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March 27th, 2021
How many words have you invented? At the very least this is a game that all children seem to stumble upon at some point, smashing syllables together in strange combinations and then stitching meaning onto them. But how often does this sort of thing hold? We don’t vote words into usage, they join our practical lexicon organically, through no conscious consensus, and more importantly, through no conscious design - it just happens.
The troubling conclusion here is about control. Do we control language? None of us have a choice about which language we first learn. We do not get to research the semantic differences, weighting the strengths and weaknesses in order to figure out which language might best serve us. No, we are given a language, and it is the cost to play. But embedded in that cost is a set of constraints that can be very very hard to see. What plays more of an active role: our control and design of language, or language’s control and design of how and what we get to think and communicate?
One wholly dictates the other, and we are left at the whim of communal organic design, which has not conscious intention behind it at all. The constraints of language can only be hinted at by way of negative space. For example: what can you experience that is impossible to communicate in words?
Poets and writers over the centuries have been praised for their ability to tip toe into this ineffable territory, but no matter how much progress is made on this front, there still must remain area outside the capture of language.
There are a few token experiences that consistently escape the grasp of language, and which default to fairly uniform and therefore flat methods of description. The experience of love, for all it’s songs and poetry is probably a good one. But beyond this, religious experiences, and psychedelic experiences are consistently represented by language in ways that are barely two dimensional. The reason, at least with psychedelic experiences may be that the compounds involved are directly effecting the very source of language - the parts of our brain that produce and process it. Though if this were the whole case, it’s imaginable that we might be able to dutifully convert the memory of the experience into language, but the result here too is woefully lacking.
Are there experiential places that we as humans can go where language cannot follow? Is it possible to phrase with language the directions for how to get to such a place?
Language inherently collapses experience and concept, by converting something that exists on many dimensions into fewer dimensions. Language can prattle on in a spiralling knot, attempting to weave an insidious net through the memory of experience in order to tie it down discretely, but it’s that very nature of language, that of discreteness, which prohibits it’s success.
But language does grow. There was a time when humans were experiencing everything without language to capture any of it. But then some structure of sound and rhythm wiggled into life and started latching on to the most tangible aspects of our experience, and from there it has grown, and it continues to grow. The best example of this is the explosion of terminology in scientific fields. As we discover more categories into which the universe can be sensibly atomized, we name each box and method.
This growth spurs a wonder about the future of language. What will it be like to talk in a few decades when we have more memes and more words? What about a few centuries? What might language look like in millions of years?
Language is a technology, and technological process has a fairly reliable habit of replacing the technologies it finds with new ones that are often very different. The car replaced the horse, and the two are about as different as you can get, though they achieve much the same thing as a technology of transportation. Given enough time, language might become a quaint memory, maybe even a hobby if we graduate to some sort of conceptual and experiential telepathy.
But in the meantime, language is here to stay, and it can still grow, at it has here with this episode. There might not be any new words in this little piece of writing, but the searching tendrils of language have attempted to feel out new surfaces in that realm that spurns its touch.
Words are a function of common experience. Two people both have to have some sort of experiential correlate to a word for it to function in communication. If only one person has had the experience then a word for that experience just doesn’t hop the divide between people. It’s a bittersweet tragedy that a unique experience can only be communicated through it’s non-unique attributes. And we are all having unique experiences.
This paradox feels like it could be at the heart of existence: how is it that you and I are both stuff of the same single universe and yet there is this intractable gulf between us? How funny is it that I am trying to bridge that gulf with this fundamentally primitive technology of words? As infinite as this gulf might be, hopefully something has managed to make it to the other side.