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Speaking of Language

The shape of words

by Roma Hora

A teenager fumbling her way through an audition for her school choir is asked by the music teacher what does music mean to you? The only hearing member of a deaf family, she has spent a large part of her life as translator, a readied parser of words and conveyor of meaning on behalf of her tight knit family to the world, and vice versa. To articulate something of her own heart, however, visibly gives her pause. When she finally responds, we see her most sincere answer, the one which best communicates her depth of feeling, is expressed through the silent gestures of sign language.

This quietly remarkable moment is from the Oscar-winning film CODA and it asks us to consider: what role does language play in shaping us, in helping us tell our story? Is it we who create the words or do the words create us? We already know that languages, like libraries, are living repositories of knowledge. But is it possible what we have words for can themselves create meaning, feeling, emotion? A theory known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis suggests exactly that. It theorizes that people’s thoughts are determined by the language they speak. Meaning that the language we speak, at least in part, influences who we are and how we show up in the world. 

The inextricable relationship between language and worldview has long been the enchanted playground of both linguists and storytellers. A fertile ground that perpetually demands a closer examination of how we translate our inner lives to the outer world. It’s the sublime and fraught space that seeks to understand nuance, subtext, and both root and purpose for expression. For those that are multilingual and travel between languages, this relationship is an ever present, and perhaps more urgent companion.

The inextricable relationship between language and worldview has long been the enchanted playground of both linguists and storytellers.

American author Jhumpa Lahiri, who studied Italian for many years and eventually undertook to write a new book in Italian has insightfully spoken about the work of translation and of navigating a new language. She has said “Translation, to me, is metamorphosis. It is a kind of radical re-creation of the work, because you are recreating the language to allow that work to be reborn.” She is likely appreciating that translation — at least a good translation — doesn’t merely offer the same words in another language, but that in capturing the desired imagination alongside the words, it completely transforms the writing. 

Lahiri has also spoken at length about her struggles with learning a new language and has said she found comfort in the words of fellow writer and friend, Domenico Sartone, who reminded her that “A new language is almost a new life, grammar and syntax recast you, you slip into another logic and another sensibility.”

Perhaps the sentiments of Lahiri and Sartone can be distilled in the uncanny statement of 7th century emperor Charlemagne, “To have another language is to possess a second soul.” Perhaps our language/s don’t just give voice to our inner lives but open us up to new inner worlds altogether. 

Sci-fi author Philip K. Dick posed the question “Do Androids dream of electric sheep?” and offered us yet another entryway into the inquiry regarding thought and language. If the programming language of code and algorithm means that robots might dream of electric sheep, then how does human language, our very own code, affect how we perceive the world? 

Perhaps our language/s don’t just give voice to our inner lives but open us up to new inner worlds altogether.

With 6,500 known languages in the world today, it’s worth repeated consideration – does language merely reflect reality or does it shape it? And, therefore, in preserving language, are we simply trying to hold onto words or are we trying to preserve the unrepeatable phenomenon contained in and unique to every language – – the very soul of the thing? 

We’re all familiar with the power that words can wield – the pen is mightier than the sword and all that. The power of language is also easily understood within the context of marketing, politics, viral tweets, and on and on. But beyond this surface perspective of influence that strictly deals with the external world with its clear and linear ways of understanding how A arrived at B, there is the power of the dreamy inner life of words, that affects perhaps more than we realize. 

In the alien-flick Arrival, the main character is a linguist professor who is tasked with establishing communication with aliens that have landed on earth. With great effort she learns that their written language is circular and doesn’t progress from cause to effect and thus, to the aliens, time does not have a direction. This is beautifully reflected in the chronology of scenes that at first view don’t make complete sense, but come together in the end to illustrate through a circular sense of time that language guides reasoning. These scenes manage to convey a haunted sense of both remembrance and of foreshadowing, touching upon the elusive nature of getting underneath the words to the deepest purpose of language, that of achieving connection. 

Sure, the movie title may be speaking to the arrival of aliens on planet Earth. But for this viewer, it’s the moment when the alien language is unlocked and communication is established, that arrival is achieved – – the arrival of true understanding. 

This arrival, too, of being able to see, understand, and feel the world through a new language — much like the arrival of the aliens — is like entering a new world altogether.

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