Monday, November 12, 2007

The Meaning of Words

Back to the Beginning

Here’s a nifty fact which I found reading historian Niall Ferguson’s The War of the World (a mind-blowing read, by the way). It’s right in the introduction:

“In terms of our DNA we are, without a shadow of a doubt, one species, whose origins can be traced back to Africa between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago, and who began to spread into new continents only as recently as 60,000 years ago – in evolutionary terms, the proverbial blink of an eye.”

This is, of course, not new, but from a writer’s point of view, these numbers are fascinating.

We Are Not Genetically Built For Language

Think about it like this: The first human did not speak any language. S/he had the same genetic ability for language that we do today, but obviously s/he only learned to communicate the way the tribe s/he was born into communicated. And the way tribes communicated back then must have been no different from the way monkeys communicate today: grunting, pointing, screaming, and so on.

Obviously, the first human did not immediately invent a language. It is unreasonable to assume that the first human suddenly came up with something like English or ancient Aramaic, for example. Even if s/he had, s/he would have no one to talk to. And, of course, no one can invent a language out of thin air without first knowing a language.

It is more reasonable to assume that the first human communicated with the tribe in the way the tribe communicated before the human had been born, and that the new human did nothing more complicated than that. Then the first human bred, and the offsprings bred, and so on. And eventually, after a few generations, maybe one word formed that the humans – and even the ones with the more monkey-like brain – could learn to understand and use to communicate better. (Monkeys, research has shown, can learn a few hundred words.)

Over the generations, a few more words must have formed. A few generations later and maybe there were a few dozen words. Take a few more generations, maybe even hundreds or thousands of years, to form something remotely akin to syntax. And take a few thousand more years to form a basis for a language that had some kind of logic or reason behind it, as all human languages today do.

According to the numbers above, mankind had anything from 40,000 to 140,000 years to form out of nothing a basis, a common denominator, for what would later become all human languages.

We are so used to seeing babies and children learn the language, and babies and children are so good at it and the human brain is so clearly geared to absorb language in a faster and more thorough way than adults can, that it seems the most natural thing for the human brain to do. And yet if we think about it, it becomes clear that the DNA that gave this ability to kids, was not created when language, even rudimentary language, existed.

We ourselves need language so much, are reliant on it for everything, and our brains are clearly quite equipped and adept at using and learning a language, that it is almost impossible to conceive that we are not genetically built for language.

The mechanism through which babies and kids learn language, the mechanism we use to communicate, must necessarily have served a completely different purpose than the one we are using it for now. When mankind formed – with the same DNA as we have today – it must have taken thousands of years for a rudimentary semblance of a language to form.

We are not genetically built for language. And yet we are.

Symbolic Logic

It’s all about symbolic logic. That’s an ability to put something into a concept, which can be a word or a number or even a picture in our imagination. Once we can think about things without seeing them, we can put two of them together, imagine consequences of things we have not seen by creating a third avatar/picture/concept/word/number in our heads, and so on.

We can plan ahead, we can think about things that haven’t happened or did happen but are not happening now. We can think about people or animals that are not in front of us. We can see our own death. We can imagine entire scenarios in our heads, an ability that also allows us to imagine and understand and invent stories.

The more concepts for which we develop names or shapes for in our heads, the better we are at thinking ahead, relying on previous knowledge. Today it’s given us languages, mathematics, stories, and more. But the mechanism for all this is the same: the ability to separate one thing from all we see or imagine or feel and see it as one thing.

That one ability separates our intelligence from the monkeys to such an extent that it let us take over the world and even get to the moon and send probes to the far reaches of the solar system.

Back to Words

So what does that mean about words?

Words are either concepts or connections between concepts. I’ve put in bold the words in the last sentence that are concepts: Words are either concepts or connections between concepts. Here is the same sentence with the connections between concepts in bold: Words are either concepts or connections between concepts.

But words resonate. Poetry resonates. Stories resonate. Certain sentences by certain authors can lay you down and pierce you right through the heart.

The Meaning of Words

Erica Jong, in her book Seducing the Demon (also mind-blowing), writes about a choice she made before giving a speech:

“There was only one way to tell the truth. And that was to tell the kids and their parents and professors why I was there. I was there because I was a writer and a writer is someone who takes the universal whore of a language and turns her into a virgin again. I wasn’t going to coast on clichés. I was going to talk about the power of words—something I had been thinking a great deal about since the so-called war on terror dragged on and on, kidnapping the language and proliferating terrorists.”

When Jong writes about “the universal whore of a language”, she means two things: One, that language has been recently overtaken by Orwellian Newspeak and forced to tell lies and hide the truth; and two, that even without that, it is the writer’s job to create something new and true every time she puts old words on a page.

But as great as that line is, language is never a whore.

A writer uses two kinds of words: the words that are concepts and the words that connect concepts. The words that connect concepts are perceived in the same way in everyone’s minds (‘and’, ‘but’, ‘is’, ‘that’, ‘the’, etc.). But the words that are concepts are perceived differently in each and every person that hears them. ‘Chair’ isn’t the same for me as it is for you. Neither is ‘leader’ or ‘strong’. You know what I mean when I say these words, but the words resonate differently in every one of us.

Even our own understanding of words isn’t that clear. Do we know what we fully mean when we say ‘chair’? Can we define it properly? ‘Chair’, after all, covers all chairs possible, and that’s a hard concept to define. And yet when we see a new chair, we immediately know that it is a chair even though we’ve never seen another one exactly like it before. The word ‘chair’ also includes many memories of chairs, as well as, perhaps, certain experiences with chairs. The word ‘chair’ must necessarily carry with it the process by which we, as babies or kids, learned to tell chairs apart from things that looked like chairs but weren’t. The process of learning the word ‘chair’ is also included in our experience of it when we hear the word. The process of having been taught the word ‘chair’ (different from learning the word) must also be hidden there somewhere. The possibilities of what other chairs could be as well as the possibilities that were close but did not make it into the definition (back when we were kids) must also be subconsciously included in our experience of the word. I could go on and on and yet not cover everything.

That means that when we say the old word ‘chair’, things resonate in every one of us slightly differently. Different pictures, memories, associations are summoned within each of us, and usually we are not aware of this process. Even when we are aware of it, like now, we can’t be aware of everything that single word means to us.

Every word that is a concept is not a fully-formed concept. It carries with it memories, depths, associations to other concepts, possibilities, and who knows what else. Words that are concepts are like pillars on which you stand but that reach endlessly down, so that their bottom cannot be seen. A good writer uses that fact when putting together a sentence. A good writer would know that every one of us understands concepts differently. A good writer would subconsciously know that careful use of words-that-are-concepts resonates deep into unseen places.

In Conclusion

Language isn’t a whore. Language is made of bottomless pillars that go deep into the murky depths of our selves and reach into places we don’t fully know or understand. The words in language that are concepts rather than connections have, as far as we are concerned, endless depth, and if used properly, they will resonate in ways that reach into those depths.

Corrections: A certain evolutionary biologist corrected me on the following things (I'm paraphrasing).
1. "Every time you said 'monkey', you meant 'ape'."
2. "It is most likely that the brain evolved together with the language and symbolic thinking. Language advanced a bit, the cortex got more complex, language advanced a bit more, the cortex got more complex, etc."


yonatan said...

i hoped that youll be back.

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