A friend said something beautiful. The limits of one’s language, he wrote, are the limits of one’s world. My friend, an old punk rocker like me, had of late revealed a gift for poetry hidden in prose. Deep stuff, beautifully written. Even something so dry and philosophical in another’s hands came out with a lilt, a tinge of sophistication. The words spill out like a melody. How the limits of our language are the limits of our world.
But I dunno. That seems too limiting. I think that sometimes those bent towards language over estimate its importance. Here’s why:
You see, our brains get most of their information without language at all–via sight, mostly, but also hearing, smell, touch, taste, not to mention balance, motion, memory, time, pheromones, etc….it’s not our world that is limited by our facility with language, but our ability to put much of that into words. Language is maybe 100,000 or 200,000 years old, but sensory perception is a billion years old, so the vast majority of how we perceive the world cannot even be described in words because it was created so long before we began using language…and most of it we are unaware of anyway. These are awarenesses (to coin an ugly plural) that happen without us even knowing they’re occurring. Most of what makes us aware we don’t even realize is operating. We don’t know in the same way a deer doesn’t know, or a lizard, or a fish. Or even an invertebrate…some of whose sensory perceptions extend far back, long before the first hint of a backbone–then a boneless column we call a notochord, still found in lampreys and lungfish–ever evolved.
Light, for instance….far back in the Precambrian ancient animals reacted to light and dark. We still do. People in polar zones become depressed during the winter when the sun scarcely rises above the horizon. They are wrapped in darkness 23 hours of the day, and depression steps in, and they sit, morose and miserable, in their overheated cabins longing for sunlight and perhaps not even knowing it. The roots of that go back a billion years, long before eyes existed. We bask in the light of the sun and don’t even realize just how primal that is. It is fundamental to who we are, this profoundly binary sense of light versus dark. Try describing that feeling without relying on scientific concepts (as I just had to do there). Try describing that feeling in the first person without explaining it. Just describe how it feels and what is happening to you. You can’t. It’s something that exists not only without language, but without consciousness at all. We simply don’t think about, nor can we explain it in language. Language doesn’t realize it’s there. It is an awareness beyond language, a perception beneath what we would consider a conscious perception.
Notice I didn’t even mention writing. Here’s why….writing is maybe 5,000 years old, written story telling (The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example) maybe three thousand years plus a few. So we can so far only put a tiny percentage of language into writing. It’s still more a technology than an instinct. We learn to write. Language is built in, and we begin to speak at a certain age. Writing is so new that in brain terms it is almost inconsequential. We write after someone shows us how to.
So I don’t think that the limits of one’s world are the limits of one’s language, because language barely scrapes the surface how we perceive the world….since almost all of it is done without language at all.
I think the more you write the more limited the language you write with seems…in can be really frustrating seeing something that you can’t actually describe…and describing sound is even harder. Music is virtually impossible to describe, because writing is a visual thing–you describe what you see–and not a hearing thing. And this is just scratching the surface. We are very profoundly driven by pheromones and yet we aren’t even aware of it. Pheromones work below the level of consciousness–they evolved long before consciousness did–and so we are not actually aware of just how much of what we are is pheromone driven. Which means we can’t even write–let alone talk–about experiencing them. We can’t describe how pheromones are making us act, and yet they affect almost everything we do. That is very much our world, but how do we write about it when we don’t even know what is happening? It’s like theoretical physicists postulating all kinds of dimensions of universes existing at the same time, and that we live in all of them simultaneously, but we don’t know it. Those are hypothetical constructs, though. But we actually do live within multiple sensory dimensions, but we are only consciously aware of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. When you realize that pheromones have vastly more impact on us than does taste or smell (as in olfactory smell–pheromones are “smelled” differently), and yet we cannot even tell what they do, that’s when you realize the problem with language. It barely scratches the surface of who we are and what the world is around us. Our brain and body responds to far more sensory information than we are consciously aware of.