The Spoken Word:
An Exploration of Language, Storying, and Empathy
→BFA PTG 2025
Ephemeral and nuanced, spoken words give way to a multitude of interpretations Storytelling in particular requires language, intonation, and memory along with the act of speaking. In my 2023 Wintersession course, Mapping Realities, taught by the immensely knowledgeable Lilly Manycolors, we contemplated the animacy, or sentience, of non/more-than-human beings, how they map space and time, and how they communicate. The driving force of my research on the mapping of spoken word was the idea of translation—how words, conversations, and stories travel between or through entities. Treating storytelling as a form of mapping, I found the animacy of words and language revealed to me. In my research I also explored grammar, oral tradition, human exceptionalism, and story-listening as an act of empathy.
Words begin like babies. Released by tapping into the brain, fertilized by memory or divine intervention, and birthed with the use of language, words travel through the body, reverberating and rearranging, alive the whole time. Animacy refers to the sentience of a referent of a noun, and is a concept understood as early as six months into a human’s life. But with language comes reduction of abstract concepts, like animacy. The English language in particular sucks, sanitizes, and simplifies; it is colonial and corrupt, objectifying yet sanctifying, and “viewed as the most useful, with the richest vocabulary in the modern world.”1 Nouns are people, places, and “things,” which encompasses such a large breadth of matter. “Things” disregards the multidimensional abilities of beings deemed as inanimate. It enforces a non-living state. Words, written or spoken, fall under the “things” category in English.
Words are charted by grammar and language conventions. While they can exist on their own, their lives change in reaction to the lives of other words. Holding hands and letting go, words dance between levels of memory and layers of air. Air carries sound, and the saturation or vacancy of words in space is often palpable. Conversations are rich examples of high grammar activity where change occurs instantaneously and sometimes the words disappear, are forgotten, or left unheard. But since nothing is ever really destroyed, where do they go? “Off to join the stories that can never be told again.”2 This is a melancholy thought, but it’s comforting that even if. English is a vacuum, its decaying parts will continue meandering through space and time long after they’ve been lost in translation.
“The planet was without buildings, monuments, or systems of writing. No history at all. A miracle.”3 This line in Adam Garnet Jones’s History of the New World struck me because of how history is painted as the antagonist, or the bringer of disaster. In a colonial perspective, “history” is defined by what has been recorded. With this definition, nothing and no one can exist before they are documented. What’s new is what is; tabula rasa, terranullius. In his essay on oral and written tradition, William Chase Green quotes Milman Parry, an American classicist, who says, “There is no memory of words save by the voice and the ear…The poet who is repeating his own phrase, or that of another, is doing so by ear.”4 This explanation of the power of sound and voice in the telling of stories illustrates how oral tradition indispensably contributes to written records. Regardless of whether words are recorded or not, history encompasses much more than the recognizable remnants of civilization. Evidentiary signs like empty birds’ nests and sedimentary rocks suggest the presence of life. But what about the worm breakfasts and wing flaps of the mother robin? The ephemeral whooshing of the river carrying silt from place to place? Even if they are not built up or written down, ideas, sounds, and stories transmitted from entity to entity make up a quiet and vital history that persists through seldom-identified senses.
As humans, we crave an understanding of creation, so we tell stories. The Aboriginal peoples of modern-day Australia refer to their creation time as “Dreamtime” and the living essence of creation, ancestral knowledge, and interrelationality between all persons (human or more) as the “Dreaming.” Jill Milroy expands on the importance of storytelling to the Aboriginal peoples, quoting her mother and grandmother, who say that the best storytellers are not human, but are bird, tree, rock, and land.5 To me, stories are evidence of experience. Aboriginal Songlines, oral maps passed down, generationally, emphasize the vital connections between song and land. Songlines are stories grounded in place; they generate respect for ancestry, ceremonial ground, seasonal agricultural sites, native plants, and waterways. Walking through natural homelands allows for vital communication between human and nature, creating a reciprocal understanding. Since human-centered knowledge systems are grounded in the idea that our perception is what creates existence, this concretization of knowledge makes grasping human-land connections more accessible to colonized minds. It is hard to imagine foraging for food or medicine in the “historic” Florida suburbs I grew up in. But, undoubtedly, I was connected to that place, “drinking the air,” making friends with the winding Magnolia branches, and squelching my sneakers into the marshy river banks. I couldn’t necessarily tell someone how to survive on the land, but definitely how to live the best way I knew how. This transference of knowledge, while perhaps unknowingly, would stem from the myriad of previous human-land interactions before me.
