It’s language, stupid!

A scene in The Hobbit by J.R. Tolkien has three trolls bickering and quarrelling all night until the light of the dawn comes up and turns them into stone. Gandalf, the wise wizard, had unknowingly kept them arguing all night.

 For just at that moment the light came over the hill, and there was a mighty twitter in the branches. William never spoke for he stood turned to stone as he stooped; and Bert and Tom were stuck like rocks as they looked at him. … “Excellent!” said Gandalf, as he stepped from behind a tree, and helped Bilbo to climb down out of a thorn-bush. Then Bilbo understood. It was the wizard’s voice that had kept the trolls bickering and quarrelling, until the light came and made an end of them. (The Hobbit by J.R. Tolkien)

Sometimes it feels as if language is tricking us into talking all night long: never quite allowing us to understand each other, always leaving doubts, always requiring repetition and clarification. Maybe we too, one dawn, will be turned into stone, destined never to speak again!

Language as Communication

How should we rate “language” as a form of communication? There are those who look to its uniqueness and superiority to all other forms of communication. It sure seems to beat the bee’s hands down with their waggle dance, and the vervet monkey with their limited number of alarm calls. But when we consider how inefficiently and how incomprehensively language conveys the thoughts we would like it to convey, then perhaps we can see how language is not such a powerful communication system after all?

Take for instance the following sentence:

Tom has arrived.

It contains a subject and a verb phrase. The subject is Tom. But if we don’t know who Tom is and have never met him before then the communicative power of the word Tom within the sentence is pretty limited. We might hazard a guess that he is male and human but that is about all. And even when we do guess that he is male, it is not the word that is communicating that but the interpretation that we attach to the word after it has been decoded. In fact, the word Tom seems to carry the minimum amount of information that any communication system would require and no more. It is completely “bald”!

The verb phrase has arrived too at first seems to convey a lot of information, but does it really? The verb arrive means to reach a particular destination, but it doesn’t tell us where. The auxiliary has indicates the tense is present perfect so we know the event has just happened in the recent past. But it doesn’t tell us how recent. So the sentence “Tom has arrived” seems to carry very little information itself.

Now think about the actually event of “Tom arriving”. Let’s assume that Tom is my brother and he comes through the door. Immediately he arrives there is face recognition and a sense of friendship and warmth achieved between myself and Tom. But there is also the manner in which he arrives: on foot, limping, in a wheel chair? What clothes is he wearing, is he carrying anything? Can we discern his state of mind based on the emotion on his face. The sentence “Tom has arrived” fails to capture any of this information. Similarly how can a sentence such as “I am kissing you” even begin to express the feeling of an actual kiss or even begin to bring about changes in a person’s emotional state that happen when a person is actually kissed?

It’s language, stupid!

So when we use language as a conveyor of meaning and a representation of the world we live in, it seems to be quite limited in its expressive value compared to the real world of experiences and beliefs. As an analogy, if meaning were art, then language would be appear to be stick-figure drawings.

If meaning were art, then language would be stick-figure drawings.

(There is something ‘atomic’ in language in the same way that digital logic is to computing.)

To further illustrate, imagine that we could connect a thick cable between the brains of two people. At the flick of a switch, the complete and whole knowledge, belief systems and emotional state of one person it transferred to the other so that the receiver can understand fully who the sender is, what he knows, what emotional state he is in – to a degree that matches that of the sender’s own understanding of himself. Now that would be some communication system!

But two people sit down to talk and it may takes years before they could even establish a single item of knowledge or belief that we could say they both truly agree upon. People talk, discuss, argue, dispute, bicker and squabble most of their adult lives with language. But are we any further to understanding the truth? Do we really know what our fellow homo sapiens are thinking, or who they are? Or are we really just mute, stone figures like the trolls that Gandalf tricked?


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