I’ve been thinking about language a lot lately. Language and mind. I read the wonderful book, “I am a Strange Loop” by Douglas Hofstadter recently. I dug his notions so much, I went on a binge on YouTube watching his lectures. The man’s ideas are fascinating. You should check him out. (Especially if you like philosophizing about how our brains and minds work.)
One of the things Professor Hofstadter spends a lot of time thinking deeply about is language. What it is. How it works, and what how it works means for us. One of the things he has noticed is that our use of language is not a precise thing. Language doesn’t function in a mechanistic way. It’s not like we think of an idea we want to put across, and all of the words line up perfectly to communicate that idea. Instead, it’s more like when we have an idea we want to get across (even when speaking to ourselves in our heads), all the words that might work surge forward, and a sort of contest for appropriateness takes place. Douglas says you can notice that when people use words that don’t quite work for what they are trying to say. It also shows up when people combine words as they speak. Lastly, you can glimpse it in all the techniques we use for delaying as we try to get out point out. Things like, “ummm…”, “you know….”, and (my personal favorite) “so….”. Douglas has trained himself to notice when these verbal stumbles happen, and he claims that he makes a few hundred every day which seems to be an average for the people he has informally studied. This changed my mental picture of language working as a sort of series of gears and pistons, to one of a roiling surface of water, with the bubbles that manage to burst being the ones that we get out.
Once Professor Hofstadter pointed this out in a talk, I began to notice it more and more in my speech as well as that of others. I am not as attentive as Douglas is in these matters, but I will say that I think he is right about the frequency of these little cognitive battles bubbling to the surface. Since I watched that talk I have been paying special attention to my speech and that of my friends (and whomever else comes under the cover of my limited awareness.) Not only does this cognitive dance for the words we want to use to express our ideas make all of our communications a semi-bumbling affair, it also serves an important purpose in how we stitch ourselves together as a human community. Or, so it seems to me. It’s in face-to-face encounters where we get the full nuance of our conversations.
Experts on such matters say that only around 10% of all communication is in the words used. Another 15% comes from the tone employed. The remaining 75% is down to our body language. In other words, in the carefully selected, edited, and polished written word we are only getting around 10% of our meaning across. All of this suggests that writing, while a noble art form, lacks the ‘bandwidth’ of personal communication.
I think that the stumbles we make when our words compete with each other to bubble to the surface indicate another lack in the written form. Words on a page are too refined, too polished, to exact. They are too perfect. With this format, we can’t ride along with the ‘speaker’ as they go through the very human motions of figuring out what to say. I’ve been doing some work for a freelance transcription company recently, and the “bubbling up” as people speak has never been clearer to me. I recognize the value of presenting cleaned up versions, of course, but the amount of context gained from listening to people process is kind of amazing.
Language is less like a set of Lego blocks to be put in proper order to present an image, and more like trying to use a garden hose spraying on a pond to write words with the ripples. Perhaps this is part of why poetry can have such a powerful impact. Freed from the rules of sentence and paragraph, the poet can get their message across in a more intimate form.
Language. It’s a funny little thing.