Runcible Blog

Also sprach Dave

What was the first word you spoke today? Do you ever pay attention to that initial bit of wind tickling your vocal cords? Maybe it's more significant than we consider.

After thinking about it recently, I believe my first word is usually "hello." Sometimes I sing when I wake up or during my commute, but more often than not, my mornings are silent until I arrive at work. If I buy breakfast in the cafeteria, I might talk to Mark, who works there. Usually, though, I just say "hello" or "thank you." He says "have a nice day," and I say "you too." But by then, the first words have already passed. If I don't buy food first, then I say hello to whoever is in the office at the time. Most often, it's simply "hello" to start the day.

There are days when the first word doesn't come until late in the afternoon, if at all. That's when I'm most conscious of the first word. I sometimes imagine that my words are just bottled up inside, and that when I finally get around to speaking them, it'll be some kind of epic moment. Or I think that if I don't speak for a long time, the first word will come out cracked and sound alien. I might even forget how to make the sound I intend. But of course, it never happens that way. I say, "vegetarian burrito" or "rigatoni with sauce and cheese" or something similarly mundane. I might pause slightly and think, "hey, my voice still exists! It's the same as before, and nothing impeded its articulation."

It's really quite amazing how seamlessly we are able to transmute the voice of our constantly-buzzing thoughts into a physical manifestation as pressure nodes through air. No wonder speaking becomes such a trivial, mindless effort — when the capacity to excrete thoughts into the physical world arises so naturally, what prevents us from spouting off every half-thought that dribbles through the brain?

Part of the answer is that we need to make sense of the proto-thoughts before they're even able to be communicated. If you try to snatch the typical stream of thoughts in your brain and immediately speak them, they probably sound like gibberish, or at best, tangential and fragmented. We're just so good at congealing the stew of thoughts into communicable packets that we take for granted the computation involved and just how messy the thinking realm is compared to the speaking realm. Speaking is the act of temporarily decreasing the entropy of the mind, and as such, every speech increases the entropy elsewhere: in my mind and in yours, or through the air, knocking some far-off butterfly from its path and setting a typhoon in motion.

Often, the part of my brain that speaks lags behind the rest. I struggle to vocalize the stew of proto-thoughts. Either they seem incapable of ordering correctly, or too many thoughts appear at once. This can be very frustrating, especially when someone else is counting on my ability to communicate. If somebody asks why a program misbehaved, I might understand immediately and intuitively why, but putting the understanding to words takes much more effort. It's like preparing an airplane for landing — you can't just flip all of the switches and cut the engines at once; you've got to be meticulous to transition from the flying world to the ground world. Someone who doesn't practice landing enough is going to have a tough time putting the plane down smoothly, just as someone who speaks infrequently may have trouble expressing his stew of thoughts.

It's important to try not to be frivolous in thought or speech, and even though one's first daily utterance doesn't need to be something profound, I think that being aware of one word can help carry an awareness throughout the day. At the very least, recalling the first word could be an intriguing experiment of self-discovery. Do you wake up and swear at your alarm clock? Do you turn over and greet a lover? What is the intention behind the word? How present are you in that moment the word leaves your lips? That's the key: by being completely present in this one, first word, you might make a difference in someone's life. Then, be present during the next word, and during the next thought. Finally, treat every moment with the same respectful awareness until the effort falls away and the clarity of your speech matches the clarity of your thoughts.

Hey, I might try that!