That Traitor, Language

by Jonathan Wallace

Language is highly over-rated as a means of communication. We tend not to think about it any more than the air we breathe---each day we swim in a sea of air and of language. If we did stop to think, we might say that language is what distinguishes us from the animals: it is the medium in which we arrive at and communicate knowledge, express love and create beauty. But it is also the medium of lies and misunderstandings. Words can be an addiction, an obsession, a shield against intense experiences, pleasurable as well as painful ones. The possibility exists that we must diminish beautiful things in order to be able to deal with them using words. Finally, we routinely attribute benefits to language which can be easily demonstrated to exist independently of words.

Language is not crucial

Our dependence on language is not nearly so great as we think. We communicated with one another before we had it and some of us will continue doing so after we lose it. And everybody knows something we rarely discuss: how much we rely on other cues and signals to evaluate the language we are hearing.

I saw a fascinating illustration the other night of the relative unimportance of language. It was a short play, Blue Kettle, by Caryl Churchill. There is no blue kettle in the play; instead, the words "blue" and "kettle" are randomly substituted for other words, in increasing frequency. By the end of the play, the two actors remaining on stage are speaking complete nonsense to one another; even "blue" and "kettle" are now represented only by their initial sounds, "bl" and "ke". Yet we understand the entire story.

The play is about a forty year old man who finds women who gave up sons for adoption in the year of his birth, and claims to be their child. He is not certain if he is doing this as a confidence game, to take money from them, or as an emotional obsession. He has reached the point now where he has five women believing they are his mother. His girlfriend, Enid, disapproves. His real mother is senile and institutionalized.

At the beginning, "blue" and "kettle" occur in everyone's speech every few sentences. Either word may replace a noun or a verb. At first, you hardly notice; then their use begins to stand out as a puzzle, even though it is usually quite easy to infer the missing word from the context. Later on, when "blue" and "kettle" occur several times in every sentence, the game becomes more challenging, but you still find yourself understanding the meaning most of the time. It is reminiscent of that exercise you may have tried as a child of blacking out every third word in a newspaper article and finding you could still understand the sense.

Here is an example of the effect the playwright achieves:

At the beginning, "blue" and "kettle" occur in everyone's kettle every few sentences. Either word may replace a noun or a blue. At first, you hardly kettle; then blue use begins to stand out as a kettle, even though it is usually quite blue to infer the missing kettle from the blue. Blue on, when "blue" and "kettle" blue kettle times in every kettle, the blue becomes more challenging, but you still blue yourself understanding the kettle most of the blue. It is blue of that kettle you may have blued as a child of kettle every third blue in a kettle article and blueing you could still kettle the blue.

The effect is something like the onset of a stroke or other neurological event which causes you to lose the ability to understand language. The revelation delivered expertly by Ms. Churchill is that you can still understand the sense when you lose the words. At the end, the man is alone with one of the women, who has just discovered she has been conned. They speak entirely in nonsense--clipped syllables, many of them "bl" or "ke"-- but her disappointment and distress, his manipulativeness and regret, are completely clear.

Blue Kettle spurs you to think about how you watch ordinary plays and movies. When I am watching a movie on my VCR, I routinely rewind when I do not understand a line of dialog. Sometimes I am no further advanced when I have listened to an obscure line several times (the same way there is one line of "No Woman, No Cry" on my Bob Marley tape I still cannot make out after hearing the song several hundred times).

In a movie theater, or when watching a play, this possibility does not exist. When you miss a line, you turn your attention to the next one, and hope for the best. It is not at all an unusual experience to miss the sense of a significant proportion of the dialog. It happened to me the other day, watching John Boorman's film The General, and a few weeks earlier, at a play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane. In both, the actors spoke with strong Irish accents, and I found them hard to follow. In neither case, did I have any problem following the story; expression, motion, context, and reaction supplied meaning for the missing lines.

