I’ve been trying to develop an essay on the importance and power of human language; ironically I’ve struggled to find the right words. Human language expresses subtleties and complexities of our existence: meanings and contradictions and explanations and questions and compromise. The character Thomas More, in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, says that God created Man “…to serve him wittily, in the tangle of his mind!” To me, the tangles of my mind are filled with tangles of language.
Yesterday—July 4, 2016—a satellite arrived at Jupiter and, reports say, “Jupiter will give up its secrets.” But even in all its magnificence, Jupiter won’t express a thing, won’t say a word…anything that is learned or “given up” will be the language of scientists who labor to formulate that understanding into words. Our understanding of Jupiter has grown since the Babylonians first identified it about 2800 years ago…without language, where would all that understanding go?
Look at everything that language allows; think of everything that lack-of-language would take away. Language can be as pinpoint as a person chooses and can uniquely express that person’s humanity in a pinpoint, unique way. Language can make plain a person’s humanity to the humanity of others. So, language is at the center of a person’s ability to experience life…I must assume, then, that the more enriched a person’s language, the more enriched is his/her existence.
I have a friend who recently told me that in Montaigne’s essays in the late 1500s, he writes that language is a defining feature of being human. I hated to find out that “my idea” had already been expressed 450 years ago but I love that a friend learned the idea from this antique source and then shared it with me, expanding my own understanding in the tangles of my mind: being human and using language are inseparably intertwined. Without living things, in all the universe there would be no source for love or hate or sadness or joy or anger or sympathy or understanding…nowhere. Because in all the universe, only living things have those appetites and emotions and achievements…and the need to express them in words.
Other living things can certainly communicate; animals clearly communicate through body language—for example, our cats express many emotions by purring or rubbing or hissing or arching their backs…but their communication is limited to gross appetites and emotions: hunger, joy, anger, and love. Our language allows us to refine those things, to know the variations of love or the various evils of hate or the damages of fear and anger… expressing those subtleties and complexities is purely human.
I think this is why I often resort to quotations to a make a point: many phrases in books, poems, songs, and movies have captured an idea so perfectly that it can’t be improved; even the sound of the words—their poetic quality—sometimes adds to the beauty (a purely human perception) of the idea. Within the tangles of my mind, I often come upon the words of others that illuminate a subtlety here, a complexity there…and then I find and add a few words of my own. Regularly, I struggle to find the right words, but I believe the struggle is important because the right word holds the importance and the power.