Monday, December 31, 2012

Language and Evolution

Somerset Maugham in his preface to his work ‘Liza of Lambeth’, asks the reader to take the book not as a picture of life in Lambeth today but as that of life of Lambeth long ago, and says the following...

‘...they had not the varied vocabulary that their children have (today); and with a more limited command of language at their disposal, felt and thought more simply...’

What a profound truth!

We are all only as rich or as impoverished as our language, as our vocabulary.
Our experience of reality is only as rich or as impoverished as our language.

Consider the people living in villages. They lead such simple lives; they barely subsist, going from one day to the next, doing mostly the needful.
And not coincidentally, their language is also simple. Their diction is limited too.

We think in terms of words and phrases into which we try our best to fit our perceptions, insights and experiences.
When our words and phrases are limited in number, those of our experiences and perceptions that lie outside those words remain shadowy to us, remain only faint sensations, for we may not have the right word or the right phrase to fit the experience into.

It’s not simply fitting an experience into some word or phrase or expression known to us that we do, but (very importantly) we ‘classify’ that experience in the right category. And everything depends on classification – our response, our learning from an experience...

We do not know how to ‘classify’ a certain experience if we do not have the right place holder for it in our mind in the first place and many a time, we may, in our unconscious attempt to somehow fit a certain experience to one of the words or phrases we know, classify the experience incorrectly.
And if we make the wrong classification, we may respond to the experience wrongly.
Or if we are unable to classify at all, we may never respond to it. (An example given at the end of the article)

The uses of words such as ‘somehow’, ‘somewhat’ that are so commonplace in our conversations are also an indication of the fact that the thing we are trying to describe is only a vague, faint sensation to us and not a crystalline, sure thing (except at times when we use those vague words for not wanting to be specific, for various reasons).

Contrary to our belief that words are only an expression of what we experience, feel and think, words are in reality, a means to experience, an instrument of thought and feeling, the adequacy of which determines the quality, correctness and depth of our experiences.
Contrary to our belief that experience happens first and then words are formed in the mind, we know the words first and then experience reality through those words.

And when I say words, or when I say ‘rich vocabulary’, I don’t mean the number of words but also the ‘level of being’ that the words belong to.
Someone who has committed to memory a medical dictionary or a dictionary of physics would surely know more number of words than most of us. But that’s not what I mean. Here I am talking about words that correspond to our perceptions, nuances, our insights into the world and people around us.

Digressing a bit,
E F Schumacher, in his work, “A Guide for the Perplexed” defines four different levels of being in the ascending order of evolution...

The inanimate, the level of minerals,
Life, the level of plants, not possessed by minerals
Consciousness, the level of animals, not possessed by plants
Self awareness, the level of human beings, not possessed by animals

Each higher level encompasses the level of the lower level plus possesses a new level.

Self awareness implying -> consciousness recoiling upon itself, thought recoiling upon itself – your ability to think about your thoughts, ability to feel how you feel.
And consequently, analyse your thoughts and yourself.

The more extensive our vocabulary (at the level of consciousness and self awareness), the more our perceptions and insights and the more nuanced and fine our experience of reality becomes.

The more perceptions, more insights we have, the richer our experience of reality. Isn’t it?

Many many of my preconceptions have been verified with the finding of the right word, phrase or expression for it.
Many perceptions, sensations and insights that were vague have not only become crystalline with the finding of the right expression but also lead to the development of a definite theory or philosophy, that was previously, only a weak insubstantial argument.

This article itself is an example. I have always loved words and given importance to language, mine and others’. I have been censured for harping about language which is ‘merely a means of communication’.
I have tried to explain in several ways that it is so much more than ‘just a means of communication’.
We are what we speak - correct use of words indicates clarity of thought; accurateness of expression (with exaggerations pardoned) indicates credibility; using words with the right weight, depth or gravity indicates discrimination; spontaneity indicates speed of the mind; economy of expression requires intelligence... and so on.

