When words are not enough…
May 9, 2016 18 Comments
I want to pull away from politics today, so we’ll do something different. So often, we miscommunicate, it’s perhaps even more common in the written word.
Even as close as say, Jessica and I are, and we are very close, indeed, sometimes words are not enough between us, even helped by judiciously chosen emoticons. We don’t misunderstand each other very often, but once in a while, we don’t manage to convey all the meaning that is meant. But we are people of the written word, pretty well schooled in English, and so probably better than most, at writing to each other. Emotions are hard to put into words, though, and if we sometimes fail, it must be quite difficult if one is not as well educated, or as comfortable writing as we are.
So, I was was quite delighted when this showed up from Aeon Essays the other day, and I want to share it with you. Not least because as a friend of ours often says, It’s not so much what you say, or even how you say it, what matters is what is read or heard. Something many of us have trouble with, in my experience. Essay by Thom Scott-Phillips.
‘If you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint.’ These words are attributed to the realist painter Edward Hopper. Few can paint like Hopper could, but all of us can relate to the feeling that words are sometimes not enough. Having said that, what makes images any better?
Words are, after all, incredibly versatile things. Even one as supposedly simple and unambiguous as, say, ‘rain’ can be used to suggest a multitude of meanings, an infinity of implications. As part of a conversation about my mood, the exclamation ‘Rain!’ can mean something like: ‘Even the weather is bringing me down.’ If, on the other hand, I am making plans for the day, the statement ‘Rain!’ could instead suggest that I should take an umbrella with me. And then there’s metaphor and simile and irony.
Ordinary communication is replete with figurative, non-literal word use. Juliet is the Sun. Time is money. Cognitively minded linguists have documented in detail how metaphor, among other types of figurative expression, is so pervasive in everyday language that we usually don’t even notice it. Societies are not biological organisms, but you wouldn’t know it from our everyday language. We talk of social afflictions, of aplague on society, of the body politic, and of how we should give our nation a shot in the arm. The examples are endless, and this expressive flexibility is powerful. How is painting, or any art form, going to do anything that language can’t?
To answer this question, we need to look at human communication in the round.
As is so often the case, xkcd – a web comic with themes of ‘romance, sarcasm, math, and language’ – puts it best. In a recent strip on the indeterminate nature of language, one of the characters reflects that:Courtesy xkcd.com
Damn right it is. Even something as supposedly literal as ‘The next train is at 12 o’clock’ could be interpreted in a figurative way (‘Things are really organised and efficient here!’). The technical term is underdeterminacy: my words underdetermine my meaning. And the same is true of other, non-linguistic means of expression. We shrug and point and grunt and scream. Sometimes these behaviours are idiosyncratic and highly context-dependent. Others, like a nod of the head, can be as conventional and formulaic as words are.
Lots there, isn’t there? It’s amazing that we manage to communicate as well as we do. It’s also the reason that YouTube, podcasts, and all the rest have become so common, and not only to remind us that kittens are cute! It’s also why we run videos, poetry, and other stuff here. Music and the nonverbal clues often add much to our meaning, or they can detract, and that’s why we select them carefully, as we do our words, mostly.
It’s a failing of many blogs, ones that I may like and agree with, but their tone doesn’t fit with what I want to say, and so, often I don’t feature them, or I use them merely for the idea and write my own post. Part of life, and part of trying to remain civilized, I think. It’s very easy to become angry and discouraged these days, and perhaps it’s warranted. But you know, if we’re angry and discouraged, we’re not going to do our best work, and our missions require our best work if we are to succeed.
So calm down a bit, act rationally, and likely we’ll come through once more, in any case, we’ll have less heartburn. 🙂