The Burden of Language: An Informal Experiment, Part 1

Last Sunday, my girlfriend Falyn and I were sitting at a Barnes & Noble bookstore drinking coffee and having one of those really good conversations that reaffirm your decision to date your significant other.  The topic was language, and especially the English language, which surpasses all others in sheer quantity of words.  I suggested that we look at language as a schematism between individual human beings (I use the individual as a unity of analysis simply as a heuristic for my purposes).  In that case, language is an imperfect tool that humans use to represent individuated realites to one another.  We take the various accounts and combine them in our minds to further enhance and hybridize those individuated realites.  The tool is imperfect because each perspective is unique, but obviously we share many similar frames of reference, and those frames adapt to our particular situations (the reason, for instance, economists can understand one another – they share a particular paradigm and set of problems and methods and educational backgrounds; the same is true not just for other professions, but subcultures, families, and other groups). 

Still, it is imperfect because it takes time to communicate something, and if, say, I am an economist and you are an anthropologist (a real-life situation in my research), the lack of a terminology and similar vantage point makes communication exceptionally difficult.  To counter this (and for many many other reasons), I suggested to Falyn, is the reason the English language has become so enormous.  Increasing specialization, the need to subsume several ideas under a more general and abstract term, are one source of the increasing size.  Another, I continued, could be that language size literally feeds off of itself.  The bigger the language the larger and more cumbersome it gets – the more we need new words to say just what we mean.  This could also be the result of such an extreme individuality – and a certain level of self-importance – that we think our life-experiences require a broader and broader vocabularly in order to attain complete expression (going back to my above hypothesis of language as schematism).

Of course, by this point I was doing no more than speculating.  But Falyn proposed the following experiment:  Let’s just not talk to each other from now until… we decide to start talking again.  I thought it was a cool idea, and I agreed.  Before starting, we decided to go to Ruby Tuesday’s across the street.  We left the bookstore in silence, walked to Ruby Tuesday’s, and spoke only when being seated and waited on.  We both got the salad bar and a beer, and sat in silence.  After about 40 minutes of silence, we finally decided to end our experiment. 

Most profound to me was an event that occurred the moment we walked out of the bookstore.  It was chilly out and I was about to comment on that fact, but of course I couldn’t.  I just looked over at Falyn and continued walking.  After that even I admit I was consumed by the following question:

Why did I feel so compelled to mention the weather to Falyn?

First answer:  Social nicety. 

I rejected this option.  Too shallow. 

Second answer:  Concern for Falyn.

Rejected.  She had a jacket, she was fine, it was a short walk.

Third answer:  Desire to share my discomfort.

Rejected also, but getting warmer.

Fourth answer: Need to affirm that Falyn is experiencing what I am experiencing.

Now we’re getting somewhere!!!

To be continued….


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