But all throughout, I knew there was more, something else to language, so much more than all the above that made it really important, that justified my assessing or evaluating people on the basis of their language.
It was when I read those 2 lines of Maugham mentioned in the beginning of this article, that I found what ‘it’ was.
The expressions crystallized the thought that was somewhat vague in my mind.
And within no time I was able to register correctly in my mind, what I have always ‘felt’ and able to classify it, to put the whole subject in ‘perspective’ and put forth the above theory.

I was able to admit to my mind what was hovering about it for want of a proper place inside to belong.

To summarize,
The more perceptions, insights we have into the world around us, the richer our experience of reality and the higher our evolution.
The better developed our language, the richer our experiences.
Therefore we are only as evolved as our language.

My belief became ‘complete’.

Here is another example.
I have come into renewed contact with a relative who has remained more or less the same person he used to be earlier. Yet, I find that I now feel offended by his behaviour like never before.
This person has ‘no sense of territory’, ‘does not respect our space and time’, ‘steps on my toes’, is ‘pushy’ and ‘insensitive’.
He was always the same, but what was different then was that I was not aware of these words and phrases that are in quotes above and therefore I was not aware of those notions, those concepts either.

I see now that I did not like his behaviour then but what I felt was a rather vague sense of annoyance and irritation, much lesser in intensity and I was also unable to evoke a definite response.
Now that I am aware of these words and phrases, I am able to register his behaviour accurately and also classify it in the category of ‘offensive’ behaviour instead of the category of mere ‘noisy and irritating’, behaviour and hence the irritation I feel is no longer vague like before but I know exactly the proportion of the ‘offence’ and am able to evoke the right response.
I tell him ‘don‘t step on my toes’, ‘please cultivate a sense of territory’, stop being ‘pushy and insensitive’ and ‘respect my space’.
I know now I ought to be more offended than I used to feel previously and regret putting up with him these years and regret not being offended enough earlier!

I will conclude with this beautiful coincidence!
I happened to be reading this book ‘Browser’s Book of Beginnings’ when I was writing this article; the book attempts to trace the beginnings of all sorts of things in this world.
When I came to the chapter on ‘Language’, look what I found.

“Language originated so that early man could think more effectively. For without the acquisition of words and the structure of language to string them together in logical and meaningful order, there can be no such thing as complex human thought...
...animals only repeat the same limited utterances over and over again as their progenitors have done for millions of years, humans say new things that have never been said...’s accomplishment has bestowed on him the capacity to create something new every time he speaks...”

My conviction about language has ‘arrived’.

Although I finished the article weeks ago, I kept it for this evening – the New Year’s Eve!

May the coming year bring you lots of words, honourable, rich, fine and deep, and finer, richer, deeper experiences of our reality and Steadfast Speedy Evolution.


Anonymous said...

Excellent Article.. But By bringing your "relative" into focus..a wonderful & brilliant stream of thought gets utterly diluted in the middle. Though you are trying to make the point about the language..words.. their meanings..On a second read it appears as a ranting and the stream loses its steam. It could have been avoided totally. You could have taken another example from another book and made your point.
My 2 cents..:)
You are Free To delete my comment if it irritates or offends you.

Nina Gray said...

Hi Sowmya,

Its a well written piece. But judging people by their vocabulary?

I would have agreed with you if I was a linguistic scholar, but hey I am NOT.

Van Gogh, Da Vinci - Their paintings r expressive and speak in volumes.

On a romantic note - The language of Love.

Taking it literally - what about all those who cannot talk? - Can they never have rich experiences?

on a lighter note : "Actions speak louder than words!" :)

Languages have different forms and is not LIMITED to words. By saying so, one is limiting oneself to a uni-dimensional universe.


Anonymous said...

Somerset Maugham was stammering all his life and the Stammering Associations take him as the role model and try to give confidence to people saying life exists beyond words,,, and words.

Sowmya said...

I agree with you Nina...