LANGUAGE

DEFINITION

Language

  • A systematic means of communicating by the use of sounds or conventional symbols
  • (language) communication by word of mouth
  • The cognitive processes involved in producing and understanding linguistic communication


Every creature on this planet has some kind of language, although we have no means of understanding what they are saying. Zoologists have interpreted some of the sounds in primates, and translated them to mean things like “I am hungry;” “there’s a predator over there;” “where are you?” etc. But from what we know, most of the communication is very basic; whereas Man has a rich vocabulary, and is able to communicate complex themes via his voice (the sound made by the vibration of vocal folds modified by the resonance of the vocal tract) made possible by millions of years of evolution.

Language started as mere grunts – so I am lead to believe – and over time, we learned to control the vocal cords and develop more complex sounds. An alphabet was formed, and words were created. I do not know if this happened all over the world at the same time, and why we developed this ability, but as I am not a scientist, I am unable to answer these questions!

So the starting point for our discussion today is not related to biology. What I want to ask you today is: “Who would we be without the use of language?” Could we think? Would we be able to deliver complex ideas to others without speech? Stop for a moment and consider these questions, as they are complex indeed. Now let me tell you a short story.

Let’s talk

I like to talk a lot. In fact, many people have said that not only do I like to talk a lot, I love to talk, and unfortunately, I have to agree with them. There are always so many things on my mind I want to say to people, and there just never seems to be enough time in the day to say them. I often find myself getting so caught up in what I am saying that I forget the point I am trying to make. My mother talks a lot too so maybe I have “caught” the talking bug from her!

I used to talk all the time on my mobile phone, until recently, when I got rid of it once and for all. I realised I was just talking for talking’s sake. Nothing I was saying was really important, it was just idle chatter – a chance to keep my over-active brain more active. Talking lead to more talking and more talking led to more discussion, and more discussion lead to arguments.

I argued my case for vegetarianism so many times which just ended up with me getting angry and talking more. It resolved nothing of course, except perhaps, raising everyone’s blood pressure!

It was only when I went to a monastery – which was a place of great silence – that I started to think about this. Here was I, supposedly intelligent, constantly arguing with everyone, chatting with people, gossiping; suddenly plunged into an environment where talking was forbidden! I showered in silence, got dressed in silence, ate breakfast in silence, walked in silence, ate lunch in silence, meditated in silence, ate dinner in silence, and then slept. No books, no writing, no music – just a lot of silence.

The first day was intolerable; actually, I should say, the first thirty minutes were excruciating. I wanted to scream out loud, I wanted to hear my voice. My brain was aching to talk. “This isn’t normal,” my brain kept telling me, “Man isn’t supposed to be silent! Man is a talking animal, just talk! This place isn’t for us, we like fun and we like jokes, how is anyone to know we have an extrovert personality and we can be great fun to be around? We should leave now, before it’s too late.” Hours went by and I was feeling more and more tense. I felt like I was about to explode. I needed to talk to someone. Desperately.

I may not have been talking out loud, but inside my mind my brain was talking to me at a million miles an hour. It seemed as if I would go mad if I didn’t talk out loud, even if no one was there to listen to me, so I did something silly. I went for a walk and started talking out loud! At first it seemed really strange to hear the words coming out of my own mouth, then I thought to myself, “this is stupid, if I am really here to understand what it is like to be in silence then in silence I shall be! I will suffer my brain constantly taunting me and eventually it will quieten.”
Several days later, and I was still suffering. It was only when I stopped fighting with myself that I eventually started to enjoy being in silence, not only on my own, but mixing and still communicating with other people in the group in silence. I was starting to understand how much language got in the way of real communication, implausible as it sounded.

Blah blah blah

We use language to communicate who we “are” to other people, don’t we? “Hi, this is alan, he’s a marketing executive for a large firm in the city,” “Oh yes, I have a house here in the city but I always go to the country at the weekends. We have a house there you know…” “Well I was driving a mercedes, but now I drive a bmw, I find it to be a much smoother ride.” Blah, blah, blah. We go on talking incessantly, boasting, name dropping, ego tripping. “Yeah I’ve got the new game station;” “well I’ve got a new laptop, it’s top of the range you know;” “I’ve got all this money;” “I’ve got no money;” “I’m really miserable;” “Oh, are you? I’m really happy at the moment;” “Have you got a new boyfriend?” “Yes, I have, and he’s really great and he’s so funny, you’d love him…” “I just split up from my wife, she’s not getting a penny from me…!” “I hate him, he’s such an idiot.”
Does language get in the way? What do you think? “Get in the way of what?” you are probably thinking to yourself.

Let’s start slowly shall we?
We have been born with the gift of language, which we would lose, according to research, if it is not used in the first couple of years of life. We would not be able to talk and shout and gossip and hurt and scream and punish and hate amongst other things…

Hmm, seems like not a bad thing! You see, you need language in order to communicate these concepts. A lion may bare its teeth at an opponent and growl, the way a dog does when it approaches a strange dog, but that’s it. It does not constantly chastise its offspring, and tell them they are failing at school, and they are no good at anything, and why don’t they pull their socks up, and how will they ever get a job, and if they don’t get a good job then they will have a terrible life, and what about when they retire, they’ll have no money and they’ll be relying on state benefit and on, and on, and on…
The funny thing is, you do not need language to communicate love, empathy and compassion, these are above the realms of human language.

