“And the true realism, always and everywhere, is that of the poets: to find out where joy resides, and give it a voice far beyond singing. For to miss the joy is to miss all.” — Robert Louis Stevenson
While I tend to treasure the artistic value of ambiguity, I realize that — if only for the sensitivities of others — some things need to be stated clearly. Unfortunately, the more I research the concept of language, the more I realize that stating anything distinctly and unequivocally seems to be impossible.
Regardless, words remain the weapon of choice in the endless screaming match that is our modern era. Not only do we attack with them; we also build upon them. They form the very foundation to every argument, every belief, and every civil or moral code we have ever created, translated, or tried desperately to comprehend. Their limitations, much like their power and their beauty, cannot go unexamined.
So here I sit writing, in words, the first entry in a series about the problem with language. Great start, I know. If I hope to succeed, I may well have to create a new language. But for now, let’s start with “plain, honest English“:
As children, we do not learn language so much as we are thrown into it. If you’ve ever wondered what, say, an immersive Spanish class is like, simply picture your own infant years: everybody around you was talking, constantly, and you had no fucking clue what they meant. Yet as you heard and observed them over time, you started babbling and eventually shaping your mouth-sounds into their words.
At some light-bulb moment, you began to understand a working theory of language in its simplest form: words refer to things! That thing is a mom, that other thing is a food. Then someone told you it’s not a food, it’s just food, and if you want it you should say please.
You didn’t know the chemical composition of an average mom (carbon, mostly), any more than you understood the fundamental aspects of nutrition (…does anyone?). And yet, simply by emulating your family, you began to talk like them. And without a single class in linguistics, you discerned the primary function of language was to communicate with others.
No one needed to teach you that your mother was a complex assortment of meat, blood, bone, and organs — and that each of those was comprised of molecules, themselves comprised of atoms, themselves comprised of subatomic building blocks and space and waves of energy that create mass. None of that seemed to matter (eh? eh?)…
Even so, like the adorable little scholar that you were, you learned all sorts of words! And every new word you learned helped refine your concept of things: your mom became a parent, a doctor, a female, a breadwinner, a nurturer, and every other limitless thing a mom can be; meanwhile, food became cheerios, vegetables, icky vegetables, ice cream, chocolate ice cream, and an infinite cornucopia of vast epicurean delights.
Then one day, something strange and somewhat magical happens. And as a result, without much conscious effort, your understanding of language changes forever.
Let’s say you are at the grocery store with your mom, and there, at a child’s eye level, rests an ice cream. But it’s not just ice cream, nor is it mere chocolate ice cream… it’s triple chocolate chunk explosion ice cream. Sweet baby Jesus, Lord have mercy, get that ice cream in my belly now.
At this moment, you have reached a decisive turning point in your language development. The immense world-transforming power of this moment is unfortunately lost in its subtlety… but with one question, your language — and by extension, your entire universe — is about to change, forever:
“What does triple chocolate chunk explosion mean?”
Take a moment to formulate, in your super-smart adult language mind, how you would answer this question. Picture me asking you as a doe-eyed and dessert-loving little boy, standing there tugging at your pant leg, face pressed against a cold glass display case (I’m adorable, I know).
Mom: “Well, you know what chocolate ice cream is, right?”
Child: “Yes it’s the brown one it’s the best it’s my favorite”
Mom: “Ok, well, this one is just, like… um, a lot of chocolate”
H O L Y S H I T.
Did I just blow your mind? No…?
Fine, let’s break it down a little more.
Mom: “Triple means three. So, maybe the ice cream has three different types of chocolate? Let’s check the box. Nope, just plain old cocoa bean. Hmm…
Ah, but there are chocolate chunks! I can see those delicious little morsels on the carton. So maybe one type of chocolate is the cocoa bean flavor in the ice cream, and a second type of chocolate is the chunk-form chocolate, and the third type is… nope, there doesn’t seem to be a third type. BUT WAIT! Are there exactly three chocolate chunks? Nope… foiled again.
Well, what about the explosion? Did a giant cocoa bean explode at the milk factory and fragment into a bunch of tiny chocolate chunks? Nope, just googled it and I couldn’t find any milk factory explosions around the time this ice cream was manufactured.
But when I think of a chocolate explosion, I think of chocolate getting messy, going all over the place. Perhaps it just contains an explosion-like array of chocolate shrapnel?
Or, maybe by pairing a word of numeric value, like triple, with a word of sensual imagery, like explosion, with a word of shape and physicality like chunk… they’re simply trying to tell us that this ice cream contains a lot of chocolate. ”
Can you see it yet…? Can you taste it…?
These questions seem, without a doubt, completely ridiculous. Occam wins again, as our first and simplest answer seems to be the most correct: it’s merely a lot of chocolate. And, without much logic in play, the mom deduced, from four simple words, a meaning and a result that had nothing to do with the literal meaning of those words.
And thus, in that fateful frozen aisle, the child’s concept of language was changed forever: words, which formerly simply referred to things, became capable of communicating meaning and experience that defied their very definitions. Or, when paired together in creative ways, those words became capable of conveying something far greater than the sum of their parts.
In this sense, words are less things-in-themselves (like mom, like food) and are more akin to paint pigments that, when mixed together, illustrate more complex ideas (like parenthood, like cellular respiration). And when the painting gets too complicated, we can take vague and difficult concepts (like human biology and individuality) and reduce them back to simple, more communicative images (like mom).
And like paints, words can be used to create things that don’t literally exist (like triple chocolate explosions); however, such fragile figments still inspire tangible effects (like making me want ice cream in my mouth).
While it can be tempting to view language as Legos — little building blocks, more rigid than liquid paints — words weren’t simply lying about in some universal toy chest for us to discover. We created them together, taught them to each other, and then we watched them morph over time completely in spite of us. Imagine if you had built a fortress of Legos, but one year later, that fortress had become a shack.
Ridiculous, yes… but this happens with language all the time. And with each abstract creation of language, each word begins an evolution and ever-changing depth of meaning. Some would call this process poetry. I have a much simpler term: language. Because all language is, essentially, a viscous poetry we create and use to convey our experience.
Think about that over your next carton of ice cream. Or political argument. Or Bible study. Let it provide new perspective your experience, since the vast majority of your experience is… well, language. That language has beauty and power, but it also has inherent limitations. Not unlike your Lego fortress.
But for now — now that we have more context, now the words have changed — let us close by returning to Stevenson’s words. And, with a little more context from the author, consider how it relates to the reality of our language: “for no man lives in the external truth, among salts and acids, but in the warm, phantasmagoric chamber of his brain, with the painted windows and the storied walls.”
“And the true realism, always and everywhere, is that of the poets: to find out where joy resides, and give it a voice far beyond singing. For to miss the joy is to miss all.”
Robert Louis Stevenson, “The Lantern-Bearers”
[Part II coming soon]