How Do I Get it Write?
A Short Reflection on Language
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.”
- Burnt Norton, T.S. Eliot
Books, newspapers, magazines, emails, text messages…I could keep going. These are our main vessels of information and communication. The words that appear on whatever mediums we read are the ways in which we, as humans, share ideas and create meaning. But what happens when words aren’t enough (and most often aren’t). As much as we strive for precision with what we feel is the most accurate vocabulary, the most appropriate voice or the most effective syntax, the sequence of words that stumble out of our mouths are never exactly what we mean or want to say. I could sign an email with “I love you”, but you wouldn’t know the depth of my sincerity unless you heard it in person. I could text you “You’re great”, but you wouldn’t know whether I was commending you or sarcastically teasing you. This is why “neutral” news broadcasts are in some ways always biased. This is why text messages are often misinterpreted and breed misunderstanding. As much as we try to connect through words, the arbitrary ambiguity in language cannot be removed from language itself. We are so inarticulate in the ways we choose words and so clumsy in the ways we form sentences. What are we to do with language?
I’m not sure.
I was once told that when one is suffering, one will always look outside of themself for help. I think language works the same way. Words are insufficient, inadequate — are suffering. Language will always gesture outside of itself to create meaning. Metaphors, for example, are double-edged swords. They are a more precise means of communication because they borrow ideas from elsewhere to create images and convey ideas that better represent what one is trying to say. But they are also a self-interrogating misidentification of words and ideas exactly because they reach outside of themselves. When we make utterances, the thing will never be the word and the word will never be the thing. The word “tree” will never look or feel like an actual tree in our physical world. The closest thing we can do is attribute the idea of a tree to the word. It seems as if we’ve been hopelessly tossed into a linguistic system that works, but also doesn’t at the same time.
But not all hope is lost. In this confused jumble of words, I think what makes us weak is what makes us strong. Our ineloquence is in fact what liberates our mind, our thoughts, ourselves, from the rigidity and constriction of words. If language is the inadequate interlocutor for our thoughts, then it isn’t about what we say, but who we are. Because words will always fail to define us, we are not hand-cuffed to the words that are lumped in our throats, we are not chained to the things that we say about ourselves or others say about us, we are not strangled into submission by sounds we simply assign meaning to. We are because we are, not because of what we say. We are not human doings, or human sayings, we are human beings.