It is remarkable to realize just what language is trying to do. Think about a situation you found yourself in recently, and then think about trying to relate that experience to someone else. Almost any circumstance you can remember involved countless things—all the almost innumerable objects and events and emotions and thoughts that made the experience what it was. Realizing how complex even a simple everyday experience is can stun the mind, and sometimes even overwhelm us to the conclusion that it’s just not possible to put it all into words. And in that despair, we settle with just giving our general impressions, not making sharp descriptions or exact explanations.
But there’s a difference between complexity and hopeless complication, and the arts of language enter the stage to say, “No problem, we’ve got a word for every last thing you experienced in that situation. All you have to do is take a perspective on what you’re trying to relate, name what you see, and say what one thing has to do with another.” Think about that for a moment: a word for everything last thing you experienced. That really is remarkable. Now you’ll have some serious philosophical problems to explain if you take that statement literally, but there is nonetheless a lot of truth to it. After all, writing involves words, so what are most of those words doing if not identifying what we see in a circumstance, real or imagined? Some words, like nouns, name things; some words, like verbs, name actions; and still others, small but important words like prepositions and conjunctions, name how things are connected together. And all these words work together in a sentence to define—to put a border around—a portion of our experience of being alive in the world. Putting a word to something—putting just the right word in just the right place—carries an experience out of our memory or imagination and into the mind of someone else. Words follow our direct experience of life, and they have the remarkable (or should we say almost magical) ability to recreate what we have experienced in order to share a portion of it with someone else.
And it’s right there, in defining and delimiting our direct and seemingly unlimited experience, that language does for us what it does so well. We might think of words as units of energy that create and carry meaning so that someone else can feel the effect of our thoughts and emotions. When we employ language, we’re trying to give someone else a piece of our mind, as it were. And what is truly remarkable is that the complexity and richness of human experience can be caught for a moment in nouns and verbs and all the rest of the apparatus of grammar and thinking. Far from overwhelming us, that should inspire us to become ever more skillful in the arts of language, just as we would with any other art we’d like to use and enjoy.
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