Quick clicks and whispers shake the air; each individual phoneme – sound, containing the intent of a want to communicate. Pervasive and unavoidable, language is life’s attempt to translate ideas into tangible, shareable meaning.
Being in the process of perfecting my French communication each day, I feel the immensity of language as a whole. This is to say – the history, the morphology, the subtleness in sounds and the intent put into each word and sentence. As an international student I’m constantly exposed to the worlds diverse culture – hearing Arab, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, Dutch, German, etc. Every time a foreign tongue graces my perceptive bubble I become attentive to its noise because I know that it has a rich purpose for its existence. Like music, someone had the want to create it. I fall in love with each exotic utterance, desiring to know of its secret inner workings.
Truly, language is an ever growing puzzle. Of all the times I’ve failed at communicating a concept in French and especially in English, I couldn’t help but question – Does language ever capture the true intent of what’s trying to be exchanged?
I think back to the philosopher Donal Davidson who proposed that metaphors can only be taken in their literal meaning and not metaphorical. In a nut shell Davidson said that because a metaphor (Juliet is the sun, John is a pig, etc.) relies on the meaning of the individual word used to construct itself, any meaning beyond the literal meaning is subjective. So meaning in metaphors is never truly shared the same amongst each person. To derive meaning beyond the individual words (Sun, Pig, etc.) is to ignore the inherent meaning in these words and assign an entirely new purpose for them.
There’s a lot more to Davidson’s work but this one idea has had me questioning the meaning of individual words themselves. Is there really such a thing as literal meaning in words and does anyone ever truly comprehend the meaning of what’s uttered by someone else?
Sure, when someone mentions the word table they have an approximation of the idea – used for eating, studying, legs, square, round… BUT each image of this word is entirely different depending on who hears it. One person may see their grandmas ceramic round table they used draw on as a kid or the most recent experience with something table-like.
So this beckons the inquiry of how well we can approximate what’s being said by someone else.
As much as language has its sociological roots, its use by the individual brings a very personal and subjective element to its construction. More than a system of cultural exchange, language is insight into the workings of a mind.
“Metaphor is the dreamwork of language, and, like all dreamwork, its interpretation reflects as much on the interpreter as on the originator” (Donald Davidson 1978)