Sede Vacante

The light is on but no one is home.

Language can set you free


Imagine a human being with only one word for the feeling in the pit of his stomach–“SAD.” Just sad. So he drops his ice cream cone, and he feels sad. His favorite football team caves in the superbowl, and he feels sad. His new car gets scratched, and he feels sad. Just sad. He knows not sorrow, desolation, abandonment, emptiness, depression…. All he knows is “sad.”

Now what does he feel when his little daughter falls into the pool and drowns while he ran inside to refill his beer. He must feel something. He runs to you and tells you that he’s sad. Of course you tell him that you know the feeling; that you’ve once dropped an ice cream cone, bet on the wrong team, and scratched your car. You pat him on the back and tell him it’s ok. Everyone feels sad every now and then. You tell him that he can always buy another cone, that there will be more games in the future, and that the insurance will take care of repainting the car.

So he tugs at his hair, and his hands go wild, and he yells at you that no, he isn’t sad. Confused you tell him that there’s no need to be so uppity about it. If he’s not sad, then that’s good, after all, isn’t it?

Language defines our horizon as individuals and as a race. When humanity first encounters a new being, his first instinct (perhaps second only to the desire to flee from it or find out what it tastes like) is to name it. We have evolved from naming simple objects to christening human emotions, and wills and wants. When we first named it, it exists for us. From “jubilation” to “jelly beans”. If it exists, it has a name. If you don’t believe me, try to tell of a single thing that exists that does not have a grouping of words by which we can refer to it.

It bothers me that so many people I work with cannot really communicate well. I’m not referring to anything so baseless and elitist as the mastery of English (or any specific language). I’m referring to the fact that so many people have such limited language skills. If you cannot express something, how can it possibly exist for you? Unnamed things are like ghosts, you cannot see them, but they can go bump in the night, and you’re powerless against them.

Words are properly referential. You can define one new word through the use of others. But it’s also hierarchical–you build up from simpler words to complex ones. As your mastery of language increases, so does the depth and meaning of the world you live in. As children we throw tantrums, utterly in terror of the grip of the irrational unnamed emotions. As we grow older, we give them names, and learn to recognize them and live with them.

So how do you feel? Simply happy? Simply sad? Or is there an unnamed gnawing at the pit of your stomach?

(And do note that there is a difference between an unnamed thing, and a thing whose name cannot be spoken.)

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