There are themes that have interested me, gradually, over the past few years. One of them is something I think interests everyone in one way or another, because it is something that affects us all and that we know well. I’m talking about the language used by us.

Us, not the Portuguese, Americans or British, but humanity itself. In what ways is this fascinating thing that we call language affects us? It is a vast subject therefore I won’t even try to write about all the specifics, or discuss all the theories formulated over the centuries by philosophers, linguists and scientists.

Instead, I want to have, as a starting point, stories and personal experiences in order to prepare an analysis around them. Thus, hopefully, I can understand them better, but I can also share my own theories (or, rather, hypotheses) about how the language can influence and affect our thoughts and ways of perceiving the world.

But before proceeding, it is essential to clarify exactly what I mean when I use the word “language”.

Language: Among the characteristics that define us as human beings is our ability to communicate with each other using a complex and flexible system with enormous expressive power. This is undoubtedly an aspect that distinguishes us from other animals. Some people even argue [1] that the term language belongs exclusively  to the human species, and any other form of animal communication (even those that display high levels of sophistication) should not be called language, but, rather, systems of signs. In fact, a quick search for the term leads us to find various definitions, each with its own different nuances. If I’m going to focus on this word, it is important to make it clear what I am referring to when using it: the definition I’ll assign to “language” in this text is the »method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional manner». [2]

As I said, what compels me to write this text is the desire to explore some personal experiences that I’ve gone through and made me question how language influences my mind and my life.

My text will be focused on the following three life situations:

The first situation [Part A] arises from my poor ability to transform some of my most important thoughts into language, in an effective manner.

The second situation [Part B] comes from my interest in the concept of telepathy, and the idea of ​​being able to transmit information directly between brains. And even if it is true that telepathy is a concept discussed mainly by the pseudo-sciences, I do not suggest that the reader needs to accept it as something real: the concept can still be used for comparative purposes, in order to point out some inefficiencies of our language .

The third situation [Part C] occurred in 2007 when I experienced something almost spiritual in nature (I believe I experienced for a brief instant something that is known as a spiritual awakening). It was definitely one of the most memorable moments of my life and it simply consisted of me contemplating a tree. For a brief moment, my mind stopped being attached to any language and reached something deeper and purer.

What stands out from these three situations is that they all focus on the limitations which naturally arise from the language, such an imperfect object. But I do not want to be misunderstood. Initially, my text was called “The Limits of Language” but, ironically, the choice of such words were causing limitations in my own way of thinking. I do not want to convey the idea that I’m anti-Language. However, that title would establish a certain mindset that would force me to argue in a way that I wouldn’t want to. So I changed it.

Before we continue, let me make clear that I appreciate the existence of the language. Let us not forget the amazing fact that we can recreate “sounds with our mouths that can cause new combinations of ideas in the minds of other people.” [3]

Part A

The fact that we have access to a wide range of vocabulary, ready to be used to describe our thoughts, does not mean that our language is not, simultaneously, something fragile.

It can be fragile for one of the following reasons:

  1. Fragility of the Language itself;
  2. Inefficient use of the Language;

Let’s analyze some of these problems:

– Different Interpretations [The Importance of Definitions]

It’s interesting that it was necessary to define “language” before I was able to continue with the text. Failure to do so could cause possible confusion and misunderstandings.

For example, if some people interpret “language” as a concept that includes the advanced communication system that dolphins use to communicate with each other; or if some people might think that I may be referring to “programming languages”, then it’s a good thing to make it clear right from the beginning that I’m not referring to any of that in my text.

And if on the one hand, I admit that this example may seem a bit forced (most people know what I mean when I use the word language), there are other critical cases, in which establishing a definition before an argument is very important. In Religion we can find several examples. Indeed, it was the very word “God” that initially made me really think about the importance of definitions.

Not surprisingly, areas that required the use of Logic have particular attention to possible linguistic ambiguities that may arise in an argument. An “ambiguity fallacy” occurs when a word in an argument can have different meanings, in a way that it compromises the argument itself[4]. Let’s look at the following example:

  • Really interesting novels are rare;
  • Rare books are expensive;
  • Therefore, really interesting novels are expensive;

The fallacy arises when one assumes that “rare” means the same thing in both sentences. However, in the first premise, the “rare” adjective refers to the idea that, in a world where there are constantly being written so many novels, it’s hard to find some that really stand out in quality. In the second premise, the adjective “rare” refers to books which have historical value and / or whose availability in the market is reduced. Failing to distinguish this is failing the argument.

