The Personalist Project

A number of different interactions and experiences have had me pondering the nature of language and the question of whether the variety of ways we express ourselves to others serves a purpose that would offset the frequent conflicts we see over vocabulary and usage. There’s no question that language often seems to be at the root of divisions between people of goodwill (not even broaching the effect of language used to sow deliberate division by those of ill will). The easy exchange of ideas online has led to what can seem a deafening and certainly disorienting clamor of voices, each with different ideas of how to speak about topics important to all—faith,  love, death, family, friendship, sin, redemption, God, and humanity.

Sometimes, as in the constant warring over vocabulary to describe people who are attracted to the same sex or who experience gender identity conflicts, vocabulary can sometimes seem to have become a battleground where words serve as minefields or as signifiers of affiliation and virtue. Sometimes, as in the occasional outbreak of calls for one or another writer to lose their platform or face public condemnation, attacks on vocabulary seem to serve as a substitute for deeper complaints about more substantive divisions. But the question of how language ought to be used and how language is actually used is raised all around us.   

What is language, and what is it for?

Before anyone can answer the question of what kind of language (vocabulary, in this case) might be appropriate or inappropriate—or even sinful or virtuous—to use, it seems to me that we first need an answer to an even more basic question: what is language?

I’m aware that there has been a great deal of philosophic discussion on this topic from people much more knowledgeable than I, and I can’t speak to those arguments. But I do think that, as we commonly use and understand it, language is a system of symbols, of signifiers which stand in for or point to concrete objects, experiences, or conditions. This is certainly how we acquire language: we learn that this sound (or action, in the case of sign language) is invoked in a way that corresponds with something sensed or observed.

The story of the education of Helen Keller gives a remarkable example of this: remarkable because Helen was of an age to remember and be conscious of herself during the time since she lost language as a toddler, and was able, as a result, to give a unique account of the experience of regaining it. Her teacher, Anne Sullivan, spent weeks repeating words to Helen, by way of the touch-based modification of sign language she had devised for the deaf-mute girl. Helen had learned to echo these movements back to her teacher, but without any meaning attached. She was mimicking, just as an infant might mimic facial expressions and the sounds and rhythms of adult speech.


The light came on, and the gestures became language to Helen, only on the morning that her teacher, in a burst of frustrated stubbornness and perhaps momentary inspiration, thrust Helen’s hand under a gush of cold water and signed into it, over and over, the movements that spelled out W-A-T-E-R. Again and again, she spelled it out.

Keller later wrote of the experience:

 As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.

I want to draw something else out of this account—the relief of loneliness that Keller experienced as a result of this recovery of language. She had been alienated not only from others, but even from herself—she had no way to shape her thoughts about her experiences even to herself, she was limited to sense impressions without any signifiers to manipulate and explore those experiences and sense memories after they were over. The revelation of abstract thought opened a whole new world. Keller tells us about the day her teacher’s explanation of love finally made sense to her:

"Love is something like the clouds that were in the sky before the sun came out," she replied. Then in simpler words than these, which at that time I could not have understood, she explained: "You cannot touch the clouds, you know; but you feel the rain and know how glad the flowers and the thirsty earth are to have it after a hot day. You cannot touch love either; but you feel the sweetness that it pours into everything. Without love you would not be happy or want to play."

The beautiful truth burst upon my mind–I felt that there were invisible lines stretched between my spirit and the spirits of others.

If language refers to the system of signifiers we use to describe the outside world, it seems to me that communication refers to this experience; the use of language to create awareness of our connection with others. To be the recipient of language that signifies something we have experience of—and even words that talk about what we have not directly experienced rely upon our comprehension of simpler terms that we learned through this process of correlating words with what is seen, touched, or known from within—is to learn that we are not alone, that others also see, touch, and know. This, I would argue, is the end of expressed language—to bridge the gap between subjectivities and allow us a means to establish union with one another, however imperfect it must always be in our post-Babel world.

The second part in this reflection can be found here: The Gift of Babel

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Comments (2)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Aug 6, 2016 9:39am

Kate, you remind me of a book given to me by a philosophical friend some years back, called Nonviolent Communication. It was a mixed bag of a book. On the one hand, it insinuated relativism, but on the other, it helped show truly that language is all about the exchange of inner selves. It showed, too, that the only way to have relationship is by deliberately opening ourselves to others and listening to them.

It helped me understand that not listening, not opening myself to the subjectivity of another leads to misunderstanding and violence. Maybe most importantly (for me), it taught me that I should make it my aim less to declare how things are or should be and more to share my feelings, thoughts and experiences, with the conscious aim of communication.

I love the example of Helen Keller for illustrating the way language provides relief of loneliness and interpersonal communication, changing her experience of the world from misery to wonder.

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Aug 6, 2016 12:50pm

Of course I don't mean to imply that you here insinuate relativism! Only that that book did. Your post reminds me of its good part. :)

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