You don’t know what you’re not talking about

Carrie Peters
May 9, 2017 · 5 min read

In which I make a non-scholarly case for vocabulary — linguistic, emotional, or physical — being at the root of communion with the world, other people and our own bodies.

The pinky dialogues

I don’t know this for sure, but I don’t think you’d be able to intentionally wiggle your pinky finger without the words “pinky” and “finger”. Not that you wouldn’t have the muscles and tendons in place to do so, but just because you wouldn’t have a concept of fingers being separate from your hands, much less the smallest digit being separate from the others. You wouldn’t have the mental framework needed to will your pinky finger into movement.

Inversely, when a person loses a limb, you can watch his brain light up with activity when he thinks to move that appendage that no longer physically exists. Apparently he can even feel itches on these missing limbs. A “Phantom itch”, I believe it’s called. Because the brain has not yet been trained to un-understand the concept of the limb it knows. It’s still there, deep in the grey-matter.

Blue, the other red

I read once that humans didn’t used to see the color blue. The word blue doesn’t even show up in ancient texts until sometime during the Roman Empire. We used to dump all the chroma we now attribute to cyan into a family with all the “reds” of the world, and called it by the same name: “red”. The sky, the sea, people’s eyes, were all red in greek texts. And we went around completely satisfied with our visual understanding of the world.

Until one day, I imagine, some bright little cookie — lets call him Frank — gazing up at the clouds passing, decided that the color of the sky was enough of a variant on the theme of red that it should be given it’s own name. So he started it calling it blue. At first people probably thought he was putting on airs, making a mountain out of a molehill, breaking down communication norms and slowing down conversation by inserting his new adjective:

Did you remember to get eggs, Frank?

Yup, but I left them in the boat. (I guess Frank lived in Venice)

Which one?

The blue one.

… for fucks sake, Frank.

No doubt Frank’s wife was more inconvenienced than anyone.

But eventually Frank’s wife got it, and she, too, started using it. It became useful to them in understanding the world around them and communicating their understanding with each other. They raised their kids knowing the difference between blue and red and eventually the local shopkeepers caught on. The Butcher, the baker, the dressmaker… and that’s when it really caught on. Cobalt fabric, now that it could be differentiated from red fabric, was rare! Dress makers went crazy trying to source it from tradesmen, who in turn went crazy trying to find it wherever they went. Beads and pottery and textiles of blue were suddenly seen — quite literally — in a new light. A concept that started by a simple vocabulary tweak eventually made global commercial waves.

And that’s how the world caught the blues.

(Maybe. Probably don’t quote me on the specifics).

You should go and love yourself

Some languages have dozens of words for love. The English language only has one. We are either in or out. We have or have not. You can love your partner in life and also love a set of curtains you picked up at the shops for 50% off. I wonder if this stunts our ability to understand and participate in complex and complicated relationships.

What wonderful feelings are we missing out on simply by not disciplining ourselves into identifying and differentiating between the plethora of feelings we actually hold for the people, animals, objects, around us?

A yoga instructor of mine once told me that when we, humans, feel something in our bodies, we short circuit and attribute it to something we’ve felt and called by name before. Just like our ancestors called blue, red, back in the day. It helps us categorize and deal with the pain quickly and, probably, in a way that has kept us alive all these years.

The asana yoga practice is about actively participating in a relationship with your own body. Like any good relationship, the relationship with your body will be there for you when you need it if you take care of it.

Listening to the many things you body says is one of the ways you foster that relationship — you learn to speak its language, and communicate back.

The first time you walk into a yoga class everything hurts. And you resist. A thousand sessions later, the sharp grey voice you hear in your right elbow is different than the vibrant orange pulse your quad hums to you when you’re in a warrior two asana. Where once you would write them both off as “pain” you know now they are different, and mean very different things. And so you not only cease to resist them, you also don’t respond to them in the same way.

You know after some time studying the physical vocabulary of your own body that the sharp grey elbow feeling needs to be acknowledged by realigning the arm to quiet it. But that the orange quad song needs you to lean in with bravery, and let it sing louder than ever.

The vocabulary you learn to listen to and communicate with your own body with isn’t a verbal one, exactly. But it works, I think, in the same way that a linguistic vocabulary does between people. When you learn to identify and differentiate between things, even when the difference is barely noticeable (what Frank must have done that day as he gazed up at the sky) then you unveil entire oceans of opportunity you never knew existed. As the conversations you can have with yourself become more and more sophisticated, the way your body moves and operates alters, too. You begin to feel more than you used to.

Use your words

So perhaps it could could be said that vocabulary, when expanded (whether linguistic, emotional or physical) also broadens our horizons conceptually. The more we can label and identify and classify, the more we can discuss and comprehend, the more we can know and feel and love.

Carrie Peters

Written by

Curiouser and curiouser. I’m a designer, but that’s not necessarily what I write about.

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