How do we avoid these confusions? We use language itself to clarify things up.

If I hear the word “God” without any context, I can’t really not know for certain what it’s referring to. But if I hear “Abrahamic God”, I know exactly what it means. If I still don’t know, I can always learn through an extended explanation:  the God that the Jewish, Christian and Islamic religions believe.

The problem is that resorting to a language to try to correct its own problems can make you – in an extreme case – incur in a loop of eternal confusion, where the words used to explain the other words are themselves ambiguous.

Maybe that’s why Plato said that “a language, in order to be genuine, must seek to represent the eternal pre-existing ideas in the world as accurately as possible” [12]. And even if Plato’s Theory of Ideas is not philosophically popular these days, the importance he gave to the existence of a real language points us to a very relevant issue today.

– Dependence of the Mental State

Being a byproduct of our brains, language is entirely dependent on its proper functioning in order to be used in the best and most effective way. Sleep just a few hours, and the vocabulary accessible to the brain becomes considerably reduced [5] In fact, any situation that causes the disruption of normal brain functions – such as stress and nervousness – can cause poor linguistic communication.

– Vocabulary Limitations

This limitation occurs when there is a word to describe something, but the person does not know it. Due to the large number of words that exist in a particular language, it is impossible to know them all.

Not knowing a word limits a person in two ways:

  1. Upon hearing it, the person can not understand what it means, and  a more extensive explanation is required. This can happen even if the person knows and fully understands the concept which the word refers to.
  2. When trying to explain something that could be explained in one word, that person will now need to resort to a more extensive explanation, or resort to another less effective word.

In the latter case, we can use as an example a sentence that I wrote myself:

“The fact that we have access to a wide range of vocabulary, ready to be used to describe our thoughts, does not mean that our language is not, simultaneously, something fragile.”

To be honest, I’m not completely satisfied with the word “fragile” in this context, but due to my own vocabulary limitations I could not find a more effective word to refer to the concept of “presenting gaps and allowing the creation of ambiguities”.

This point can of course be tackled through the continued study and learning of the language.

These are three of the issues that contribute to the first situation I mentioned: the frustrating inability to express something in a reliable manner. But one thing should never be confused: having language being affected by any of these issues doesn’t mean the message trying to be conveyed is wrong. Conversely, a pristine use of language doesn’t mean the message or argument being transmitted is right. In those two different categories we have the old man with poor vocabulary but valid ancient wisdom and the charismatic snake-oil seller.

Note that in the book “The Language Instinct” [3] Steven Pinker proposes that a thought in its most basic form is not composed of spoken language but by a basic unit of information analogously similar to ones and zeroes used by computers . Each time we try to communicate through words you need to convert information from that mental language to spoken language. It is known [6] [7] that several geniuses and other highly creative people aren’t / weren’t very good at this conversion, instead thinking in a more abstract and conceptual way, or through images, musical notes, or even with their own body [7]. So, sometimes, language turns out to be rejected as a way of thinking and expressing oneself, in favor of other alternatives.   

PART B

Language also limits us when it is forcing us to incur in long and extensive definitions or arguments to convey a complex idea fully. Imagine a world where I could use a word or symbol that could transmit to you instantly, word for word, unambiguously this text in full. Two things would become possible:

  1. All the information would be available, pragmatically, to everyone. In our world, it is impossible to access all the information that exists because there simply is not enough time in one’s life to read it or hear it all.
  2. All restrictions mentioned in Part A would be eliminated.

Currently, such linguistic possibilities are inaccessible to us.

But if that’s where language fails, some believe that other elusive forms of communication, which fill these gaps, exist. Including telepathy. My aim with this text is not trying to convince anyone that telepathy is real, although I believe so. But let’s consider for a moment, for the sake of argument, that it exists, in order to analyze aspects where language fails.

Let’s consider again the concept proposed by Steven Pinker: that our thoughts exist in a form analogous to the ones and zeros of a computer. If our most fundamental form of thoughts exist in such state, then being able to transmit it directly without having to go through a conversion process would ensure communication without loss of information. Thus, not only ideas and concepts would be transmitted in a better way, but maybe our own feelings could be transmitted. If there is something that language can not do, at all, it is to convey a feeling, such as it is. It may allude indirectly to him, but it never manages to do it directly.

