The Mystery and Power of Language

We Sometimes Forget What a Powerful Thing Language Can Be

What Do We Mean by Language?

For a long time, when we thought of language we thought of word-based communications between human beings. One of those things that separated us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Now, of course, we are learning that this was our ignorance showing itself. It seems almost daily that we learn of communication between critters of all kinds that go beyond just particular sounds.

The basic definition holds – a system of communication that may be verbal, visual, written, or some combination thereof. It’s just that we are not the only species that can claim this capacity.

Still, one can say it probably is a distinguishing capacity for humans, one that has great power, for both good and evil. Importantly, we use it not just to communicate now, but also to pass on history – incorrectly or accurately. The fact that our languages include words gives great capacity. Language is important

The Varieties Are Endless

 I have come to understand that language, even just within the confines of humanity is amazingly rich and complex. The number of primary languages throughout human history numbers in the many hundreds, in the thousands by some counts. Add in dialects and we are in the many thousands. Throughout the history of our species, they come, develop, grow, and oftentimes, wither away, their lessons lost to future generations. That is sad, but perhaps inevitable, especially for those that are verbal only.

But human language is not made of words only. Two striking examples of other means come to mind.

One is mathematics. I only dimly understand that mathematics may prove to be the ultimate communications means. It is how many expect we will eventually communicate with other species across our galaxy. How mathematics will convey poetry and emotion I cannot say, but there are those who live and work in this milieu who assure me it is up to the task.

Another is music. Musicians and their fellow travelers have a communications system unlike any other. Great meaning and emotion can be carried so lightly and cleanly that we mere mortals never hear it – but they do. I recently heard a musician say that while they are pleased that there is an audience to hear them play, that is not the point. They are playing for each other. You can see that, especially when Old Time or Mountain Music is played. The expressions on the players’ faces tell you some serious communication is underway. That the rest of us only get a fraction of it is OK – even that little bit is magic.

 The Subtleties and Cultural Context Can Be Important

We are not quite at the universal translators envisioned by Star Trek just yet, although translation programs, graced with machine learning and artificial intelligence do increasingly impressive jobs. Still, the subtleties matter greatly, and are easily missed. Examples abound.

I remember some years ago President Ford was on a trip to Europe. He said, “I love Poland.” The translation came out “I lust for Poland.” Whoops.

Some years later I was living in Paris, watching the Berlin Wall and East Germany cease to exist. I had a friend in the West German army with whom I had morning coffee often who would help me go through the German press about all this on any given day. It was great having such help, but I knew I was missing important context, having to work with a translation rather than the native German text. Not the same.

Still later I was with Ambassador Albright (not yet Secretary of State) when she was making a speech at the UN Security Council. In a bit of improvisation from her text she referred to “wimpy resolutions from the UN.” When she said that, I immediately looked over to the translators’ booth. How would they translate the vernacular American term “wimpy” into a dozen languages? Some, I gathered from the look on their faces and the various reactions from diplomats to what they heard in their headsets did better than others.

Pay Attention

Not easy, translating across cultures and times. I suspect battles have ensued throughout from misunderstandings as much as from intent. It helps to know the culture, the vocabulary and the baggage we all carry linguistically.  Of course, sometimes, meaning – and reaction – are quite clear across any such barriers.

Sometimes the very briefest phrases carry the day. Once I was working with a community group trying to develop a mission statement (sometimes a wasted effort, but that is a subject for another blog post). We came across one from a Quaker church that was about perfect, and so short: “Here, you will be cared for. On occasion, you will be asked to care for others.” How do you do any better than that?

Years ago, I started keeping a list of great quotes and lines that I thought were worthy of revisiting over the years. It quickly grew to many pages, across many topics, but almost all have been simple and clear. I consult that list often. It is like visiting old friends. Language well used is such a gift. A few examples:

  • We are the prophets of a future not our own.” – A prayer at Archbishop Romero’s funeral.
  • “We pause in darkness, to ponder what mysteries it may hold.”– Mark Ward
  • “A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything.” – Malcolm X
  • The truth is like surgery, it hurts but cures. Lies are like pain killers, they give you instant relief but have many side effects.” – from the blog Shower Thoughts

And so it goes. I could call these up forever.  So much to learn, to reflect upon, to use, to celebrate.

So, with due caution raised as we all attempt to communicate, let us nevertheless celebrate language. What a gift it is.

             Bill Clontz

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2 replies to The Mystery and Power of Language

  1. Currently reading the bio of J.R.R. Tolkien. He was very creative with languages and could speak countless different tongues. I find his life very interesting.

    • An excellent choice of one who truly understood language. Enjoy!

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