Lately I’ve noticed how automatic and unconscious speaking a language is. We know what sounds right, but we don’t always know why it sounds right. We rarely stop to think through every word we say in a sentence unless we’re learning a new language, or when we trip over words that don’t sound right. Intriguing. In doing some research on this I came across stories of people who grew up without a language: deaf people born to hearing parents who were unable (or unwilling) to sign with them, as in the astounding article from Greg Downey, Life Without Language (Susan Schaller wrote a book on this, A Man Without Words). Many of these people, until found and rehabilitated by the deaf community in adulthood, were depressed and isolated without any ability to communicate, or even to clearly distinguish one object from another. With language, symbols for communication, the parts of everyday life actually become more real and discernible.
For example: I’m wondering why the difference between “much” and “many” is a big deal to native English speakers; and we catch it when we pick the wrong one of these two– “she has much dollars” makes our ears wince– but we can’t immediately explain why. Follow the white rabbit down the hole of linguistic anthropology to the mysterious root of language in our species. What began as a question of grammar becomes a deeper marveling at why we say anything at all, why pattern adds up and sounds make sense. Why is it these symbolic patterns, this unconscious depth continues to overtake our attention, sometimes causing us to speak a glitch in the system?
When I am feeling emotionally distanced from language itself as my primary mode of expression is when I am more likely trip over grammar and not care about how it sounds. I have always considered myself a wordy person, but in the past couple years I’ve been more focused on physicality, less “in my head” and at times more keen to express myself not immediately in words, but through image or movement. It was then the difference between the plural and the singular became increasingly irrelevant, my patterns of speech loosened and I could write more freely without self-censorship. Creative writing became easier, not harder, when I wasn’t stuck in Wordlandia, but explored other forms of language (language is not only words, it’s the conveyance of meaning). Being stuck in the realm of the “left brain” becomes restricting. It is necessary to break language’s patterns, invoke the animal body. Experimental freedom in language may happen more readily in spoken language, as that is when we allow ourselves to be more unselfconscious in our communication, in tune with others’ body language and focused on physical ques of the real, sensory world. Compare this to the cerebral strangeness that is writing an essay on a computer screen, every mis-written word underlined in red squiggles.
I once heard the idea that words as symbols can actually separate us further. At the time I heard this I was approaching near-worship of wordiness, an unconscious response to finding myself suddenly immersed in a (beautiful) subculture of an outdoor school which valued physical experience and body language as much as the spoken and written word, if not more. I loved this place, but worried my inclination toward expressing myself verbally was uncool in this social scene I so pined to be accepted in. The idea goes as follows: if somebody says “wolf”, you may both think of the animal, but if they go on to say, “An old grey wolf in summer is hunting for food,” that could separate you more. You both have different internal ideas of the animal’s fur color, what an old or young wold looks like, how summer feels, but maybe you were imagining snow on the ground before they said “summer”. More specifics could lead your imaginings further apart, according to the idea. It was an ear-opening way of understanding the world, and human communication. I think it is easy in modern society to over-glorify words in particular as the best means of communication, when we also have other ways of understanding each other.
In the academic paper Psycholinguistics, Formal Grammars, and Cognitive Science, Fernanda Ferreira introduces the field of psycholinguistics and its relationship to what might be going on at the level of cognitive processing. She writes,
“Psycholinguists who study adult processing are interested in how people understand and produce language. In the sub-area of comprehension, their aim is to develop theories that explain how listeners understand utterances in real time, even in the face of massive ambiguity and indeterminacy in the input. For production, the goal is to capture how speakers move from a communicative intention to a series of articulatory gestures, which results in utterances that are reasonably fluent and typically comprehensible to others. Psycholinguistic investigations focus on the constraints associated with real time processing. People understand language at the rate of about 300 words per minute, which implies that lexical retrieval, syntactic parsing, and semantic interpretation all occur in a matter of a few hundred milliseconds. Considering the size of the databases that must be consulted during comprehension, the speed and accuracy of human processing is truly astonishing.” (Ferreira)
That “speed and accuracy of human processing” is what I have come to appreciate from being a writer who draws from real-time, spoken life. To write in this way is to scratch the surface of what language is and why we are so sensitive to it. In tracking spontaneous, unedited patterns of speech from myself and those around me, I’m caught in wonder by the warm-blooded mechanics underlying evolving human language. Calling on any logical sequence of words as a species is real-life magic. It’s no accident that there’s a double meaning to the word “spell”; to write a word, to cast a charm. And there is hidden spell-charm in everyday speech. I know several people whose names are seemingly common, called the same as another’s, but they do not sound the same to me. To the untrained ear of an outsider there may register no difference. But to me, they have different names. One of my friends named Alex is not the same as the other, and it takes a friend to hear the difference. Somewhere in the ether between the life of the lips and the ear of the beholder, a word is made flesh. Even common names are incantations. Language may be a smaller pattern within nature mimicking the structure of nature itself.
Downey, Greg. “Life Without Language.” Neuroanthropology. WordPress, 21 July 2010. Web. 3 Sep. 2016. https://neuroanthropology.net/2010/07/21/life-without-language/
Ferreira, Fernanda. “Psycholinguistics, Formal Grammars, and Cognitive Science.” The Linguistic Review 22 (2005): 365-80. Lingo.stanford.edu. Stanford University. Web. 3 Sep. 2016. http://lingo.stanford.edu/sag/papers/ferreira05.pdf
photo by wilhei, Public Domain. Pixabay.com