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Interlude 1: The futility of words September 5, 2008

Posted by Oli in Language, Poststructuralism, Words.
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Words are peculiar things. They are the building blocks of verbal language, yet are woefully inadequate at their role of communicating what we are thinking. The classic book by Albert Mehrabian in 1971, ‘Silent Messages’ says that only 7-10 percent of our communication is through verbal language so the spoken word is evidently a distinct minority when it comes to communication techniques. Trying to effectively construct a sentence based on thought patterns, that are created through multiple firing of cranial synapses, could be a little bit like trying to herd cats – the multiplicities of our thought patterns do not transpose easily to the uni-directional nature of verbal language. Once a sentence is started, unless it is finished concisely and coherently, then we appear muddled and confused, and can be often derided for being so. The ‘structure’ of language therefore can be constrictive to what we are really thinking/feeling/trying to communicate.

A recent book by Steven Pinker, ‘The Language Instinct’ gives us a fascinating insight into the way in which language is used to denote the complexities of social interactions and meanings, and a recent talk he gave at the RSA is worth watching, if only for the fantastic narrative on swearing and the meanings therein. Evolution has apparently ‘hard-wired’ our brains to language, as Pinker argues, yet on a more superficial level, do we not see that words (rather than language) are changing all the time? Too quick to be associated with evolution, we see how ‘to Google’ has become part of the modern lexicon, while words like ‘chav’ have entered UK language recently, yet has become a very loaded term with some even suggesting it has become offensive and should be banned (or restricted like many other 4-letter words in the English language). Words, therefore, in themselves can appear, disappear or even change over short time periods. This is related to our cultural makeup and different people will use words differently depending on their cultural construction, but in terms of the words in themselves, they are just as susceptible to change as we are.

Words therefore can be seen as crystallised forms of lucid thoughts, a collection of a different combination of 26 letters (in English anyway) that have meaning beyond their initial glance. If you’ll allow me to philosophise about these things, words are like what Alian Badiou notes as the ‘multiple of multiples’, in that they are a rich tapestry of different meanings, cultures and even people that are subjectified by their users in multiple ways. Like numbers, words are a ‘snapshot’ on a continuum of matter, a peak in the ‘plasma of thought’ that our brains latch onto. Words, like numbers can be broken down, examined for meaning and truths (positive and negative) and often, under close scrutiny, collapse and require more words and further explanation to build up the concept again.

Negotiating our way through this complex and messy world requires us to socialise, communicate and exchange information at an alarmingly increasing rate – a rate with which words struggle to keep up. Putting those words in a coherent and constructed stratum (such as sentences or language) negates the possibilities that underlie the initial construction. How often do we find ourselves half way through a sentence and soon realising that what we are saying is not what we meant in the first instance? Life is multifarious so why shouldn’t language be? Words, as we have seen, can be manipulated, and are inherently malleable. The plasticity of our vocabulary is perhaps the best weapon we have to negotiate our complex 21st century planet, and so experimentation and wordplay can open up avenues of rhetoric that would otherwise travel along a well trodden path, and therefore force the listener (or indeed, reader) to double-take; force them to think about what is being said. As I said, words are peculiar things, but peculiar in a good way…

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1. Video lectures worth taking the time to watch…. « OliMould.com - January 13, 2009

[...] Steven Pinker at the RSA. ‘The Stuff of Thought: Language as a window into human nature‘. Recorded June, 2008. Length: 1h10m – (inspired my previous blog post about ‘The futility of Words’) [...]


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