Will Echolalia Induce Satori?

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Will Echolalia Induce Satori?

(Shall we cut off those tongues?)

© Rolf-Peter Wille

The Internet, flashy and over-informative as it may be, can induce sudden flashes of enlightening awareness after all! A few days ago, while searching for the term agelast - a human without humor (not you, I hope) - another attractive term suddenly flashed into my eye, and from there right into my soul: echolalia. A fascinating word, I thought. "Echolalia," I read, and I repeated "echolalia." Half an hour later I was still mumbling to myself "…lalia, lal, lal, lallal, lallllllia…"

Okay. You got the point! Echolalia is the mindless repetition of a word or phrase. Echolalia is the mindless repetition of a word or phrase. (Don’t laugh. It’s easy to do that with a computer.) Actually it is the mindless re-uttering of words that others said.

I could have known that, of course. Echo is echo, quite obviously, and lalia sounds suspiciously like the German word "lallen," which is babbling - usually of an infant or baby. Baby? Yes, it is probably contained in the word "lullaby," I guess. But then - guessing is never safe when it comes to etymology, the history of words. Lalia is Greek for "language," and maybe, maybe the inventors of lallen and lullaby committed echolalia (…lalia, lalia). What a fantastic power in this word! Not only is it onomatopoeic - it’s sound imitating it’s meaning - but much more than this: it is also self-inducing. A person who hears "echolalia" will automatically say "echolalia" and thus produce echolalia (…lalia, lalia). And I am quite sure that you, my dear reader, have stammered "echolalia" quite a few times while reading this echolalic essay.

But let us stop our jokes for a moment. Let me be an agelast (at last). Echolalia is a compulsive behavior, and it is not a joking matter in a person with a mental disorder -when the voice of a disparate personality may be "ventriloquizing through a crack in the subconscious." If you ask an autistic person - you remember Dustin Hoffman as the Rain Man, I suppose…, well - if you ask a rainman, for example, "would you like a piece of chocolate?" the rainman, or -woman, might answer "would you like a piece of chocolate?"


And you do not know, if the rainman (or -woman) wants a piece of chocolate. And maybe, maybe you will have to eat the chocolate all by yourself (or yourselves, in case you have some hidden disparate personalities, ventri…, what was the word…?).

But…, wait a moment. How do we know, that the echolalic "answer" was indeed mindless? Mind is repetition. If we want to remember something, we do have to (re)construct it as an image.


When I ask my piano students "what is the character of this piece?" most of them will answer "…character of this piece?" Echolalia? Yes. Autism? No. Not yet. We have to repeat in order to place the question in our mind, …stand it, …under-stand it. No doubt about that.

I am reminded of a Zen story related by D.T. Suzuki. For the sake of echolalia I shall repeat it literally:
"[The Zen master] Gutei raised his finger whenever he was asked a question about Zen. A boy attendant began to imitate him in this way. When anyone asked the boy what his master had preached about, the boy would raise his finger.

"Gutei heard about the boy's mischief. He seized him and cut off his finger. The boy cried and ran away. Gutei called and stopped him. When the boy turned his head to Gutei, Gutei raised up his own finger. The boy wanted to imitate his master as usual, but the finger was no longer there. In that instant the boy achieved Satori."
(Satori is sudden spiritual enlightenment, the Zen equivalent of Buddhist Nirvana.) Not only does this subtle story (especially appealing to pianists from New Zealand) tell us a lot about the gentle art of Zen, but it also raises an immediate question:

Shall we cut off our echolalic tongues in order to induce Satori?

Well, maybe it is not necessary. Tongues have the intriguing tendency to slip all by themselves, and a blotched echolalia may very well be an original statement.

[ 5]"Kill the enemy!"

[ 5]"Kill the enemy!"

[ 5]"Kill the enemy!"

[ 5]"Kill the enemy…, …by killing the friends…"


[ 5]"Jesus loves you."

[ 5]"Jesus loves you."

[ 5]"Jesus loves you - most of the time"

Hmm…, coming to think of it, this sounds like Beethoven. Few people associate him with echolalia (though some with hyperactivity), but many of his motives are repeated twice:

[ 5]The motive. The motive; the motive continues, mutates, reflects on itself…, etc.

The germ-cell of a creative act. And it contains - surprise - echolalia.

As good dialecticians we believe answer to be the opposite of question. But is it? But it is. It is not. Is it not? A simple rhetorical manipulation turns a question into an answer and vice versa. "Where am I?" "Where am I?" No need to cut tongues (or fingers). All you have to do is, cut a "W" and the upper part of the question mark and it becomes:

[ 5]"here am I."

Actually, to a yes-no-question not even a "yes" is required for an affirmative reply. Yes, just repeat the cadence of the question:

[ 5]"Do you want chocolate?"

[ 5]"…chocolate."

Just change the tone of the last word and your lalia has become a valid answer:

[ 5]"Chocolate?"

[ 5]"Chocolate!"

Half-cadence? Full-cadence! And since our lalia has modulated into the realm of music: A question, or antecedent, will always beget an answer, or consequent. The consequent is a little variation on the antecedent, and a poetic question will beget a poetic answer.

The mind is always searching for lalia to echo - I mean, material to reflect on - and, lazy as it is, it likes to draw from a pool of very recent experiences. Utter a fancy word, and chances are, that your mind has just picked it up from a commercial you "failed to notice."


I just picked up the word two days ago, and here I am, showing off my expertise on the subject. The mind - shame on this plagiarist - is engaging in a constant act of copyright infringement.

Shall we cut it off?

No. Just wait until it stumbles...


herzlich gelacht? herzlich gelacht!

Lieber Rolf-Peter,

schade, daß dies bemerkenswerte Essay bisher unkommentiert blieb. Nach meinem Dafürhalten kann es für das Schweigen des Lesers - mal abgesehen von der Unlust, sich durch einen englischen Text zu wälzen - nur einen Grund geben: Er fühlte sich ganz einfach beim Echolalieren ertappt und ergriff in Furcht um seine Zunge die Flucht! Mir ging es da nicht anders. Nachdem ich den ersten panikartigen Fluchtreflex erfolgreich niedergekämpft hatte, echolalierte ich beim Lesen heftigst und tue es noch immer.

Bleibt noch zu erwähnen, daß die Echolalia eine gefährliche, nicht zu unterschätzende, gehirnformatierende Wirkung haben kann. Je öfter man ein Wort wiederholt, desto mehr verliert es an Bedeutung. Irgendwann wird alles schwarz und man fragt sich, ja...man fragt sich eigentlich nichts mehr, nichts mehr...

Ich freue mich auf weitere Beiträge dieser Art.

Liebe Grüße


Dear Peter,

thank you for that valuable piece of information. We all should keep it in mind and add it to our toolbox.

BTW, a little practice in foreign languages keeps the little gray cells active!


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