The Limits of Language


Language is one of the many gifts that distinguishes humans from other animals. A dog may speak to another dog in a subtle way, but their language does not have a distinctly complex sound, not to mention a sophisticated written one. On the other hand, humans have an abundance of different languages in both written and spoken forms, and dialects too within each spoken language. Furthermore, we know how to train animals to understand the human language in the form of simple spoken commands.

Despite its sophistication, a language does not enable the full capability to communicate all the emotions, nuances, processes, utilities, looks, feels, sounds and tastes of ordinary life. That is why we use body language, music, dance, art, painting, drawing, photograph, mathematics, and taste buds to feel, learn and communicate.

“A picture is worth a thousand words” convincingly shows the limits of language. Note that iPads and iPhones don’t provide user manuals because Apple’s clever design for intuitive operation makes them unnecessary. You may try to describe in words the joy and inspiration of hearing your favorite song without employing exclamations or body language. You’ll see the difficulty of doing it without the music being played out. Another thing I’ve tried is to describe how to ride and balance a bicycle. It is almost impossible. Just tell the novice to ride it. He will learn in a while, perhaps after some tumbling and fall.

My point of showing the limits of language is that we should not emphasize too much on words. They are inaccurate at best despite the honest intention of the user. So often we hear people debate or quarrel based on the words used by the other side. A few times back and forth this way will make the issue even more complicated. It’s just a waste of time and energy. Why don’t we try to understand what the other side wants to say and mean? The words being uttered is just part of the deal.

Another point I want to make is that when we read, we should not take the words literally and interpret them out of context. The words do not represent fully and exactly what the writer wants to convey, again due to the limits of language. A good writer understands these limitations. Thus he employs his words wisely in an interesting way to make the reader feel and think deeper. The result is that he successfully communicates his message, provides enjoyment and inspiration, and convinces the reader to believe in what he says.

August 2013

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This entry was posted in 21st Century, Funny/Personal, Inspiration. Bookmark the permalink.

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