Not to be a downer, but have you ever stopped to think how alone you are? Even if there are people around you right now, there’s no way for you to know one another’s thoughts for certain. One fragile thread is the only thing keeping us all from complete isolation.
For just a moment, try to imagine what life would be like without the power of language. It feels comforting and miraculous to me that an image or idea can move from my mind to yours simply through sounds in my throat or squiggles on a page or dots on a screen. We do it all the time, so it doesn’t really astonish us that we can pass understanding back and forth from places neither of us can see.
The connecting thread that makes the miracle possible is language.
Without it, we’d be virtually alone. Consider this – our minds are essentially closed systems. We’re free to take in as much of the world as we want through our senses, but without language the process would end there. You can share an experience with someone, like a concert or a sunset, just by using your senses and sitting together. What you can’t do is share your observations and feelings about it without some way to transmit the thoughts that are locked inside your minds.
If you haven’t read Stephen King’s On Writing, it’s one of the most generous and encouraging books out there for aspiring writers. In one of my favorite chapters he takes his readers through an entertaining thought experiment. Using just a handful of descriptive terms (something he’s especially good at, by the way) he explains step by step how creating an image on the page can pass it whole and complete from his mind to ours.
He showcases writing as an old school form of mental telepathy.
The more I look into it, the more miraculous it seems that billions of people and countless generations around the world can agree on enough words and symbols for us to share understanding about things that matter. We can transmit holographic ideas of “bright yellow sunflower” or “love” or “sorry” through the written or spoken word and feel confident that the meaning will be close enough for us to be able to hold it in common.
Language is something I’ve come to feel extremely thankful for.
I used to take it for granted. In fact, there was a time when I considered it a burden to have to write letters or research papers or business presentations that I didn’t find especially entertaining. Now I see what a privilege it all was. It makes me want to dig more deeply into ancient stories and myths that gave birth to spoken and written language.
I’m not suggesting that other kinds of sensory input aren’t important – even vital. I’m just saying that the emotional and intellectual coding that comes with language must be a part of how we feel known and understood – how we know we belong. And then there’s the inverse miracle – how we can collapse all that meaning back into a hug… and just know.
Questions: What do you love about language? Have you had an experience where language either wasn’t available or didn’t serve you adequately? How did you make yourself understood or how did it feel to be misunderstood?