Limitations of Language

It seems odd that today, just before Nano begins, I’m posting thoughts about the limitations of language.  And yet here it is.  Feels a bit like I’m shooting myself in the foot.  But I prefer to think of it as revealing demons.  It’s much easier to combat a demon that you can see than to wrestle with them in the dark.


There is a certain irony in a wordsmith arguing that language by its very nature limits the expression of ideas. After all, it seems that language has developed since the beginning of social interaction for the sole purpose of expressing ideas. As man evolved and formed more and more complex thoughts and notions, it became necessary to develop a language, first of pictures followed by spoken and written words, to convey the ideas that were forming in his developing brain. And so, on the surface, it would seem that instead of limiting communication, language in fact encouraged and fostered a limitless degree of expression.

Language is in fact a beautiful work of art. We have learned to invent words as needed and invent meanings for those words that communicating parties can agree on. In this way language is a growing, evolving, living entity. Words are discarded or simply forgotten when they no longer serve a useful purpose. And the words that remain are arranged, and rearranged countlessly to express new ideas and concepts that we discover or invent. We use the very same words to tell stories to entertain, to describe beauty that we observe and report news of events that occur. We just arrange them in different patterns for different purposes.

So, you might ask, in the light of the preceding paragraph, how might one argue that language limits expression? I think as long as we consider concrete “things” and sensory events that can be experienced by many people and agreed upon, then we are safe extolling the expressive virtues of language. As a tool of communication, we’ve found few vehicles that exceed the capabilities of language.

There is the old saying “A picture is worth a thousand words.” That may very well be true, but unless you and I agree on the thousand words, the picture is worthless as a means of communication. I might spend ten thousand words describing everything the picture represents, the objects, the feelings, the suppositions. You might spend an entirely different ten thousand words looking at the same image. And we still might have difficulty communicating.

In this case, language can actually get in the way of communication. In fact, if the disagreement about what the image represents is strong enough, the language can actually cause a major disruption in cohabitation. Have you ever gone to a movie with someone, and at the end of the film, which both of you enjoyed, when you shared your feelings about what you had seen, you had to conclude that the two of you had actually seen a different movie?

I think the problem is that too often we expect language to be the only link that allows us to communicate. Sometimes we should actually go see a movie, enjoy it, enjoy the fact that many people enjoyed it at the same time, and not expect that they enjoyed the same film. Language was created to represent slices of the Universe. Language is a photo album of snapshots. Each one shows a picture of something at a particular moment in time. But there can be no snapshot that shows the Universe.

That’s how language is limiting. And it’s a good thing that it is. Without the small discreet snapshots of pieces of the Universe, there could be no communication at all. The Universe is simply too big. Early man looking at the heavens was probably speechless, even after he had developed speech. And the woman next to him was probably also speechless. That was the moment that language wasn’t even necessary. The two of them didn’t have to use a language of words to express their feelings about what they experienced. They simply had to reach out to each other and be in awe of the wonders they were a part of.

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