He has thoughts he doesn’t think about. Birds might wake him but they don’t. My thoughts feel like speech—how one animal makes nature—until I speak to him. We use words like a tree uses light: there is a process we don’t see but do. A kid I don’t know hits another I don’t know. I say stop stop to myself. Speech keeps happening against me. The boy wakes to cry.
Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897–1941)
Whorf worked in insurance, studied the causes of fires in the files: faulty wiring, lack of air spaces, a problem of materials. Additional patterns emerged: Workers took great care around gasoline drums, but not around empty gas drums. Empty: put your hand in there. Can you feel anything? When the night sky is empty there are still. When the mind is empty there are still. When drums are empty there are still vapors more flammable than gasoline. They are English empty—waiting for the spark. Limestone considered safe from fire because of the stone. Watch it burn. Watery can’t catch fire, but it does. These discoveries become a metaphor about language—whip back to being language language. Language shapes experience and kaboom. We classify instead of swarming in the undifferentiated waters of the unsaid. Drown or the risk of fire. But when the habits of category fail: the burnt structure of there once was speech here—faulty. And paperwork, of course.