Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Living in a Glass Cage of Emotion Or What the World Would be like Without Language !

Imagine a world without language. You wake up in the morning and glance at your clock, only it’s blank. The numbers are gone. The only thing you have to inform you of the time is the position of the sun in the sky. You fumble around in the dark (because electricity would no longer exist), and reach for your favorite chocolaty cereal, only to find it missing. The company that made your cereal no longer exists because the technology used to create it was never invented. You decide to have a glass of water instead, except that you have to go outside to the rudimentary well dug in the ground outside your abode. Then it’s time to go to work. Where did you work again? A cashier at the local grocery? An office worker at the marketing firm down the road? A car salesman? A mechanic? Forget those. None of those professions exist—you can’t even communicate with those around you.

Nothing today could have happened without language. Language is what makes us human. It’s what allows our species to advance, succeed, invent, and create. It’s a part of everything that we do. What are you doing right now? You’re reading text on a screen—the ramblings of someone organized in such a way that those who look at it can take in, understand, and respond to. Look around you. How much text do you see? What sounds do you hear? What objects are you using and interacting with that were created using manuals, ideas from someone’s head that were communicated to others in order to make creation possible. Language is more than just symbols, words, and sounds—it occupies every part of our life. Without language, our world as we know it would cease to exist.

Think about it. What exactly is language? How does language actually work? The human brain is an amazing and complex computing machine—we feel with it, think with it, conjure ideas with it, process with it, train it, and understand with it. How does one actually “think?” Do you think in words? Do you think in images? Emotions? Strange thought processes that you can’t quite describe? Everyone uses their brains in different ways to process thoughts, usually through any variety of different methods at any given time. As I write this article, I process some sentences in my head before I type them on my keyboard, but still others seem to manifest themselves from my fingers with almost no thought at all. As you’re reading this article, are you sounding the words out in your head? Or are you simply absorbing the information silently? What kind of voice does your brain read words in?

All of these are questions that no two people will have the same answer to. In fact, the same person could give different answers from one hour, minute, even second to the next. Our brains process, create, and respond to information faster than we can imagine, which is why it can be so hard to deliberate on one topic without our brains wandering off to this and that before we realize it (five minutes later you remember what it was you were supposed to be thinking about and wonder how you ever got off-topic). Now imagine you had all these thoughts in your head but no way to communicate them. You could think about the day’s weather but have no word to describe clouds, rain, the sun. These concepts would exist as nameless entities in your mind, defined only by the emotions they make you feel. No longer would clouds be “gray,” or “dark,” instead they might give you a sense of foreboding, of loneliness. You might come to associate them with being unable to see (as “dark” itself wouldn’t be a concept either). And what about rain? Try to describe rain without using words. Try to describe the feeling of being wet without using words. Language shapes the very way we speak, the way we comprehend things, and the way we see the world around us. Once language is taken away, we have to rely on other senses to help us comprehend what certain ideas and concepts are. Clouds are no longer a concept we can describe—only a concept we can feel. A picture, an emotion, perhaps even a color in our mind.

Think about it like music. Music has no language. It can be enjoyed, felt, and understood by people from all over the world and all walks of life regardless of language. So much of music touches our emotions. A bright, lively song can lighten the mood and make us feel happy, while a slow, dark, somber tune might weigh on our minds and trigger sadness. These are concepts that have nothing to do with language and words, rather our hearts. Try describing a song using words. There are standard terms that have to do with music such as fast or slow, major or minor, melodic or atonal, and adjectives by the dozen, but can you really describe what a piece of music does to your emotions? It’s impossible, made even worse by the fact that everyone who hears a certain song will interpret it differently. Now try using music to describe to someone how to change a lightbulb. No lyrics! That’s cheating. You only have melodies, chords, rhythm, and harmony. How would you express twisting the old lightbulb out of its socket? How would you express making sure the light is turned off first? This is what it would be like without language. We’d have no concrete words to express concepts, only vague emotional states, and how could the lightbulb have even been invented without being able to describe it using words? How could cities be built? How could food be found, processed, and packaged? How could we have any form of government?

The answer is, we couldn’t. None of this would be possible without language and a way for us as humans to communicate with each other. We wouldn’t be able to do much more than construct rudimentary tools for ourselves. We’d understand concepts like food and hunger, like warmth, comfort, fatigue, and pain. Our lives would be centered on these concepts and the way they make us feel. We wouldn’t be able to make plans for the future, but simply focus on the tasks at hand. We might not even understand the concept of time. We wouldn’t be able to interact with those around us. Only the most basic ideas could be communicated, such as love, happiness, sadness. There are many things that we already communicate to others without words even today. Gestures and body language, of course, but even emotions such as gloominess, excitement, disbelief, and exhaustion, to name a few. Now imagine that these were the only things you could communicate to others, and how difficult this would make even a simple conversation about the weather.

Language is something that we take for granted. We use it every day, in everything that we do, whether it’s interacting with the people around us, reading about current events, ordering a cup of coffee at the café down the road, or using the toaster that was designed, created, shipped, and sold using the ideas of people that had to be communicated to others. Language can make us feel—can play and feed on our emotions. Different combinations of words can be strung together to form stories, books, games— all of them based on the ideas of someone somewhere who was trying to get a message across. Once those words enter your brain, they become your ideas, your own thoughts, ready to be manipulated by however your brain should so choose. There’s a great deal of power behind words. Words can be inspiring, hurtful, heart-breaking. They can make us feel emotions we would never have been able to feel otherwise, and can help us understand concepts that were once incomprehensible. Language is an amazing tool that shapes everything around us and tells us how to think. Without it, we’d be lost in seas of obscurity and unable to describe the world around us not only to others, but to ourselves as well. It would change the way we live.

The next time you read a book, tell a story to a friend, order the soup of the day, check your Twitter feed, or perform one of the other countless activities which requires language in some way, shape, or form, think to yourself how you would handle the situation without language. Would you be able to communicate? Would you be able to understand what’s being expressed? Would you be able to make yourself understood? It might be much more difficult than you would think. Though hundreds of languages exist all over the world, they all have one thing in common—they allow thoughts, ideas, and concepts to be communicated between people.

And they allow us to live.