This limitation is a tragedy but it also a blessing. It’s a tragedy because if you can not really show others how you feel, that may become the source of great isolation; but a blessing because it can become the driving force that causes a person to be creative and create art, for example. Art is often an alternative conversion of a non-transferable feeling into something tangible in the physical world.

So even if I consider the language as an imperfect vehicle to truly connect us as human beings, I also think that is what helps to create a desire to find alternatives of expression. Thus, these imperfections of Language may end up enriching human experience in other ways.

PART C

Those who know the poet Fernando Pessoa will also surely  know one of his main heteronyms, Alberto Caeiro. That was always my favorite heteronym because of the way he saw the world, and his relationship to language. Let us recall some of its characteristics [8]:

  • Denial of metaphysics and the preference of knowledge acquisition through non-intellectualized sensations; He is against the interpretation of the reality using intelligence/rationalizations;
  • Denial of the Self:
  • He only cares about seeing objectively the reality with which he contacts at all times. Hence his desire for integration and communion with nature.
  • “To think” is to be “sick in the eyes”. “To see” is the true way of knowing and understanding the world, so he thinks by seeing and hearing. He rejects metaphysical thinking, stating that “thinking is not understanding”.
  • Poet of the Nature, living in tune with it and aware of its constant renewal. And because there is only reality, time is the lack of time, no past, present or future, because every moment is the unit of time.

With such complex heteronym in mind, let’s focus on the story that brought us here: in 2007,  just for a brief moment, I contemplated a tree in what I believe was its most essential state. I was able to see the world in a non-intellectualized way and totally free from language.

Because, if at a more fundamental level (as suggested by Steven Pinker), thoughts arise in a pre-language stage, the fact is that most people’s thoughts eventually become Language [9] at a level top, even if it does not end up being externalized. And this conversion happens often beyond our control.

Language seems to always want to infiltrate our minds. Once associated with a word (- a label, a barrier -) to a concept, the concept immediately becomes restricted. The word and the concept tend to become inseparable. Once this word is in our minds, we run the risk of it bringing up other information, other concepts, other connotations, other memories, all by association to that word. The original concept then suffers a mutation and becomes somethings else. This is, in my opinion, an example of intellectualizing a feeling, an obstacle that prevents us from seeing the world in its most basic form: the world as it is. As it truly is.

Final Thoughts

But it is worth making an explicit effort to try to find alternatives or improvements [10] to language? Steven Pinker says that as it is natural for spider to make webs, it is natural for us to communicate through language [3], and try to modify it is to try to change much of what makes us human. Artificially intelligent robots in the future will certainly have the opportunity to communicate through a precise language and without margin for error. We, however, are ambiguous and subjective[11]. Not accepting that would be to deny our own nature.

Language brings with it certain limitations and strengths, and trying to understanding  them better was the purpose of my text. Having done that, each person does whatever he wants with this information. I personally intend to use it to continue to live in the fine line that lies between the acceptance of the human condition, and the search for transcendence.

Bibliography, Webgraphy   

[1] MARTINELLI, Dario – Introduction to Zoosemiotics, Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010 doi:10.1007/978-90-481-9249-6_1

[2] http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/language

[3] – PINKER, Steven – The Language Instinct, Penguin; New Ed edition (30 Mar 1995), ISBN-10: 0140175296

[4] http://www.philosophypages.com/lg/e06c.htm#amb

[5] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2656292/

[6] http://www.pitt.edu/~jdnorton/Goodies/Einstein_think/

[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QcffRCJMLk

[8] http://www.prof2000.pt/users/jsafonso/port/caeiro.htm

[9] http://www.linguisticsociety.org/content/does-language-i-speak-influence-way-i-think

[10]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Engineered_language

[11] – BOURDEAU, Jean Ovide – Purpose Unknown: On the Ambiguity of Earthly Existence, Lulu Press Inc; Edition 5 (2014), ISBN: 978-1-105-64712-3

[12] MCCOMISKEY, Bruce. Gorgias and the New Sophistic Rhetoric. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 2001. ISBN-10: 0809331365

Us, Language and the World
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