a stroke unit speech and language therapist I assess and treat people whose brain injuries have affected their ability to communicate. It is a fascinating privilege to work with people through these intensely frightening and frustrating experiences. It is also a daily reminder of how easy it is to take words for granted and underestimate the power and complexity of language.
The capacity to acquire and use language is a uniquely human phenomenon. Not only do we learn words and then use them grammatically, but each of us is also able to create new sentences and combinations of words at will. Animals have been shown to acquire finite vocabularies, but only humans have the ability to use the complex syntactic skills that allow for an infinite number of possible messages. In linguistics this is referred to as the ‘novel utterance’.
Psalm 33 tells us God spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm (v.9), by the word of the Lord the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth (v.6). By the power of his words God created the heavens and the earth.
What should our response be to this amazing, powerful God? The psalm tells us it is to use our words to praise him! Sing to him a new song (Psalm 33v.3) – a ‘novel utterance’.
The same God who spoke the world into creation has given us the gift of speech. We want to sing him a new song because the word of the Lord is right and true; he is faithful in all he does. The Lord loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love (Psalm 33v.4-5). We are able to sing to him a new song because he has given us words, and the ability to create new combinations of these words every day.
Words are undoubtedly useful, sometimes funny, and always fascinating if you’re anything like me… but they are so much more. They allow us to hear from God, to speak to God, and to praise him. It is only fitting that as God daily shows us anew his unfailing love, forgiveness and grace, we turn to him in praise, using our God-given skills to sing to him a new song.