Stories are not strictly human. I have learned lessons from both human and non-human sources, through verbal and non-verbal communication. What have I learned from my mother? Separate loads of laundry, go on walks, forgive yourself. From my dog? There are ghosts in the upstairs hallway. From the huge king palms flourishing in “the Real Florida?” You can be a big home for many smaller things, and you can drink water through your feet. So mothers, dogs, and palms tell stories. Perhaps even stories tell stories, acting as vessels for collecting, carrying, and telling the stuff of living, making room to accommodate the receiver. The thinking-with that drives our need to exchange stories involves the history embedded within them, accumulated through many layers of passing down. Donna Haraway eloquently states that “the slight curve of the shell that holds just a little water, just a few seeds to give away and receive, suggests stories of becoming-with, of reciprocal induction. To think-with is to stay with the natural cultural multispecies trouble on earth.”6 We yearn to be heard, but also to influence, to spread, and to exist-with. To story and to world is to act in reciprocity, collaboration, and sympoesis, Haraway’s term, which directly translates to “making-with,” emphasizing the idea that we cannot create ourselves. In symbiotic relationships, beings exist in dynamic response to all other beings, insulated within ecosystems and spanning between them. So stories tell stories by combining and rearranging the elements that they are made of with different minds, changing spaces, and time.
I know English well, and I love English often. Robin Wall Kimmerer, in her explanation of the grammar of animacy, articulates her comfort in English, and also discomfort in using a language that feels foreign and familiar simultaneously. She recognizes the gravity of reclaiming the Potawatomi language, but also the obstacles in doing so. She says, “I speak the language you read.”7 I also feel a profound longing to connect to my native languages. Had history played out differently, I would speak Sámi of the Sámi peoples (indigenous to the Nordic countries, for me, specifically Finland) or Arawak of the Taíno peoples (indigenous to the Caribbean, for me, specifically the Dominican Republic). In her essay on Indigenous language reclamation, Teresa L. McCarty says that “studying a language differs greatly and dangerously from feeling a language.”8 Do I ever feel English? Will I ever feel Sámi or Arawak? Most likely, no. But I feel privileged to know one language so well, while it might not be my language. For now, I live in the U.S., occupying Narragansett, Timucua, and Apalachee land, doing my best to understand and act in reciprocity with Indigenous peoples’ ways of living and storytelling.
Storytelling involves the entire body. I summon different versions of myself when telling stories. My background in theater instilled the importance of activating every extremity in the performance section of my psyche. Learning to speak on stage was how I learned the power of stories. My seventh grade acting teacher would choose obscure one-acts with lofty concepts of creation, existentialism, and climate change that my 13-year-old mind struggled to appreciate. We would whine and run our lines and get fitted for strange costumes, thinking mostly about whose house was the sleepover house after rehearsal. During the actual performances, I would have to release the composure that was becoming familiar to me offstage. With age, my personality has quieted. But the magic of performance is that the self I have defined can listen with different ears, move in a different way, and speak with a different voice. And I view theatrical performances with a distinct empathy, having felt what it is to be so brazenly vulnerable.
On that note, no one is entitled to knowledge. Google might beg to differ, making the entire world available, down to your front yard. Facts are unchangeable things, easy to learn and to know, almost like weapons in their determinism. This is not to say that facts are not useful and life-sustaining. Think of the book of edible plants in Krakauer’s Into the Wild. But stories, unlike facts, are entities with agency. Most importantly, they are not public knowledge. To know a story is to have listened and engaged with someone’s psyche. Rebecca Solnit, in her exploration of stories as life’s building blocks and navigators, asserts that “to love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story. …Which means that a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there.”9
Active listening is deep, emotional work. Sometimes, I find it hard to be present while someone is telling me a story, unfocusing my eyes, drifting through the cloud of my own worries. Empathy requires release of the self, which most of the time demands to be heard. The truths revealed through stories are more subjective than those revealed through facts, but pulling from personal histories and ontologies, they reach far further into conscious experience. Story-listening, or truth-listening, is something one has to be ready for. To seek out silence plays as much of a role in active listening as appreciating the sound.
