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the website for a selection of writing by Stuart and Beryl Donnan
in Southampton UK, and links to the wider Donnan family

written by Stuart
14 December 2004

musings on communication difficulties more that 4 years after Beryl's stroke

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website updated on 18 September 2016

I am lost for words.
You (singular) are lost for words.
He, she or it is lost for words.
We are lost for words.
You (plural) are lost for words.
They are lost for words.

In Latin I learnt to conjugate verbs and to decline nouns. But now all words are declining, have declined, will decline — now I'm on to tense.
And tense is what it often is.

I often think it is like trying to converse in a language in which one is not fluent — the draining effort of trying to translate as one goes along, the ease of some parts not compensating for the frustration of the difficult parts — often the most important parts.

For the most part, 'she is lost for words' is the situation. During one of her admissions to hospital I 'helpfully' explained to the medical student clerking her that she was a text-book case of 'nominal aphasia' which we all learn about in medical school. It really is quite astonishing how what get lost are the names of things — real concrete things more noticeably than abstractions. Grammar gets a bit shaky; irregular verbs can be a problem, which is one of the many aspects that prompt thoughts about growing grandchildren and how they will develop and move on to greater competence, while Gran won't.

Of course sometimes 'they' are lost for words. It is really helpful (I don't think) when presumably well-meaning but actually ignorant acquaintances remark how they often forget names or words — it's part of growing older. No, it damn well isn't — not this sort of loss of words.

And me — the wordsmith — do I get lost for words? Not much, but I am getting better at it! I mean that I am learning to let the words go, to listen to the silence, to let the wordy thoughts run down, to meditate or muse. But the words keep flowing, and (in common, I am told, with many carers of people with aphasia) after 6 or 12 months I gradually stopped feeling guilty about having retained some facility with words, reading especially. Textbooks don't have a fancy Greek or Latin (or what one of my teachers used to call a bastardised combination of both) expression for loss of ability to take in words from written texts. 'Illiteracy' isn't classed as a medical problem — but loss of 'literacy' (which dictionaries define to include both reading and writing) is a profound problem, especially for those whose life and work was based on written words.

So we are lost for words, you the reader and I, she and I. I am told that many languages including ancient Greek have a proverb to the effect that 'actions speak louder than words'. So that is the way we go, separately and together, doing as well as speaking. We have been challenged over the years about the importance of 'being' as well as or rather than 'doing'. We are learning to go that way too.