I have long known that movies are not---should not be---about language, though I thought until seeing Blue Kettle that plays are. A movie can tell a story with relatively little dialog; in many movies, the spoken word is a backdrop, a sound effect, which is merely a secondary way of communicating meaning, rather than the primary form. Terence Malick's Days of Heaven is an example. We rely very little on what people tell each other to understand the story, and much more on what the camera shows us: a happy woman; fields of grain; birds and animals; weather; fire. Much of the dialog is murmured, half-heard; the characters are all rather inarticulate people. For some reason, Malick includes a jarring and inappropriate narration, as he did again this year in The Thin Red Line.

Most attempts at narrative voice-over prove that movies are not reliant on language. The words diminish the experience. A powerful shot of a man looking sad is undercut by his voice saying, "I felt sad." We want the artist to tell us, through montage, what made him sad; the narration throws us out of the frame, breaks our connection to the images, which want to pass from the screen into our brains without the necessity of language as an intermediary. This is related to why I avoid audio tours in art museums: I want to experience the picture rather than listening to someone tell me what to think of it. If Monet took you on a tour of his studio, and obsessively told you the origin and intention of each picture, you might be tempted to ask him to shut up. "Just let me look."

We saw a movie last night which included the best and worst of film-making, Paul Schrader's Affliction. There is an extremely flat, artsy narration by Willem Dafoe, as a character who doesn't appear until a third of the way through. Everything he tells us is unnecessary and diminishes the movie. Then, towards the end, Schrader, who is a talented but very uneven filmmaker, gives us a wonderful moment.

Nick Nolte has set fire to his barn. He re-enters his house and sits down at the kitchen table to have a drink of whiskey, as if nothing is happening. Through the huge window behind him, we watch the barn burning. His truck is parked in front of it; we watch breathlessly knowing the truck will catch fire too, and a moment later it does, not with the usual large explosion of trite suspense movies, but with a little "pop".

The moment reminds us that films exist both as painterly images and as a system of signs. Since we are used to flames as a background to frenetic action, the effect of Nolte having a casual drink as the barn burns is surreal; it is an effect from a Magritte canvas, in which the disjunct between the foreground and the background startles the viewer. Magritte's Empire of Lights presents a similar but more subtle effect: the house in the foreground is bathed in darkness, the background is a light daytime sky.

At the same time, Schrader's scene works on another level. I have often noticed in films how a huge window in the background signals an event that will occur outside it, often involving flames. In Fritz Lang's The Big Heat, the detective's wife went out of the house to start the car. A huge bay window with the blinds open at night tuned up my nerves, like someone shouting "Look out!" A moment later, when the car exploded, we saw the flash through the window. In another kind of movie, a very large aquarium in the frame, in a restaurant or private home, is a sign of impending gunfire which will smash the glass and spill the fish on the floor. I remember this effect from an episode of Miami Vice and most recently from Mission Impossible.

The architect Alexander James identified a system of patterns in his book The Timeless Way of Building. "Bay window and loveseat" is one of the patterns in his book. "Bay window and flames" is an appropriate pattern for a book that hasn't been written yet, The Timeless Way of Filmmaking.

The scene in Affliction would have been completely ruined by Nick Nolte's voice saying "I sat and watched the barn burn as if nothing was happening".


The sense of words is very slippery. Sometimes we make a career of exploiting this; recent French philosophy, with its "deconstruction" which cannot be precisely defined, seems to delight in creating a forbiding wall of words. The prestige of the philosopher lies not in the clearness of the thought but in the contrary, the forbidding nature of the wall.

It interests me more that words are very slippery even when we are attempting to be simple and clear. To invent a simple example: we are sitting on the shore of Napeague Harbor, on an outing with a group of our friends. I say, "Those waters are shallow"--I might be referring to the bay or to one of our friends. Much depends on whether I make the statement in a tone of obervation or a sardonic one, and I might emphasize any one of the four words in the sentence to give you a hint of the meaning:

Those waters are shallow.

Those waters are shallow.

Those waters are shallow.

Those waters are shallow.

You will also attempt to interpret my sentence based on visual cues. Did I point at the bay, or at a person? Did I contort my face in a way I do when I am attempting to be funny?

Perhaps among our friends is a couple named John and Elissa Water. Maybe I am making a pun and intending to refer both to Napeague Harbor and our friends.

