For the love of language

August 12, 2010 by
Filed under: Education Matters, Social Brain 

A sublime article at the Guardian by Tony Judt who recently died after a long and public battle with motor neuron disease.  He was writing about words being all we really have, and expressed himself beautifully. For instance:

“When words lose their integrity so do the ideas they express.”

and

“In the grip of a neurological disorder, I am fast losing control of words even as my relationship with the world has been reduced to them. They still form with impeccable discipline and unreduced range in the silence of my thoughts – the view from inside is as rich as ever – but I can no longer convey them with ease. Vowel sounds and sibilant consonants slide out of my mouth, shapeless and inchoate. The vocal muscle, for 60 years my reliable alter ego, is failing. Communication, performance, assertion: these are now my weakest assets. Translating being into thought, thought into words and words into communication will soon be beyond me and I shall be confined to the rhetorical landscape of my interior reflections.”

I read this article on the same day that I stumbled upon “Life without language” – an extended blog at neuroanthropology.net which explores ‘encultered cognition’. Language is much more than words, but does require some form of symbol system, including sign language.

The blog on language features an extraordinary story conveyed by Susan Schaller about her attempts to teach a profoundly deaf person in Idaho who grew up without any form of symbol system to communicate. Her goal was not to teach language, but to convey the very idea of language, and at the end of several weeks of sustained effort, she finally made a breakthrough:

“And then he started-it was the most emotional moment with another human being, I think, in my life so that even now, after all these years, I’m choking up [pauses]-he started pointing to everything in the room, and this is amazing to me! I’ve thought about this for years. It’s not having language that separates us from other animals, it’s because we love it! All of a sudden, this twenty-seven-year-old man-who, of course, had seen a wall and a door and a window before-started pointing to everything. He pointed to the table. He wanted me to sign table. He wanted the symbol. He wanted the name for table. And he wanted the symbol, the sign, for window.”

“The amazing thing is that the look on his face was as if he had never seen a window before. The window became a different thing with a symbol attached to it. But it’s not just a symbol. It’s a shared symbol. He can say “window” to someone else tomorrow who he hasn’t even met yet! And they will know what a window is. There’s something magical that happens between humans and symbols and the sharing of symbols.”

We need our symbols, and words are some of the most sophisticated symbols we have.  By reflecting on what it might be like to lose the ability to speak, or not to even understand what language is, and is for, we can remind ourselves that words are rarely ‘just words’, and that it is incumbent on us to use them well.

Comments

  • Michael Reardon

    Coming from such a sharp intellect,so incisive a mind as tony judt these sadly last words should be treasured and considered.His own last work – ill fares the land – shares with the fiction of colm toibin the ability to lay out with crystal clear clarity ideas and thoughts that others would seek to obfuscate and overlay with unnecessary verbiage .

    • Jonathan Rowson

      Thanks Michael. Reading the aticle by Tony Judt made me want to read his work more generally. It sounds like Ill Fares the Land is a good place to start.

  • Michael Reardon

    Coming from such a sharp intellect,so incisive a mind as tony judt these sadly last words should be treasured and considered.His own last work – ill fares the land – shares with the fiction of colm toibin the ability to lay out with crystal clear clarity ideas and thoughts that others would seek to obfuscate and overlay with unnecessary verbiage .

  • Jane

    When I was nineteen I gradually slipped into a state of psychosis and I lost the ability to use language. I could not understand speech. I could not speak coherently. I could utter words in a disjointed way. These words were linked to the strange thoughts in my mind but they made no sense to anyone else. I did recover and returned to university but I was never given any subsequent explanation for this. I have read a lot of psychiatric books and papers since and I have asked some very eminent psychiatrists what was happening inside my brain but they have never been able to offer any insights. “Thought disorder” and “word salad” are the two psychiatric phrases which commonly are cited but they do not sum up what is an extraordinary experience. I do know that other people with mental health problems experience profound linsguistic problems but our experiences are not documented and I never had any help in learning how to use language again. When I went back to university it was straight back to Chaucer, Milton and Anglo Saxon. I could have done with something easier but I did not dare say because I thought I would be chucked out of college if I did. Needless to say I have never said anything to a work colleague.

    • Jonathan Rowson

      Thanks a lot Jane. I sounds like ‘thought disorder’ and ‘word salad’ are descriptive diagnoses a bit like ‘irritible bowel syndrome’ i.e. bowel irritates you, and ‘geographic tongue’ i.e. tongue looks like a map.
      Your case makes me wonder about the relationship between psychosis and language more generally. Towards the end of the book, “Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, Robert Pirsig describes the experience of going mad and/or becoming enlightened, and it arose essentially from the limits of language- from his efforts to define ‘quality’. It’s worth a read if you haven’t already.

  • Jane

    When I was nineteen I gradually slipped into a state of psychosis and I lost the ability to use language. I could not understand speech. I could not speak coherently. I could utter words in a disjointed way. These words were linked to the strange thoughts in my mind but they made no sense to anyone else. I did recover and returned to university but I was never given any subsequent explanation for this. I have read a lot of psychiatric books and papers since and I have asked some very eminent psychiatrists what was happening inside my brain but they have never been able to offer any insights. “Thought disorder” and “word salad” are the two psychiatric phrases which commonly are cited but they do not sum up what is an extraordinary experience. I do know that other people with mental health problems experience profound linsguistic problems but our experiences are not documented and I never had any help in learning how to use language again. When I went back to university it was straight back to Chaucer, Milton and Anglo Saxon. I could have done with something easier but I did not dare say because I thought I would be chucked out of college if I did. Needless to say I have never said anything to a work colleague.

  • Jonathan Rowson

    Thanks a lot Jane. It sounds like 'thought disorder' and 'word salad' are descriptive diagnoses a bit like 'irritible bowel syndrome' i.e. bowel irritates you, and 'geographic tongue' i.e. tongue looks like a map.
    Your case makes me wonder about the relationship between psychosis and language more generally. Towards the end of the book, “Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, Robert Pirsig describes the experience of going mad and/or becoming enlightened, and it arose essentially from the limits of language- from his efforts to define 'quality'. It's worth a read if you haven't already.

  • Jonathan Rowson

    Thanks Michael. Reading the aticle by Tony Judt made me want to read his work more generally. It sounds like Ill Fares the Land is a good place to start.

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