Words Failing

A friend today gifted me a wonderful thought by way of the linguist Noam Chomsky. It may seem like a very academic proposition on the surface, but to me it was one of the most beautiful and optimistic ideas I have ever considered.

As a writer, I have long felt a sense of sadness over the inherent difficulties and deficiencies in my craft. It was best expressed by an aphorism by Friederick Nietzsche in THE GAY SCIENCE that is interpreted in English as “in all talk there is a grain of contempt.”

This is a terrifying concept for a writer that I have never been able to adequately refute. What Nietzsche is saying is that language, being primarily a form for humans to communicate with one another, requires us to find the least common denominator for everything we wish to express. This is fine when we are just giving simple instructions, but when it comes to our most deeply felt thoughts and impulses, it leads us to use bland words and cliched phrases to express things that might have deep personal meaning.

What’s more, because in this paradigm the only purpose of speaking and writing is to form human connections, you could make a strong case that many potential human expressions should be avoided altogether. Taking the most cliched example possible, there is absolutely no point in writing and sending a love letter if you know the end result of this letter will be indifference or a negative reaction from the person who receives it.

This can be further extrapolated into all communications about love … what’s the point in writing an idiosyncratic, honest love song when the target of the song could misunderstand it? Might as well just keep using the same cliches as everyone else. If Paul McCartney wants to drop a line about diamond rings into yet another song, John Lennon shouldn’t complain about it, it’s what the audience wants.

This is the majority opinion among linguists, that language is a tool of communication, it’s sole purpose is to make human to human connections, and we simply have to do what we can to make those connections, even if it means sacrificing expressions that come closest to accurately describing our genuine thoughts and feelings.

Chomsky, starting around the 13:07 mark of this YouTube video, makes what to me is a startling, wonderful claim — that research suggests this paradigm of language is completely false, that language has evolved not to improve human to human communications, but rather to allow individual humans to express particular thoughts and feelings. I’m sure many people will hear this and shrug, but to me it’s a revolutionary thought.

Let me return to that basic, simple example — the love letter. To someone who believes in the primacy of communications, that letter is problematic. It could be misunderstood. It could be rejected. It could be socially unacceptable. Or, because of the need to access the least common denominator to be understood, it could be completely effective but at the same time false and manipulative.

But consider that same letter from Chomsky’s new perspective. If the a priori purpose of language is human expression, we are no longer talking about a subject-object message being sent. The letter does not exist to convince the receiver of the person’s love and to change behavior based on that information. Rather, the love letter is an expression of a human being’s most deeply felt feelings. The success of the letter is no longer judged by the end result of that letter, but by the purity of the expression, how close it actually came to expressing what was inside.

As a writer, I find this to be a very thrilling concept, because there is simply no cause to ever fear public reaction to something you write. If the purpose of writing is to accurately reflect internal thoughts and feelings, you succeed by writing with honesty and artistry, not by being broadly understood and achieving measurable results.

So, in other words, there is no point in holding back the things you wish to say. The words you speak and write express what’s inside you and by doing so with courage and honesty, you display your full humanity, no matter what the impact of those words may be.

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