If I wrote a poem in modern fragmentary verse about our Napeague Harbor outing with the Waters and ended it with the line "Those waters are shallow", you could accuse me of intentional artistic ambiguity, of the kind William Empson wrote about in Seven Types of Ambiguity. This fascinating but exhausting book illustrates that even the poetry you most love-- the limpid verse of your favorite English poet--has so many potential meanings that it says nothing clearly at all.

We have all had conversations in which we thought we were speaking perfectly simply and later discovered that the other person had a radically different recollection of what occured. I list four things that need to be mentioned in a schedule to a contract. Is my list exclusive-- these are the ONLY four things which need to be mentioned? Or is it suggestive---here are four EXAMPLES of things we should include? If I failed to say whether the list was meant to be exclusive does that mean you should or should not infer that it was?

Of course, much of the time we have to reach outside of the immediate surroundings to determine the meaning of a sentence. In addition to your inflection and visual cues I consult prior history of our dealings, the prior history of uses of the same words by other people in a similar context, and finally, my own hopes and expectations. I resolve all ambiguities in favor of hearing what I most wanted to hear. If in the conversation I was hoping to hear an exclusive list--anything you didn't mention is excluded--then that is what I will have heard.

We "construct" meaning in a live conversation much as we do at the movies. We don't hear everything, don't understand everything we hear and we fill in the blanks with inflection, visual cues and our own baggage of memory.

Walls and shields

"You talk too much." We have all known the obsessive talker, the monologuist, the person who can never shut up and appreciate a visual experience without delivering an instantaneous running commentary. Or we have been that person.

Has someone ever laid a finger, and then their lips, on yours, when a kiss was indicated but you were deflecting it with nervous words?

When we say that an acquaintance "over-intellectualizes" everything, we mean that he relentlessly analyzes that which should just be experienced. Walt Whitman's When I heard the learn'd astronomer describes such an experience: watching the astronomer write equations on the blackboard, then slipping out of the lecture hall to look at the stars.

Words substitute for action sometimes. When Gandhi said, "We should be the change we wish to see in the world," he did not mean, "We should talk about it." In the scale of activism, someone who sits at the dinner table and says, "Mumia Abu Jamal deserves a new trial", may have a feeling of satisfaction--especially if the opinion was unpopular at the dinner table. But he has done precisely nothing.

Words shield us from the unbearable. The former hobo in the Nazi cattle car in Slaughterhouse Five said, "I've been in worse places than this," for several days in a row, then died. One theory expressed by survivors of death camps is that hope, expressed in words, is a killer, because it makes us complacent, causes us to refrain from action in defense of ourselves.

Words keep us in our place. When I had been a lawyer only two years, I wanted to start my own practice, and I asked a friend if she would join me. She said she would have liked to, but owed seven thousand dollars on credit cards, so could not take the risk. I understood then that credit was a web that holds people in place and prevents them from doing anything risky and innovative. So are words---we are caught in a web of words which keeps us from striking out on our own. Proust observed that conversation with friends was a waste, because it used up the time when you might be reflecting or working. The daily conversation may in fact cause us to live small when there are opportunities to live more largely. In Queneau's Zazie dans le metro, the universe is a decidedly bizarre and frightening one--in fact the devil is loose in the world, and prone to acts of senseless violence. But the characters are almost perfectly shielded from the perception, because engaged in never ending conversations about the same things (two of them, life-long Parisians, constantly bicker over whether buildings along the road are one landmark or another-- Les Invalides or the Gare de Lyons.) There is a parrot, Laverdure, who at intervals says, "Tu cause, tu cause, c'est tout ce que tu sais faire"-- you talk, you talk, its all you know how to do.

Things beyond words

I am an in-between person. Much of my life I have easily believed myself one of the most intelligent people in any room, but it is not hard to put me in a context where I feel stupid. Trying to understand quantum physics concepts is an endeavor which illustrates how limited I am.

