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Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Failure of Words & Books


I never thought I would say this, but words fail us. As much as they add to our life experience and as much as I love books, I can see that words fall far short in both describing life's experiences, thoughts and realities as they are, and more so, they fail miserably in helping to describe what doesn't exist but could. In fact, language limits our ability to think and act. I want someone to prove me worng on this assertion.

Words are so powerful and meaningful, but only if we can agree on what they say.  Some words may describe a universal function – time, place, temperature.  Others try to describe a combination of feelings, intentions, moods, and states of mind.  But it gets harder and harder to use mere words in order to truly and accurately convey what deeply penetrates us.

There seemingly are universal truths or accepted ways to describe certain life-altering moments, but how can words explain sound, visuals, memories, or the extremities of life?  It seems the bigger the event, the fewer words we need – birth, death, pain, happiness – but the strength of the impression of a thought or event that we struggle to understand becomes hard to describe.  Our words betray us, painting wider swaths of color when narrower shades are needed.  We tend to use many words to describe a singular, split-second moment or fleeting thought, the kind that haunt us or dictate our lives and from which all future thoughts are filtered.

We need to learn more words in order to appreciate and understand the experiences or fantasies that we have.  Words can inform us as to what is possible.  Words can help us share with others.  Words can also limit us and keep us contained within their borders.

Our language should really be a combination of words, numbers, symbols, uniform images, and something that codes sound, sight, smell, touch, and taste.  We can’t just describe things, using more and more words as if quantity will formulaicly produce quality and accuracy.

The dictionary may be the writer’s Bible, but it falls far short of explaining not only what is or was, but what could be.  Words only make it into the dictionary because they’ve come to signify something, through usage and experience.  But we need to work on supplementing the words that fail to succinctly and accurately describe the indescribable.  Can we understand words that we’ve not yet experienced, where there are no metaphors to explain and shape our understanding, no comparisons or analogies, no sense of depth, proportion, relevance or boundary to give us any idea of where something falls in the scheme of things?

How can one understand what it’s like to get high from a drug without in fact getting high?  And when things get compared to getting high, how can you know of those things when you have no clear feeling for the reference point?  What good is longitude without latitude or any measurement when there’s no tool to measure?

Humans can’t agree on things that they witness.  People can see the same movie and conclude different opinions.  We can eat the same food and find those who disagree on everything about it.  We can have conversations where each person completely mishears and/or misunderstands the other.  We can have two experts examine something and draw opposite conclusions.  So how can we expect people to use words correctly and in a way we all can appreciate and understand?  And even if we could have agreement as to what all words mean, there aren’t enough words to describe all feelings, ideas, events, theories, or thoughts to the exact degree we experience them.  And there aren’t enough words to lead us, to think differently than we currently do, to take us conceptually into alternate universes and modes of experience.  Words, my breadth and my light, feel choking and dark.  I feel betrayed by the false comfort and failed promise of what language should be.

But, where no single words can take us, combinations of these words can, to a degree.  For that, I’m thankful.  Words map our lives – I hope that we can map new worlds with new words.  The dictionary needs to greatly expand – triple in size, over and over, again, and again, and again, and again, and again.  It should expand in proportion to scientific discoveries and the expansion of matter itself.

How often do people say something and then, after struggling to use words to transfer a combination of feelings, experiences, and ideas, say, “You know what I mean?”  If they have to ask that, chances are you won’t know what they mean, even if you think you do.

I don’t know why I never noticed this before, that words, as wonderful as they are, can be so woefully incomplete, nonexistent or misused when it comes to conveying the essence of life.  I feel so foolish, all those years, believing there was a formula of words, a string of sentences, even a book’s worth of content that could summarize and reflect our world, our being, our concerns, our experiences – and all of the things to be discovered.  But I was wrong, as wrong as one could be about anything.  No words, no punctuation, no anything can describe what I feel.  And that’s my point.

