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Words. What are they good for?


“Perhaps whatever can be articulated is falsely put … Or perhaps it is the case that only that which has not been articulated has to be lived through.”
– from ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ by J.M. Coetzee

Several experiences over the past few days have brought home the difficulty I have expressing myself in English – my native tongue.

I’m kinda aspie – or at least I was until they abolished Asperger’s Syndrome – and I do little of my thinking in words. Rehearsing conversations, recalling or reading what others have said, earworms from hearing annoying pop songs and that’s about it.

It was a bit of an epiphany for me when, about fifteen years ago, I realised that so many other people do nearly all their conscious thinking in words. How on earth do they think about things for which there are no words? Turns out a lot of them don’t think about those things at all. That explained a lot.

I don’t identify as an artist or philosopher but some of my most satisfying conversations have been with people who think pictorially or symbolically and then try to translate their ideas and insights into words. I’m pretty comfortable in a roomful of geeks speaking pseudo-code pidgin.

So I often find myself frustrated by my inability find the words I need to express concepts that are so clear and precise in my mind I can almost reach out and touch them.

Often it’s because those words just don’t exist in English.

An example is the ideas lumped together under the English word ‘love’. Even resorting to the Greek distinctions of eros, agape, philia and pragma is insufficient to express the range of intimate feelings I have towards my fellow beings. ‘Consent’ is another word I find insufficient to express all the variations of coercion, cooperation, compulsion, persuasion, agreement, submission etc that are generally covered by that term.

As you might imagine, I have a lot of difficulty talking about my intimate relationships.
Luckily lovers have more than words to resort to.

Sometimes the concepts I seek to communicate can’t be captured in binary, linear terms at all, so there is probably no spoken language that can express them.

I’ve read some beautiful descriptions of sunsets, but none that even come close to the experience of watching one.

As for trying to express aspects of the mystical experience to someone who has not had one – forget it. I might as well try to describe ‘green’ to someone who has been blind from birth.

Actually I have a theory that nearly everyone has mystical experiences, but people who are accustomed to organising and storing their experiences in words simply can’t retain them so they just slip away like a dream.

Even people who can recall their mystical experiences can’t really talk to each other about them. However we can recognise each other through the commonality of the inadequate metaphors we reach for.

Unfortunately mystic poetry and new age publications have made such metaphors available to people who don’t really know what they refer to. Rather than express themselves with mystical metaphors they adorn themselves with them. It usually doesn’t take long for such people to reveal the emptiness of their expressions though.

Which brings me to another problem I have with communicating in language.

People who think in words all the time seem to attribute a lot of power to them. Consider all the religions who teach that creation is the process of naming things or invoking a Word. All of the superstitions around magic words and secret names.

I often find myself in a discussion where someone pulls out a quote or repeats a slogan or aphorism in the belief they have made a telling point. While I accept the theoretical possibility that they actually have and that for some reason I am simply unable to grasp it, deep down I don’t really believe that. I think they have impressed themselves so much with their own erudition they have failed to notice they have not actually said anything.

I recently got into a terrible spat with someone who said “Everyone is worthy of love” as if that were a wise, compassionate and unassailable statement that really said something (he added the petty, nasty and completely untestable qualifier “with rare exceptions” but it’s not his attempt to create an extreme out group that I’m addressing here).

Both ‘worthy’ and ‘love’ are heavily loaded words that carry a lot of significance in our society so its easy to see why someone might think such a phrase was important and relevant, though anyone who can look past its emotional weight to interrogate its meaning will spot some of its ambiguity and logical problems.

Perhaps the statement had a particular significance to him and maybe its subjective importance explained his abusively defensive reaction to my questioning of it, but what struck me was his unwillingness or inability to attribute a specific meaning to what he had said. The strong impression I got was that he had never actually thought about it, though he obviously had a strong emotional stake in it.

To me this is inconceivable. How could someone be so emotionally tied to a set of words and yet be unwilling to analyse what they mean? Why would it be so important to say something to someone if you aren’t prepared to explain what you have said?

One possible explanation would be if you are only capable of using words to analyse words there is little to be gained through such an exercise. Unless you can anchor at least some of your words with underlying concepts and ideas you are only building castles in the sky. You can’t justify empty words with more empty words.

I see this around me every day. Truisms justified with slogans justified with definitions justified with aphorisms justified with quotations. Babble chasing gabble.

