Last night, while cutting and roasting these little squares and cubes of yum:
I was listening to an episode of Philosophy Talk about language titled “What Are Words Worth?” and one of the topics was whether and how our native language constrains our thought processes.
Most people would consider English to be my primary language. Anyone who has tried to comprehend my attempts at French or Japanese or Chinese would consider English my only language. And they’d be essentially correct.
Or is it mostly accurate? Or spot on? I have a notion of what each of those phrases means, but I’m not sure the best way to say it. I could keep fiddling with it, or come back to it in ten minutes. But I’ll just leave it as an example of my frequent inability to find a word or phrase that precisely fits what I’m thinking.
If my thoughts originate in English, shouldn’t the words and sentences just fall out of my head, fully-formed? Why do I feel inclined to hunt through dictionaries, ponder each word’s heritage, and fret about shared perceptions of what specific words mean?
In other words, why does writing feel like translation rather than transcription?
Maybe it’s a matter of converting my own personal and idiosyncratic dialect into more commonly used patterns? That seems plausible enough.
We each use language in our own peculiar way. Through editing and revision, we move from the quirky, hyper-local dialect of our internal monologues towards the language practices we share with our audience.
To communicate a specific idea, I have to capture its meaning, seal it into these little semantic packets called words and phrases, sequence those into sentences and paragraphs, encode it with one computer, transmit it to another computer, and let you take it from there.
As a reader, you go through an inverse process: you use a tool like a browser to copy it from a computer to your computer, which retrieves text from the numerical codes, and positions the sentences and paragraphs, which you then parse into words and phrases. Hopefully they mean something to you which approximates what they meant to me.
This model works well enough for blog posts, which tend to focus on words and voice, so it’s easy to assume that only the machines are translating and transmuting the ideas as they move from my mind to yours.
An Inadequate Container
But what about all the ideas that never take the form of written or spoken languages?
Could anyone imagine Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring captured in words alone, and then accurately transformed into sound? It might be possible — after all, musical notation is a kind of language — but it would certainly be inefficient and absurd.
I could have described the objects depicted at the top of this post using only language:
“Two well-scrubbed sweet potatoes from the Farmers’ market (cut in 1.5cm cubes) along with a red pepper from the Farmers’ market (cut in 2cm squares) tossed in olive oil, cumin, coriander, black pepper, a pinch of salt, roasted in a glass dish at 400F for approximately 53 minutes, until they were just right.”
Yet there’s nothing intrinsically linguistic about them. I used language to procure them. I just used language to describe them.
Other than that, the experience of them, it seems to me, has very little to do with language. I decided a photo paired with a flippant phrase (“little squares and cubes of yum”) was a better way to present them. Smell and taste would create a more accurate perception in your mind of what came out of the oven, but digital media hasn’t quite caught up with those senses — yet.
If language is not an adequate container for all thoughts, then what is thought?
Do ideas form out of a kind of raw “thought stuff” which is then sometimes translated into language?
In my experience, yes, which is why I feel like writing is translation, like whatever I express in English is at best an approximation of what I’m after.
I’ll explore this question, and some of its implications for idea-making, in my next post.
In the meantime, I’d like to hear about your experiences:
- Do you feel like you are directly transcribing what’s in your head when writing a short story or a blog post or painting or dancing?
- Or do you feel like you are translating your ideas, whether into language or image or sound or other physical forms?
Please add a comment or send an email or a tweet, and let me know.