Lots of words are swirling in my brain a lot of the time. Sometimes I can physically feel them running around and into each other. That is when I get upside down, and let gravity reach through the layers of my skull and pull. For me, absorbing is just the first part of gaining knowledge. I must percolate. I must let some of it dissolve. “The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear [stories], to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then to become the storyteller.”10 Edgar Dale said that we remember 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, 50% of what we see and hear, 70% of what we discuss with others, 80% of what we personally experience, and 95% of what we teach others.11 I spend a lot of time quietly learning skills and concepts, mastering the details. At RISD, I watch a lot of other people do the same. This is hard work to do while our attention spans collectively constrict. What is the incentive to listen to someone stutter and mumble when there’s a 2x speed option? How do we effectively filter the excess? I hope to treat stories the way I treat learning new skills; allowing live epiphanies, feeling energy and information leave my body and enter another being’s, or vice versa.
I try to ask more, to listen more, to pause more. I plan to utter words, sounds, and stories thoughtfully and reciprocally. I work to learn the art of translation. I hope that by reading some of my words, you see words differently, and that you’ll dig into the desire of the living to listen and be listened to. If you’ve thought of the story you’d like to tell, I’m all ears.
- Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass (Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2013), 48.
Joshua Whitehead and Adam Garnet Jones. Love After the End: History of the New World (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020), 38-39.
William Chase Greene, “The Spoken and the Written Word,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, vol. 60 (1951): 45.
Grant Revell and Jill Milroy, “Aboriginal Story Systems: Re-mapping the West, Knowing Country, Sharing Space,” Arcade: The Humanities in the World (2019).
Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 40.
Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, 49.
Teresa L. McCarty, et al. “Hear Our Languages, Hear Our Voices: Storywork as Theory and Praxis in Indigenous-Language Reclamation,” Daedalus, vol. 147, no. 2 (2018): 162.
Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby (London: Penguin, 2013),
- Sang Joon Lee and Thomas C. Reeves. “Edgar Dale and the Cone of Experience.” BYU Foundations of Learning and Instructional Design Technology. https://open.byu.edu/lidtfoundations/edgar_dale.
On RISD’s Wintertime Native Traditional Storytelling Series
After the life-altering class that was Lilly Manycolors’s Mapping Realities, the coming of Pei-Yu Hung (RISD ID '24) and Andres Guevara’s (RISD J&M '25) Native Traditional Storytelling event aligned perfectly with the timing of the new knowledge I had gained and a craving to learn more. Hung and Guevara, inspired by assistant professor Angelo Baca’s Wintersession course Native American Oral Traditions, hosted RISD’s first-ever series of lectures in which Native Americans spoke on the topics of nature, food, stories, intellectual property, stolen objects, and embodying stories. Waya’aisiwa Gary Keene from the Acoma Pueblo, Roger Fernandes from the Lower Elwha Band of the S’Klallam Indians, Jonathan James Perry from the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), Sunny Dooley from the Navajo Nation, and Fern Naomi Renville from the Sisseton/Wahpeton Tribe of South Dakota were the members of the Storytelling Panel. They shared vital knowledge through oral tradition to be experienced only at the event.
The series was held during the later months of winter, the prime season to tell stories, where the spreading of knowledge does not disrupt the movements of wildlife and nature. The organizers also stressed that the lectures were not to be filmed or photographed, as the knowledge being transmitted was sacred and ephemeral. Despite this preciousness, or perhaps because of it, everyone was welcome into the spaces, students, teachers, and community members alike. The open doors allowed for widespread connections between everyone’s backgrounds, disciplines, and respect for Indigenous pedagogies. We shared smiles, took notes, and ate together. Some moments that struck me throughout the series of lectures were the moments of group gratitude for the food and knowledge provided, discussions of living from the land, and conversations about the origin, truth, and validity of the stories being shared. How old is this story? How do we know if it’s true? These are sound questions, but they reflect the Western approach to knowledge of origin and truth. We (the non-native occupiers of this land) must assume trust for those who have resided in this land longer than us. Roger Fernandes, in his lecture “On Stories,” observed that negative space can be filled with many different kinds of imaginative manifestations. Art and stories are critically interconnected, revealing one another, allowing the other to be better understood.
In their proposal for the series, and for a Wintersession course diving deeper into Indigenous oral tradition, Hung and Guevara stressed the capability and importance ofa story to teach lessons and valuable information in a way scholarly research cannot. I am vastly grateful for the effort that they put into the birthing, proposing, and seeing-through of this event and (hopefully) more in the future. To be in the flesh, hearing native languages and words of many kinds populating the air, filled me with gratitude. Now, I call you to action: where there is opportunity to engage with Indigenous knowledge and presence, there is opportunity for decolonization and reciprocity. Listen, give, and participate where you can.
Angelina Rodgers would like not to be found.