Indiscrete

My purpose for writing stuff here is to try and verbalise the most complicated and inexpressible thoughts I have, to the degree that if somebody else reads it, the same light bulbs might go off in their heads. They might even recognise the light bulb from having had it before.

“Language is the means of getting an idea from my brain into yours without surgery” – Mark Amidon. Language is what enables the entire point of this thing – whatever it is and whoever it is intended for – to work, to get these ideas into your head. Although I’m not really writing this for other people to read, getting these thoughts down in words helps me to understand them myself, and it certainly lets me develop them.

But there is an issue. Translating a thought from the unknown language of the brain into a verbal language means that the idea loses some of its accuracy. I can’t be certain that, if I were to read one of these before having had the thought myself, I would quite take the same idea away from it, that the same light bulb would go off. I’m writing so that if I forget one of these thoughts, I can reread these posts and understand exactly what I meant; so that the same things happen in my head. I think this is why I explain them with such a foundation: so that whatever ideas I lose in later life, I can restore them, even if I forget the keystone holding it together: it’ll be there in front of me.

But it’s never going to be perfect. I don’t believe it’s because I’m not a very good writer (however true that may be): I think that the language in which the brain works could not be covered entirely by the most talented linguist in the world (in fact, the best writers in my opinion are those who are best at transferring these complex thoughts to paper). And this is not as a result of the human condition; it is a result of the fact that languages are fundamentally flawed.

If you have some free time, I can highly recommend learning another language. Not necessarily for practical purposes, it doesn’t have to be Mandarin or Spanish so you can talk to as many people as possible, but I think that the further away the language you learn is from your first language, the better. It opens your eyes to a whole new way of communication, and thus thinking, and thus life, and so causes you to look in on your own.

Indeed I have been learning Mandarin for nearly three years now, and I have found it utterly fascinating, but for a very particular reason. Not because everything is represented by characters like 我 (I) rather than by an alphabet, not because it is the first time I had ever heard of a tonal language (the change in pitch as you say a word is just as much of a part of the meaning of a word as is the way in which your mouth moves), but because the words didn’t quite align with English ones.

You don’t get this issue with learning a European language, because in many ways, that is  exactly what English is. Having learned some French and German, the general tactic is to assign each French or German word to its English counterpart (often through a link you can forge, like contre, sounds like counter -> against) and be done with it. You can draw a line between most English words and their French or German counterpart, and the meaning is exact, a one-to-one relationship. Western European languages are all parallel to each other.

Learning Mandarin, though, is completely different. Because it was conceived totally separately to all the European languages (which almost exclusively come from Latin), you don’t get the same simple relationship between Chinese words and English words.

When languages are first created, people look at the things around them and label them. Many of the things are so similar they get the same label (such as the word “engagement” – being engaged to someone and engaging the thrusters are both symbolic of processes that are about to happen). The true difference between languages like English and Chinese is not the label itself – which is irrelevant – but the way in which the real world is categorised by the labels.

Take the Chinese word 条 (pronounced “tiao” with the pitch of your voice going up as you say it). It has loads of meanings, most of which essentially describe a measure of something. Whereas in English we would say “two buckets of water” but just “two fish”, the Chinese put a measure word before basically every noun: the Chinese way of saying “two fish” is “two 条 fish”. But you also use 条 to say “two 条 cigarettes”, “two 条 ships” “two 条 strips of cloth”.

So what would we say that 条 actually means, based on the example uses above? What do these uses have in common? There is clearly no English word aligning with it, but based on the example above, you have in your mind the idea of exactly what 条 means. The best way I can think of to translate this meaning into English is “a long, thin, possibly tube shape”. Isn’t it remarkable how distant this is from any English word! There is no parallel whatsoever, yet if I were to give you the nouns “river” and “coin”, it is perfectly obvious which word would be measured by 条, and which would not. Similarly, the Danish word hygge, which has no direct English translation but means getting all cosy and warm and feeling like your body is a warm hearthy blanket, has a meaning where we all know exactly what it feels like, even though we can’t really express it to somebody else because English isn’t complete enough. How odd.

When you learn enough of a foreign language, what starts to happen is that you stop trying to link the foreign words to English words; you start trying to attribute them to what they mean. A picture; a sensation; if it’s an adjective, something you would describe as that adjective. Although it is easy to live our lives by labelling everything we think of with the word from our mother tongue, it is incomplete, and incapable of describing everything around us – which was the whole point of language in the first place.

It is just as interesting, however, when you discover something that is exactly the same in Western languages as in Chinese. Given the languages had no form of collusion when they were being formed, these separate similarities represent a part of what it is to be human, as completely isolated members of our species have decided to attribute the exact same ideas to the exact same things.

Take three totally isolated languages: Mandarin (China), Basque (Northern Spain) and Xhosa (South Africa). The word “mother” is mama in Chinese, ama in Basque, and umama in Xhosa. The word is extremely similar in any language you could care to mention. It is rather clear why – the noise a baby makes while in its mother’s arms would lead any illiterate bystander to start calling the mother by the same name – but I find it astonishing that somewhere it is built in to human nature that we should use a particular sound to express our female parent.

But I digress. I suppose the main thing I was trying to get across in this one is that if we rely on language to try to describe our universe, we will quickly run into trouble, because reality is so indiscrete that any attempt by humankind to put it into any form of order will fail. There will always be a gap in the enormous spectrum of meaning that is covered by no English word, there will always be a meaning that is halfway between two seemingly exact synonyms, and we will always be left floundering as to what to call it.

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