Words depend on our imaginations, knowledge and imagination to fill in the gaps words leave us with.

I am reduced to describing something based on something else, so depending on how you  have come to view or experience that something else, your understanding will be prejudiced, and even then, how can one really say something if what it is is all we can do by way of comparison to show what it is not?

Words mean different things to different people.  How they are said, by whom, where and when influence our interpretation and understanding of these words.  Context and perspective clue us in on things.

Words often are misused, misspelled, misread, or just plain butchered by the speaker.  This further complicates communication and makes it impossible to be on the same page as another.

The frame of mind of a writer or speaker – as well as the emotional mindset of the reader or listener will also play a huge role in how one’s words are absorbed and understood.

Further, our personalities influence our understanding or appreciation of words, not to mention our intellect, capacity for laughter, compassion and optimism.  Words are like clothes – not everything is the right fit or color or texture for one’s body type – and not every word is a fit for both user and recipient.  Sometimes words need adapters or extension cords in order for them to work.

Words have a time and place.  You wouldn’t use the same words in the same way that you use is talk to a lover as you would a parent or a friend or a work colleague.  Language must fit the situation and circumstance, or risk confusion, anger, disappointment or indifference.

I read in a book someone who was quoting dictionary.com instead of Webster’s Dictionary.  This wasn’t the first time this has happened.  Words and meanings change over time but I didn’t think we’d switch dictionaries too.

But which dictionary you use will dictate to a degree, the vocabulary that you develop.  One would think there’s a universal dictionary for a universal language but in reality, the language and the dictionary keep evolving and growing.

Words change, in use frequency and in our understanding of what they really mean.  Dictionaries respond to such usage and make changes based not on how words had been used or should be used, but in fact, are used – or not. Some words fall out of use and disappear, and new ones develop and become part of our lexicon.  Language is cultural, not a scientific math equation.

Words are reactionary, as they can only, in a limited way, explain what’s known, observed or experienced – and in no way are predictive nor can they acknowledge what exists but is undiscovered.  Words are inadequate catalogers of life.  We can’t all appreciate all words unless we experience them in varied scales and nuance.

When I recently watched a cheap movie thrill, Sin City 2, I realized that I could never fully use words to explain how that movie made me feel or to describe the techniques used to give off the living comic book feel.  Language needs not just words, but visuals, sounds, smells, textures, symbols, and extended codes.

I recently bought my nine-year-old son a back-to-school pocket dictionary.  It only had 40,000 words – a fraction of what is contained in the Oxford English Dictionary or even a modern-day abridged hardcover dictionary.  Does the pocket dictionary immediately cut him off from so many other words that he will never grow into – or does it serve as a great appetizer for things to come?

Words may seem special, valuable, and interesting - -and they are - -but they also fail us. I can't even find the right words to describe this.

Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer, Media Connect, the nation’s largest book promoter. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at brianfeinblum@gmail.com. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2014

2 comments:

  1. Thanks, Brian. I really enjoyed this thought-provoking post.

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  2. Me too ~ but it's interesting that your lament on the shortcomings of words could have been written as a celebration of it: nobody could ever write a book which perfectly explained the mystery of life to everyone who read it ~ and what a blessing that is!
    For, as you said, 'words depend on our imaginations... to fill in the gaps words leave us with.'
    If there were no gaps, the veil enshrouding the mystery would be torn open, leaving us bereft of it rather than living, as we do, nurtured by its subtle, indefinable light.
    Having said that, I truly believe we can understand concepts more deeply if we learn in a more holistic whole-brain, whole-body way. this is why I've been creating a fully illustrated book for the last fifteen years, 'Becoming Visionary'.
    On www.returntotheway.org :)
    Finally, if you haven't read it already, I think you'd resonate with 'The Spell of the Sensuous' by David Abram, which eloquently discusses how interwoven language is with the Earth herself.
    All the best, Shen

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