Is language omnipotent as a means of communication? We may have the feeling that it is, because we live in a world inundated by words, and we rely almost entirely on language to convey ideas and express feelings. We communicate with others via speaking, writing, reading, and listening, and with ourselves via thinking. When we read literary works, we are often astonished by the striking grace, precision, and delicacy of language in the hands of great writers, as if language has reached the ultimate summit of expressing everything.
However, human beings are highly intelligent, complex, and emotional and language is only a tool or one method that they use to transmit simple and plain information. Although we use language everyday, we may not be able to answer this simple question: What is language? To begin with, language is the use by human beings of speech sounds, as well as written symbols representing these sounds, in organized combinations and patterns in order to express and communicate thoughts and feelings1.
In daily life nowadays, people transfer an immense amount of information through the mass media, such as the internet, mail, telephony, and face-to-face conversations, and so on, using such organized combinations and patterns of linguistic symbols. Upon introspection, we might find that a large part of our knowledge is acquired through verbal communication. It seems clear then that without language, there will be no interaction between individuals, human societies cannot take shape, and the concept of “Global Village” may well be a pie in the sky.
Nevertheless, language is not the be-all and end-all of the communication process; something else has to come into play. For example, how can one describe an artwork completely to other people without showing it? And how can the listeners picture the artwork in their minds if they do not see the artwork itself but only depend on the verbal description given to them? Does not this suggest certain things can only be sensed, not said? To answer this question, we need to know how language is developed.
I speculate that the ape-men, human beings’ ancestors, had thoughts first because it was impossible to have language first if they did not know what to say. These thoughts were primitive, non-verbal language. In their primitive conditions, the ape men had to be gregarious in order to survive; thus, communication was unavoidable and the tool to communicate, verbal language, was instinctively created. Thus, we may further conjecture that the strong will of human beings to create externalized verbal language for communication was greatly aided by an innate capability.
Subsequently, some classifications regarding language are necessary. There are two types of language: verbal and non-verbal. Verbal language is used to communicate with others and ourselves, whereas non-verbal language is in large part not communicable through verbal signals. Non-verbal language serves to convey the ultimate spiritual sensations or sentiments of human beings. Just as the will to achieve verbal communication produced verbal language, so the will to effect sentimental communication urged humankind to look for another kind of language. Eventually, human beings favored art to be the language.
Literature, music, painting, sculpture, and so on, are the most valuable fruits of human beings; yet they are essentially devices to convey the innermost intricate feelings of the soul, such as love, agony, happiness, and wickedness. If one wishes to express the delicacy of Chopin’s music and one’s affections for this music, one is not capable of voicing it, no matter how explicit the verbal language is. The best way to convey such information is to play the music, to let the audience sense the dynamics, tone, tempo, rhythm, and so on, and to induce them to experience their own sensations aroused by the music.
As the famous jazz drummer Alexander Arthur van Halen says, “The difficulty is trying to express music in words; it is like trying to describe a colour to somebody. “2 Thus, the ultimate truth to be found in one’s innermost sentiments that one cannot deceive oneself with, can only be sensed and not said. Now we are confronted with another question: “Why can non-verbal language only be sensed, but not said? ” First of all, the formation of human sentiments is the direct result of an accumulation of interlinked experiences and perceptions.
As another Chinese proverb says, “One fears ropes for ten years after being bitten by a snake. ” The experience of this person enables him to recall the memory which leads to the sensation of fear. Similarly, what each different individual senses may arise from various feelings based upon their experience and perception. For instance, the colour black may connote grandeur, heavenliness, and royalty to some people, and death, terror, and hell to others. Thus different people have different sets of experience and perception and what they sense are the truths to them.
Therefore, one can only sense one’s own sentiments in dealing with a given matter, and such sentiments are not susceptible to translation into any verbal language. In conclusion, verbal language is familiar and yet mysterious; it is indispensable though not omnipotent. The human mind is extremely complex and the intricate innermost feelings are intriguing and for the most part inexpressible. Moreover, there are truths about the universe and truths about ourselves that human language is simply too blunt a tool to reveal.
But happily, verbal language and non-verbal language complement each other to offset their respective deficiencies, which our mental faculties have to handle as best they can, if only to make our daily lives reasonably livable.
A Note on Framing the Innateness Hopothesis, [Online Available] http://www. personal. kent. edu/~pbohanbr/Webpage/New/innateness/innateness2. html Chomsky for Philosophers, [Online Available] http://www. personal. kent. edu/~pbohanbr/Webpage/New/newintro. html The Official Van Halen Web Site, [Online Available] http://www. van-halen. com/newsite/index2. html Main, [Online Available] http://members. tripod. com/madamebutterfly01/id40. htm Zou, Jia Yan, Longman Active Study English Dictionary, Page 481. Longman Group UK Limited, June 1997 1 Zou, Jia Yan, Longman Active Study English Dictionary, Page 481. Longman Group UK Limited, June 1997 2 The Official Van Halen Web Site: www. van-halen. com, [Online Available] http://www. van-halen. com/newsite/index2. html Main, [Online Available] http://members. tripod. com/madamebutterfly01/id40. htm