Auston Habershaw’s newest story “Applied Linguistics” is on sale in our Jan/Feb issue now. Auston joins us on the blog for an eloquent look at how inextricable experience is from language, and the danger and complexity that arises from understanding life through language, or language through life.
by Auston Habershaw
I wonder sometimes if we don’t think hard enough about language and what it does to us. It is the medium by which we encounter the world on a very fundamental level—the most fundamental level, I’d argue. It is even more fundamental than sensory observation, since everything we see or hear or touch or taste is filtered through the structure of language to become meaning. You can experience a bright light, sure, but without context—as filtered through language—that experience is merely fleeting and without permanent significance. I might enjoy the taste of chocolate, but without a lexicon by which to define that taste (sweet, good, rich, dark), it becomes functionally impossible to understand or think about.
I first encountered this idea when studying post-modern philosophy in my undergraduate years. Foucault, Derrida, and Baudrillard all have very keen opinions about our experience of reality as filtered through a series of mediums and contexts that marry meaning to the meaningless and even, in some cases, belief to the unbelievable. Now, I might sit here and try to quote Derrida on this topic, but it’s been about two decades since I last read him and, while my memory is good, it isn’t that good. Suffice to say that what I’m saying is not new—language is not a transparent medium allowing sense perception to flow effortlessly into thought but rather it is itself a part of the perceptive system that allows us to navigate the world. To quote somebody I am rather more recently familiar with, the semanticist and linguist Neil Postman explains:
Yes, poets use metaphors to help us see and feel. But so do biologists, physicists, historians, linguists, and everyone else who is trying to say something about the world. A metaphor is not an ornament. It is an organ of perception. Through metaphors, we see the world as one thing or another. (pg 173)
Yes, everybody can perceive a thing. But in order to understand the thing—in other words, to do something useful or interesting with the phenomenon of perception—one needs language.
I take, as the operative case, the peculiar, historical, quasi-mythical belief that ancient peoples could not see the color blue. It started back in the nineteenth century, when a man named William Gladstone came to a rather surprising realization: Homer never—never even once—uses the word “blue” to describe anything. This was strange enough, but it wasn’t just Homer. Studies across many ancient languages and texts found that the word for “blue” was almost non-existent and, furthermore, linguistic historians found that the word for “blue” appears in languages last among the words for color. This has caused something of a recent sensation online, if nowhere else, thanks in large part to a 2015 article on Business Insider by Kevin Loria (itself spurred-on by that infernal color-changing dress). From the resources I could find, everyone seems focused on whether humans were physically able to perceive the color blue—in other words, did some genetic mutation enable us to “see” something we hadn’t seen before. This is probably not true—ancient peoples almost certainly could perceive blue—but it is also missing the point. Postman is not suggesting you can’t see things, he’s merely suggesting that language (via metaphor) dictates how you interpret the things that you see. In ancient times, blue was a very rare pigment and, therefore, most people didn’t have much need to differentiate blue from other colors—gray, purple, black, etc.—and so they didn’t. And therefore, in a very real sense, blue did not exist. At least not as a distinct idea, and ideas are what really matter in the end, anyway.
This brings me to my story, “Applied Linguistics” (oh, and spoiler alert, if you haven’t read it yet). The Tohrroid—the scavenging, bloblike, shape-shifting alien—has no language before it is taught by the Verian. Before the acquisition of language, it confesses having a fuzzy memory of what happened in the prison colony. Indeed, it has a very fuzzy conception of what it thought or even felt during that time, as it had no framework of language to attach its thoughts. This existence was, in a very real sense, without meaning. Beyond immediate survival instincts—eating, hiding from danger, etc.—it possesses no sense of self and, therefore, no ambitions beyond the immediate.
The Verian’s patient tutelage of the Tohrroid, however, opens up an entirely new world of thought and experience even though the immediate circumstances of the Tohrroid’s life have not substantially changed. It is still a prisoner of the colony, but now it is able to understand what that means. With understanding comes context—it, the Tohrroid, is now a distinct entity, with a degree of self-awareness that allows it to understand its role in this world and, furthermore, gives it the tools to critique this role. It does not like what it sees and, thanks to metaphor, is able to imagine or theorize a more advantageous set of circumstances that, with some effort, it may yet achieve.
But with this triumph also comes unavoidable tragedy. The Verian teaches the Tohrroid the language of his own oppressors and conquerors—the lingua franca of the prison—which bears with it all the metaphors and built-in cultural assumptions that the Dryth spread across the universe. They are individualistic, ambitious, and violent—these traits are baked into the metaphorical framework of their speech. As the Tohrroid learns it, these traits come along for the ride. It never would have imagined killing someone before, but now it does. It never would have imagined escaping, but now that is its primary concern. It never would have felt guilt, but now that is also part of who it has become. The language—as adjunct perceptive organ—makes the Tohrroid’s life both immeasurably better and demonstrably worse. This is what it is forced to ponder as it watches the small moon sink below the viewport on its way to “freedom.” Given how powerfully language acts upon its capacity to understand the world, is it actually free or merely transformed?
I feel that this question—are we better or merely different than we were before—is a question we all need to ponder carefully, especially as regards language and how it is used to shape our world. It is simply too powerful a force to ignore.
Postman, Neil. The End of Education. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.