Couples fight over money, jealousy, this years holiday, the size of their house, the need for a new tv, why the other doesn’t earn enough, the need for a new car, why so and so’s husband is doing better than you. They may even say they are not talking to the other, as a means of punishment and to the person left in silence it feels like torture. “Why are they not talking to me? I need to talk,” but that is just the brain desperately wanting to talk, the other knows this and uses it as leverage to get you to apologise . Which again is talking.
But they never fight over love.

Words are immaterial. They may say things like “I love you,” but the feeling is communicated without the language. They can look into each others eyes and know they love each other. They do not need to talk. There is a point which when crossed moves from the realm of the mind, the thought, into that which cannot be explained verbally. Try this with your loved one tonight, or with your children. Just sit for a minute with them and stare into each others eyes! Let’s call it an experiment! What information is being communicated to you, how do you feel in the silence, how do they feel? Uncomfortable?

Silence is a strange thing isn’t it? We often feel this at parties where we don’t know anyone or the music stops for a moment. I think people call it “an uncomfortable silence,” don’t they? We find it hard to be in a room full of strangers without background music or talking. The music somehow fills a gap in the talking, and that’s what the brain wants, no gaps. Lots of talking. Must keep talking, whether it’s inside the brain, or outside in speech. It can’t be alone without noise, it must have noise otherwise it will go crazy.
Suddenly this whole language thing seems like a bit of a burden. But I’m sure most of you still can’t see who you would be without it.

Let’s imagine that you, like my uncle’s parents, were born deaf-mute (unable to hear language or speak language). What do you think is going on in their brains? Are they constantly chattering to themselves, thinking and planning? Well it seems unlikely if they have never heard language being spoken. So perhaps there must be a lot of silence in their minds.

To us, we see that being born deaf-mute is a terrible affliction, and we pity them. But why? My uncle’s parents could not hear nor speak, yet they fell in love and gave birth to a child through love. It seems like there was an awful lot of communicating going on! It’s just that we can’t understand because we are too busy talking. Sure they can communicate with sign language and the written word but the power of speech has been removed. Do you see? Verbal language contains a certain energy that silent communication can never have. We can almost feel the power of a dominant speaker like a general rallying his troops to war but in silence we communicate differently.

We can of course, communicate negative feelings like hate, anger and displeasure without talking by displaying facial or body signals, and we can display status signals like having a large house or a sports car but it is the spoken word that is generating much of the mischief we see in modern life.

Stop for a moment and reflect on love. What is it about love that sets it apart from modern language? What is it in love that bypasses the need for idle chatter? Imagine for a moment communicating with everyone in that language; how different would the world be? How much hate and sorrow would we cause? How many people would we hurt with our words?

So often we hurt people with the things we say. Remember in the beginning of the book when I asked you to consider the impact of two statements: “I love you” and “I hate you”? Hopefully, you can now see the power of words, and how frivolously we use them.
“I give love unconditionally to all” is not a statement you often hear, but I offer it to you now in the language we both understand. What a different world we create with that statement compared with “I hate him, I hate his religion, I hate you, I hate her.”

We must start to realise the impact that this wonderful and sometimes terrible addition to our species has brought. If we are to use language at all, then the language we use must come from love, from empathy, and compassion. How else are we going to communicate with our children and our colleagues, let alone people who are from different cultures, speak a different language and have a different religion?

Anything that does not come from love breeds hate and violence. Look into this for yourself. I am not speaking the truth here. This is only my opinion, but it is of the utmost importance for us all that you look into it – every day.

Every time you speak to your children, your friends, your parents, even people you dislike, ask yourself this question: “Where is this language coming from. Is it born of compassion for all or is it something else?” It is a difficult question and one I too have found myself in much conflict over. My mother used to have a saying: “If you have nothing good to say, it is better to say nothing at all.” I don’t know where it came from, but it has stayed with me always.

We should all practice a little more silence in our lives and start to realise that until we know our own minds thoroughly, we can never be sure what the tricky little brain is going to get us to utter! The violence of language breeds only more violent language. You only have to watch an argument start then heat up, then explode into rage, before possibly ending in a fist fight or worse. There can never be a winner in a verbal argument, both are losers.

So why do we want to hurt another with our words? What benefit is it to humanity? Maybe all we are, is stuck in a million year old pattern of status displays, one-upmanship, dominance and instilling fear in others; except we have replaced the lions roar with complex cruel, hurtful sounds.

We have not yet learned to use this powerful language kindly; we have not learned that love has no language, no status, no power to exert, no violence.

It is time to stop talking.

Silence, once understood, is truly a beautiful thing, and you will quickly discover more language than you ever thought possible. Let the powerful and the dominant hear our silence.

by Alan Macmillan Orr

“The natural mind – waking up”

2009

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