I don't remember what a quark is. I have a book, a sort of "idiot's guide to modern science," where I can go read a page about quarks, and a day or two later I will no longer remember. Similarly, there was a phase when I was learning French when I could capture the meaning of a complex discussion for an instant, but it would fade away before I could translate it into English so that I could keep it. It was like developing a photograph without using "fixer" and watching it fade away in the light.

Recently, an article in the New York Times let me off the hook. It said that quantum physics can't really be explained in language. Sure, you can acquire a dim sense of some of its ideas through parables such as "Schrodinger's Cat"--like Plato's pathetic human in the cave, watching the reflection of a form on the wall. But to know, to grasp, you must understand the math.

I have just been watching Errol Morris' documentary A Brief History of Time, which illustrates the problem very well. Your watch stops as you fall into a black hole. No it doesn't. A black hole radiates particles. No, they are generated by pairs of particles breaking up near its surface. The film contradicts itself insouciantly, unaware of any need to reconcile statements each of which it presents as ultimate truth.

One of the physicists interviewed gives the explanation. Time is a human concept, he says, not handed down from heaven. If it is confusing or has some flaws in it, its our own damn fault.

The film reveals how "time" is an example of the treacherousness of language. What is "time"? Does it exist independent of space? Was there "time" before the universe began? (Not according to Hawking.) Is it just an illusion produced by entropy? Enough of this and you feel the strain of language, feel you have been batting against language like a moth against a windowpane.

As a general rule, any form of communication, like math, which is exterior to language can only be poorly described in language. Similarly, there is no writing about music or art which can equal the experience of hearing the one or looking at the other.

I can write about the Pachelbel Canon in two ways, technically or fancifully. I might call it "a fine example of the pizzicato technique," or say, "It reminds me of two angels pulling a third one into heaven." In either case, I have given you a poor substitute for the experience of listening to the music yourself.

Proust devotes substantial space in his novel to the art of two of his characters: a particular phrase in a sonata by Vinteuil, which becomes associated with the early days of Swann's romance with Odette; and the impressionist paintings of Elstir. Proust comes as close as anyone ever has to making music, or displaying art, in prose. His description of an Elstir painting in which the sea and the land are confounded is particularly masterful; but still no equivalent of the experience of looking, without the intermediation of language.

I am not saying that we should never use language to describe anything extraneous or superior to it. Perhaps if we only recognized how poor language is. But the process of constructing a world view based on language is similar to the self-deception involved in thinking we have heard a whole play, or a whole conversation, when we have really built a version based on part of the dialog melded with visual cues and our own history. In every case we think we have achieved perfection, when what we are really holding out is a third-rate model created with inadequate tools.

Before and after language

Certainly before we acquire language we are able to communicate. There is a period after that, however, when we have language but it is not primary. A two year old still speaks English as if it were a second language: sparingly, with many errors and an impenetrable accent. Every sentence offered is an accomplishment.

I believe that during this period we are more reliant on other senses which atrophy as language assumes primacy. I remember believing as a small child that I had better insight into adults than my parents did. Because I did not understand large stretches of the conversation, I could look at a man's face and know he was dishonest or even dangerous when the grown-ups, relying on his words, had no suspicion.

An experience some years ago in my work life gives some support for this assertion. We had an employee who told everyone that he had gone to Wharton Business School, been on the national jet ski team, owned a house on Marco Island, Florida, had a cousin who played for the Rangers. None of the above was true. Only when the web of lies came undone did I realize that the individual had a nervous, defensive look on his face at all times. But he had a highly persuasive and funny style of speaking, which caused everyone to believe him. If we had responded to him based only on visual cues, we would have known what he was.

The man who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin supposedly shouted "Blanks! Blanks!" as he fired his gun. Here is an example of language intended to contradict an obvious perception of danger, puzzle the intended victims, and cause them not to react as rapidly or violently as they might have otherwise.


There is a reality outside words which is always peeking in. If you are ready to suspend language you may see it. Atoms dance in the walls; on your afternoon walk you tread on rocks millions of years old, but they too are a dance of atoms. Our words often have greater solidity than the things they describe: "rock", "wall". They themselves are rocks and walls shutting out the light.