The Contours of Language

On Possibilities and their Problems

No language is purely descriptive. Each shapes our world in its own manner because it allows us to understand life in a particular way, defined not only by personal inclinations but also by vocabulary, grammar and syntax, those things that tell us we can say this but not that. All languages generate limits that we push against, borders that we find difficult to cross. We might think that all things exist before words, for instance, but some don’t and that holds us back.

Consider the phrase ‘premenstrual syndrome’. Before it became accepted terminology women suffered isolated symptoms, often misunderstood or denigrated. Afterwards it allowed an understanding of the complex ways in which the menstrual cycle affected the rest of the body, including the brain. In its generality it described anew, it created something that could be held against existing descriptions to prove them wrong at worst or inadequate at best.

Where once lay untroubled plains of life now rose hills and crags, a difficult geography that challenged just as much as it confirmed.

Language has that sort of capacity to both exceed and disturb only because people are willing to look beyond what is and consider what might be. Some brave souls travel outside the general conversation, turn aside from the conventions of words piled against each other, and then return with new ideas that become new words that describe age-old things. Discontent is their condition, and we’re lucky that they’re so troubled.

But in our more common grappling with language we open new territory far less often. We’re more likely to stumble over words, weigh ourselves down with presumptions rather than possibilities. Much has been said about the capacity of English speakers to shift rather effortlessly from ‘ought’ or ‘should’ to ‘must’, from describing an action that is morally or ethically correct to insisting that the same action is necessary. That we must do it, now. Instead of exploring new terrain we simply fall back on a familiar landscape of old ideas and comfortable words.

From there it is relatively simple to anticipate things that might never be and presume that they have already come to pass. Consider a second phrase – ‘ozone layer depletion’. In some ways it mirrors the significance of ‘premenstrual syndrome’ by making people aware that previously unrelated activities, such as the use of manufactured chlorofluorocarbons and the creation of ozone in the reaction between ultraviolet light and oxygen, are in fact linked and affect us all, whether directly or indirectly.

You’re with me right? Chlorofluorocarbons lose atoms in the stratosphere when they react with ultraviolet light. Each of those freed atoms, known as radicals, can break down an immense amount more ozone molecules. With the ozone gone, with a hole in the layer, ultraviolet light strikes the Earth’s surface shifting the environmental balance, increasing rates of skin cancer and generally causing havoc.

But that’s not happening, largely because a good many people are doing something about it. And more to the point, it never has happened. In attributing a moral value to something, by saying we must stop this inevitable thing, we convince ourselves that it has already happened. My point is not to say that ozone depletion won’t ever happen – I understand just how significant it is and disastrous it could be – but to show that our use of language sometimes creates unrealities.

Gossip works in much the same way. Someone does something; someone else disapproves and tells a third person. That person detects the opprobrium in the description of the first action and highlights it when they tell yet another person. The fourth person, or maybe the fifth or sixth, converts the censure in the first description into fact. Only a few words have to shift. One angry moment becomes a life of arrogance, fleeting pique becomes lasting marital discord. It’s the lifeblood of suburbia.

With these small steps we enter the desert of speech, pushed along by language ever looking to settle on the most convenient structure of thought. Descriptions can liberate when they’re creative, but at their destructive worst, and even on the presumptive middle ground, they tether us to mendacity, the little lies by which we like to live.

So many possibilities, so little positivity – it truly is a puzzling world.


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