Or was it some sort of conversational stroking used as a gambit to identify members of his in group. As with hand-on-heart patriotic statements or assertions of religious faith, if you agree you’re one of us, if not you’re one of them. If that is the case, any grounding in objective truth would reduce the statement’s utility. You don’t want someone from the out group agreeing with you just because what you said was demonstrably true.

Naturally I don’t believe that people who think exclusively in words have nothing more to say than a parrot. Surely there’s meaning in there somewhere.

But are they consciously aware of what that meaning is? Are they capable of interrogating it?
If not, how could critical thinking be possible?

If you are someone who thinks primarily in words I would appreciate any insights you could offer this poor aspie struggling to understand what the hell everyone is trying to say.

From → confusion, mysticism

  1. Sasha permalink

    Don’t scoff but I find my thoughts on this best expressed by an exchange from the great film, “A Fish Called Wanda”.

    Wanda. You think you’re an intellectual, don’t you, ape?

    Otto (smirking): Apes don’t read philosophy!

    Wanda: Yes they do, Otto. They just don’t understand it.



    • Yes they do, Otto. They just don’t understand it.

      Sounds like me.
      I suddenly feel very hairy.


  2. Sasha permalink

    Seriously though, I have always been a verbal learner. In the retail racket there is a lot of visual merchandising to be done. If the company gives me a photo of a display with the instructions, “BUILD THIS”, I frequently find myself at a loss. But explicit verbal instructions with more pictures are tons easier for me to follow.

    But of course you are right, words must have underlying meaning. (Prepare yourself… another quote!) As the great sage Robert Anton Wilson said, “The map is not the territory”. Never make the mistake of confusing words with what they represent. I remember having a hearty laugh at a self-proclaimed historian who claimed that since the word “homosexuality” was only coined about 100 years ago, that therefore there had been no same-sex fucking before the 19th century.



    • As the great sage Robert Anton Wilson said, “The map is not the territory”.

      The Buddha said something similar that roughly translates as “Don’t look at my finger. Look at where I’m pointing”.

      I think the objective of Zen koans is to mess with the heads of the finger starers until they let go of the words and embrace the concept.


  3. I think with words too… Emotions are often hard to understand, and there are times when I don’t understand why i’m feeling the way I am or I find myself unable to express. But I have to say, it’s not just words. And just as it’s hard for you to understand how people can think just in words, I don’t understand how you can think without them.


    • Moniba, you think beautifully in words.

      Anyone reading this should go to Moniba’s blog to see what I mean.

      There’s another kind of thinking in words I do that I forgot to mention.
      I sometimes get poems.
      I say ‘get’, not ‘write’ because it’s like they arrive from outside as a kind of thought insertion.

      It doesn’t feel like they came from me at all, though their content usually alludes to something that has been on my mind.

      I sure can’t do it when I try to.

      There’s even one that showed up after I’d been asking myself where all the poems were coming from. I put it here because it tickled me so much to write a poem telling me that I don’t like poems or the people who write them and that the poem I was now writing was rubbish.

      Mostly I don’t write them down at all.


      • Wow… That is a seriously surprising compliment!
        How about you post the next poem you ‘get’? 😉 That’s the thing about poetry by the way. It comes to us, we can’t just write it ourselves. It literally flows out of the mind/soul and into the pen.
        That poem isn’t bad, though it is ironic :p


        • I’ll try to write the next poem that comes – as long as its not too shite – but the problem is they often come in the shower or when I’m running for a bus and by the time I get to a notepad or keyboard they’re gone.

          I usually retain the idea, but the words have flown away.

          I’m glad your poems come to you too.
          It makes me feel a bit less like a plagiarist for writing down the ones that come to me.

          A lot of my poems sound like they came from the script of a third rate horror movie.
          My mum always told me I shouldn’t read those sorts of comics.


        • Hahah… Sould’ve listened to her 😉
          Words have that annoying habit of coming to you on the most inconvenient times. For me, it’s usually just before I fall into deep sleep.


        • Didn’t take me long to start ‘getting’ words attacking words below the belt.

          Never did like ’em much I guess.


  4. Gracie Smoke permalink

    Classic aspie. Don’t be modest, you have a superior grasp of the English language. It seems what you’re saying is more about the ineffectuality of language in conveying emotional experiences. That’s why music will always be more popular than books, and a good metaphor saves a lot of breath. Most people talk a lot of nonsense anyway, especially about feelings – body language and tone of voice is 90% of in-person communication. Just spend a few minutes with someone who doesn’t speak your language.

    Personally, I know this sounds odd, but I’ve found I can tell more about a person from touching their skin briefly than from twenty minutes of in depth conversation. I think we give words more power than they deserve.


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