Tagged: sapir-whorf

Right words on the wrong side

Words are keys. There is satisfaction in opening a gate by using the right key, in discovering that feelings have labels, and terms have meanings. Someone has a way with words, we say casually, often missing the metaphor: that to go through everyday life is to navigate in a jungle of things and ideas, and that the reason we are fond of people who use words well is that they help us find our own path.

But there are times when it feels like language limits us even as it liberates us. (Look up, for instance, the intriguing theory of linguistic relativity, brought to the limelight recently by the movie Arrival. Essentially it says that the structure of a language influences if not determines how we perceive or experience the world, the most well-known, or controversial, example being that the tenseless Hopi Indian language reflects how the Hopi have a different conception of time than that of modern people.) So there are limitations of a specific language and how we use it, and not only because of the presence or absence of a word in a certain language. “To grasp the meaning of the world of today, we use a language created to express the world of yesterday. The life of the past seems to us nearer our true natures, but only for the reason that it is nearer our language,” says Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. “Language attempts to catch reality in a net,” writes Henry Christ, “but reality won’t be caught. No matter how one labels things or persons, they exist regardless.”

Words are currency. It’s as if the moment we are born, we are thrown into a marketplace where we could not buy or sell anything unless we had the right type of money. We learn early that if we want food, favor, or friendship, we pay for it with exclamations, gestures, and, most efficiently, words. You wouldn’t know what a person is like unless you spend time talking to him in a variety of contexts. But when language becomes too much a function of economics, it starts to restrict. Human language is a double-edged sword that limits and liberates, often at the same time.

It’s interesting to imagine how we could ever think without words. How would you? The Miracle Worker, a movie about how Annie Sullivan tutored Helen Keller, makes you pay close attention to the nature of language. Anger, awe, control, hope, and attachment, it turns out, are not at all foreign to a nine-year-old child who tragically could not see, hear, or speak, and who is unwilling to let anyone get through her. But how glorious it was for her to finally come to realize that there is a name for those emotions, the same way it finally occurred to her that the cold, flowing, colorless substance gushing out from the tap to encompass her hand is called water. Helen Keller was born a human being, but it seemed she didn’t become fully human until the moment she grasped language. And she didn’t stop with water or cake or key; she went on to become an honored advocate and a source of inspiration to many others.

rose by another name

So there’s probably more to the idea of words being currency in the marketplace called the world. The evolutionist says that we learn language simply because we need it: your mother feeds you if you cry a certain way; nanny changes your diapers if you cry another way; you’re a good boy or good girl if you say the “magic word”; people buy your product if you hire good marketers. But something compels us to go further. If we believe language is a gift, we are also drawn to believe that it exists because there are deeper needs than survival, getting what we want, or propagating our genes. A child may have been so deprived she looks malnourished for life, but that would not stop her from becoming a writer who talks about transcendence.

When we don’t use language in strictly economical ways, language, fallible as it is, can be a great means for fulfillment and flourishing. And as can be seen in the stories of people we know who overcome various kinds of obstacles, it is possible that there is a different, future world where infinitely better fulfillment is available, where language does not restrict but only liberates, where it is perfect aside from being useful. After all, according to Peter Edman, “the deepest things about us are in what we cannot directly express, what comes through in the spaces between the words.”

The linguist Edward Sapir once suggested that maybe language is not so much a garment as a prepared road or groove. If so, perhaps it means that our deepest need may not be so much for mere shelter from the elements as for transport and transformation, that somehow we were not supposed to stay in this place forever. Or at least that this place will not always be what it is.

Maybe, as in Helen Keller’s life, the purpose of language is not so much utility as revelation. Maybe we were not born into a marketplace after all, but into the wrong side of the Garden.