Words of occasional wisdom from Bruce Oakley

Thoughts and words, indeed

Posted by boakley59 on April 9, 2008

Words are wonderful. They lift us above the clouds and drag us from the depths of our despair. But what are words? How do we decide, how do we know, what they mean? Do they mean for others what they mean to us? Words can make us soar or sink, but don’t our thoughts go beyond our words?

A delightful use of words in the examination of these questions is The Stuff of Thought, a book by psychologist Steven Pinker, who studies cognition and linguistics. The book examines how we form, use and think about words. It illuminates the difference between our thoughts and our words, and between our perceptions and our discussions of those perceptions.

The book is by turns poetic and technical, musical and clinical. It is sometimes coarse but often subtle, with words used as scalpels and bludgeons. If you love words, you will love this book.

The Stuff of Thought explores how words have come to be as we have evolved to meet our world. It shows how our language expresses our inherent understanding of space, time and relationships, and how it allows us to rise above the holes in that understanding. Pinker takes us through experiments, some in the lab and some in thought, that show the limited built-in understanding of number (indications are we recognize mainly “one,” “two” and “more,” while all the rest may be counted as products of culture — our capacity to learn and remember) and how our language is shaped and informed by primitive, intrinsic notions of force, motion and position.

Reading on, we learn our brains are biological computers stringing together digital information into layers of meaning that enable us to come to grips with an analog world. We compile digital notions (up or down, left or right, front or back, good or bad, abcd…, 1234…, acting upon or acted upon, moving or stationary) into a valid narrative of flowing reality. This is a flexible tale that gives us balance between the real and the imaginary. We can swat a horsefly even though we don’t see a horse fly, if you know what I mean.

Pinker demonstrates how humor often hangs in the balance of such ambiguities that can distinguish an irritating insect from a levitating equine. He playfully demonstrates, too, that these ambiguities go beyond the tiny symbolic gap that creates a gulf of meaning between “horsefly” and “horse fly.” We are comfortable with a reality of clear edges and distinct borders, where it is easy to tell inside from outside or black from white, but our gray matter also works the middle ground.

We work the middle not just in shifting from “here” to “hear” but in shifting from servant to master in the tone we use when talking to our boss or the grocery clerk. The point of communication is sharing ideas, but it does not always arise from shared goals. We have contracts or treaties that are exercises in compromise by opposing forces, each seeking dominance. We have advertisements that accentuate the positive or spin the negative. We have euphemisms that allow us to talk about our maiden aunt’s new dress or haircut without hurting her feelings.

But the middle ground is quicksand, and this is where we so often fail to reach each other. If our styles differ, if our assessments of dominance or position differ, we are caught in muck. If you think your spouse or boss (does “or” signify a choice or an equivalence?) doesn’t understand you, this book will help you see how we may be wired to talk at cross purposes.

Suzy and I certainly have different styles. We have similar storehouses of knowledge and tend to come to the same conclusions, with some whopping exceptions. I have developed an ear for Suzy’s style because we share a common understanding of her intent. She returns the favor, adjusting her response to account for my style.

I tend almost always either to silence or to extensive equivocation. I think I talk too little or way too much and rarely am forceful in correcting someone or taking up opposition. I let people slide, even when I am quite certain they are wrong, no matter whether the issue is trivial or significant. This bottling up of communication leads to an outpouring of words and frustration once uncorked, and my message may be lost as listeners are overwhelmed by the emotional baggage or bored to numbness by the runaway verbiage. Suzy has an amplified sensitivity to my quiet utterings and the strength to deflect the heat or stifle the yawn from my ravings. Our cooperation has taken years of practice, so it’s easy to see how momentary judgments of status, intent or context undermine communication and keep people apart.

This may seem apparent and even trivial when it comes to spousal spats, but it is at the core of much bigger deals. Pinker notes the litigation on the insurance question of whether the destruction of the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001, was one “event” or two, with $3.5 billion in payments at issue. Of course, a vastly larger issue that hinges on world view underpins how we see the day: Were the hijackers crazed terrorists or new Davids battling a new Goliath at the behest of their loving God?

The bite is worse than the bark when this dog chases its tail: Our perception of the world colors our words, which shape our world. Pinker cites a Middle East peace treaty that was signed only when “territories” was left unmodified, so that one side could interpret the reference as meaning “all territories” while the other could take it to mean “some territories.” The words stopped the worst of the war, but the war of words continues, as does a somewhat lessened battle on the field.

We must watch our words and accept the uneasy peace in the gray areas so that we may survive to talk again another day. Our wonderful words can be terrible, too. They may not always be good, but if we think about it we make them good enough.


2 Responses to “Thoughts and words, indeed”

  1. […] Thoughts and words, indeed […]

  2. Oncogene said

    Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Oncogene.

    Bruce sez: Thanks for visiting. I think you see that “Probably lost in translation” IS the point whenever two of us try to communicate. It’s hard work, but we need to keep trying. Stop by anytime.

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