Lover of Words – Linguistics & Literature

I’ve been a lover of words since I was very small. If you ask my parents, they can tell you many stories about my prodigious vocabulary when I was a toddler. My mom’s favorite is how at about 2 years old I told her in the store one day that an item she was about to purchase was “unnecessary.”

I loved being read to even before I could speak. I was a colicky & fussy baby, and my mom would soothe me by reading anything to me that she could find. As soon as I could work a cassette player, I began to listen to books on tape, often following along in the book, pointing at the words as I’d seen my mom do when she read to me. Around age four, I finally made the connection between the words written in the book, and the words spoken on the tape. The first book I read was Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.

Once I started reading, I devoured everything I could get my hands on. And it never occurred to me that any book could be “too difficult.” In second grade, I begged the school librarian to let me check out books from the 4th grade & up section. She made me read a page of my desired book out loud to her, and after I accomplished that task, she gave me free rein in the library. I took the 200 page book home & finished reading it by the two week due-date (The Black Stallion Mystery, by Walter Farley).

My parents both read aloud to us at home. I have wonderful memories of “bed parties,” when my brother & I would snuggle on my mom’s bed as she read to us. She read the Chronicles of Narnia, Beverly Cleary books, Black Beauty, Judy Blume books, poetry books, short stories, everything.

My dad is a collector of Reader’s Digest, both the magazine & the condensed books. I started reading the magazine when I was in elementary school. I loved the “word power” game and prided myself on getting most of the answers right. I read a few of the condensed books in middle school. Most memorable to me was The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck.

Lions in the Wardrobe

I can’t remember the first time I read the Chronicles of Narnia (C.S. Lewis). Actually, I can guarantee that I didn’t read them first myself. It was through “bed parties” with my mom that I first entered the land on the other side of the Wardrobe. It was probably in the late 80s, because I remember eagerly anticipating the BBC’s TV adaptation of the Chronicles when it first aired on PBS. And later I eagerly anticipated the silver screen adaptations.

After being nudged into Narnia by my mom, I took off on my own adventures. Bed parties didn’t happen every night, and I was impatient to read the rest of the books. So I started reading them on my own. I am sad to say it took me years to finish them. My reading slowed during the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and by The Silver Chair, I had lost interest. I guess at that time in my life, the notion of a great quest wasn’t that appealing. There was too much wandering around for me.

I think in the back of my mind, I registered the connections between the Chronicles and Christianity. Mostly, since I was raised Christian, it just seemed natural to me. I guess even as a child I understood that the stories we tell have a connection to the Great Story that God is telling. And it didn’t seem unusual to me at all. I found connections to my faith in just about everything I read – not just the so-called Christian books.

Lost in Time

Round about the time that I gave up Narnia, I stumbled upon A Wrinkle in Time. I was enthralled. I devoured all four of the books in the Time Quartet (A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and Many Waters). I read and re-read those books over and over from elementary school through high school, and then I packed them up and took them to college.

Once again, if I noticed an connection between Madeleine L’Engle‘s stories and my Christian faith, it wasn’t overt. As a Christian, I knew there was evil and that it tried to destroy people and worlds by attacking their identity. So the idea of Echthroi was not strange to me. Obviously, Many Waters has close Biblical ties, but I took that in stride, I mean, the book was about time travel, so why not? I was delighted to see some favorite Bible characters show up unexpectedly – or more accurately for the characters from previous L’Engle books to show up in a favorite Bible story.

In the L’Engle books I found a richness of detail, and characters with whom I could connect intimately, which I hadn’t found in the Chronicles of Narnia. It wasn’t until I was mature enough to read it for the overall story, that I finally “got” the Chronicles of Narnia. I had read Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis my freshman year of college. I was blown away by his gift for expressing theology in analogies that make sense. And suddenly, I was reminded of the Chronicles of Narnia. I started reading the Chronicles again, from the beginning. And I was able to see the nuances that I’d just taken for granted as a child. I got past the idea that this wasn’t “my kind” of book and I was able to enjoy it for the great story that it told – not just because I could identify with the characters (although I found that I did connect with them – with different ones at different times). And that is when I was truly ready for the Lord of the Rings.

Lured by The Ring

As a child & a teen, I prided myself on finding “obscure” books, and not just reading what was popular. I think that’s one reason I never read Lord of the Rings when I was young. It seemed like one of those books you were “expected” to read because everyone else did. So I didn’t. Besides, it was one of those silly fantasy books that the boys liked to read. (I would have been insulted if anyone had suggested that my Chronicles of Narnia and beloved Madeleine L’Engle books fell into the same category). Such are the prejudices of a young girl.

Anyway, I did finally discover the Lord of the Rings in college. I was dragged against my will to the first movie (I considered it over-hyped and therefore to be boycotted, just as I had boycotted Titanic when it came out). I didn’t understand the movie at all. I was bored. I left the theater three times just to walk around. And yet, everybody else was enamored. They talked about it all the time. And in spite of being unenthusiastic about the movie, I was intrigued by some things I was hearing about the book, and there were parts of the movie that I did enjoy and that piqued my interest.

I was also interested because of all the controversy surrounding fantasy fiction. I was already a committed Harry Potter fan, and knew that the stigma surrounding those books was ridiculous. So I was pretty sure that the accusations against the Lord of the Rings was also a load of crap. Then I learned the one fact that finally convinced me to pick up the book for myself…. J.R.R. Tolkien was a friend of C.S. Lewis. Not only that, but he had played an instrumental role in helping Lewis come to Christ. Slam dunk. Any friend of C.S. Lewis was an instant friend of mine. And he had helped lead Lewis to Christ? This was a guy I had to get to know.

So I borrowed The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings from a friend & got started. It took me probably a few days to read The Hobbit. I had vague recollections of the story, possibly having seen the cartoon or read a condensed version as a child. I started the Fellowship with enthusiasm, but found myself struggling once I reached the Two Towers (it was The Silver Chair problem all over again). I had to set the book aside for a month or so, but picked it back up again because of my determination to finish the Two Towers before the movie came out. I accomplished my goal and was actually more than halfway through The Return of the King by the time The Two Towers movie came out.

I sped through The Return of the King & waited with great anticipation for the movie to come out. It did not disappoint me. Though I haven’t read the Silmarillion, I’ve heard many of the stories from my friends who have read it. And actually, I think that’s pretty cool because Tolkien wrote the stories in the style of epic legend, and telling the stories aloud seems to be a perfectly legitimate thing to do. Granted, my friends and I weren’t drinking ale or sitting in a mead hall at the time, but for this day and age I think Mountain Dew in the living room is a fair substitute.

The Linguistics Connection

Somewhere in the midst of my discovery of Tolkien, I learned that he was a linguist. And so was my beloved C.S. Lewis! Well, fancy that, I ‘d just taken my first linguistics class the year before, and had fallen in love with the subject. I took the Structure of American English in Spring 2001. I took it because it was a prerequisite for a class I desperately wanted to take – Teaching English as a Second Language. I wanted that class because I thought it would be helpful as I had already been tutoring a Mexican teen in English & felt totally inadequate for the task. Little did I know that this “silly” prereq that I wanted to “get out of the way” would open my mind to new and interesting thoughts about language. It would also, with the help of Spanish, pull me away from my Animal Science major into the realm of Linguistics.