The work of naturalist and poet Diane Ackerman has more than once touched on areas of interest to language teachers. In An Alchemy of Mind she uses her own personal memories, from working in her rose garden to bird-watching in Japan, as a framework to an investigation into neuroscience, the processes of learning and the development of the brain. Her other works include A Natural History of the Senses, and a book of poems for children, Animal Sense.
Ackerman’s new book 100 Words for Love: A Stroke, a Marriage and the Language of Healing is just as personal, telling of the recovery from a catastrophic stroke of her husband, the novelist, poet and professor of literature Paul West. This was a man who lived for words and was suddenly unable to communicate at all. Ackerman describes the science of the accident, her love for the man, and his efforts with her support to regain his language and his life.
Ackerman was working to understand her husband’s condition while helping him through speech therapy and other rehabilitation. Eventually she found a method that touched both their lives. In this video clip Ackerman describes how “before the stroke (Paul) had so many pet names for me that I felt like a human zoo. So it broke my heart that afterwards he couldn’t remember a single one of them.” So she suggested he make up new ones. For 100 days West produced new names for his wife and so forced himself to begin speaking again.
The words he’d used in the past were simple and loving, Ackerman was his “swan” and so on. But the 100 new words are complex. After the stroke West somehow found it easier to remember words he’d learnt as an adult. So while he couldn’t say the word for “telephone” he could remember “tesseract” which as Ackerman explains ‘..is a three-dimensional object unfolded into a fourth dimension. In a strange way, he’s right, that’s what a telephone is.’ Similarly he could remember “cherub”, an Old Testament word for “angel” but not the modern, common word. And then ‘One night, after dinner, he pronounced: ‘You are the hapax legomenon of my life.’ ….Hapax legomenon” is Latin for ‘a word that occurs only once in the entire written record of a language’…. ‘Well done!’ I cheered. You’re still in there, I thought. Despite everything.’