Are we all still living in Babel?
About four years ago, I had a conversation with my Mum that sparked an internal discussion I have been ruminating on ever since. I wanted to write about it immediately, but somehow got lost in the puzzle, mistakenly believing that I should find a neat solution, a conclusion to the issue before putting pen to paper (which I do generally do, before putting finger to keyboard, so I’m allowed to write that).
It was summer, and my brother was graduating from university. I took the train from London to Oxford to celebrate with my family, after nodding with silent confusion through the impenetrable all-Latin ceremony. It was an exquisite day, and we enjoyed drinks outside in the college garden in bright sunshine.
My Mum is a pianist and music teacher. She spends her professional life surrounded by music, and her personal life singing in a choir, playing the piano, and humming to herself around the house. She is also – although she would never describe herself as such – an extremely talented composer. I can still hear her beautifully moving arrangement of McCrae’s In Flanders Fields, and I grew up thinking that her chord-crunchingly hymnal version of the Lord’s Prayer was how everybody had always heard it. When my brother and I were children, I remember mornings where she had woken up from a dream in which she had composed an entire symphony, or concerto, but in daylight could not remember anything more than a feeling. She would spend the day distracted by her lost creation, but excited at the possibility that this capability was inside her mind somewhere, inaccessible to her waking brain.
On this afternoon, while we stood on the grass surrounded by mortar boards and proud parents, she recounted a conversation she’d been having recently with a friend of hers. Her friend had been shocked and surprised when Mum had explained that she was always writing music in her head, that it was a ceaseless, shifting background to her daily life; it was as though she thought in music, rather than words.
Her friend didn’t quite understand. “What do you mean? Are you writing music right now? Or do you mean that you have a song on your brain? Are you listening to a piece of Rachmaninov, for example?”
Mum said she had had to think about it for a moment (which is fascinating in itself, that the details of it were automatic, subconscious, and unexplored). “No, it’s rarely an existing piece. It’s usually original music that I’m composing. I’m doing it right now actually.”
Her friend asked her to sing it out loud, so Mum did, revealing a melody she was inventing in her head, a song unfurling simultaneously along with everything else going on around them.
I thought this was incredible. I’m a musical person, classically trained on the piano and flute, and I often have a song on my brain, but I could not imagine original composition filling my head throughout the day. When I expressed my amazement, Mum just said, “I bet you do the same thing though, but with words.”
Bizarrely, I had never up until this point noticed that I do this, or considered the notion that other people are might not. It was surprising, the fact that other people are not necessarily writing and rewriting their existence as they live it, just as it was surprising to my Mum that not everybody is composing an accompanying soundtrack to their daily experiences.
I started looking at my thoughts, at the way I was processing the information around me, and was shocked to see the constant, unceasing prose that chattered away within, turning every moment or idea into a composed phrase, rewriting it, wondering if the words worked, looking for new ways to describe. On the train to Oxford that morning, I remembered looking out of the window and writing the blue glaze of the sky into my mind, wondering whether fresh citrus yellow sunshine sounded too squeaky-clean and soapy, noticing how clouds really do look like candyfloss. On the walk to St. Catherine’s College I had considered the best words for the concrete geometry of the modern buildings, the calming, square, flat pools of water sitting like liquid tiles in the grass. I had thought it looked like a 1960s version of those magical portal pools in C.S.Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew. And then, in that moment in the college garden, I realised that I was still writing, about a tight-lipped, moneyed garden party, the golden yellow outdoor candles illuminating the expensive colourful dresses of the wealthy wives who knew nothing of the terrible complex plots their criminal husbands were involved with.
(In other words, I am an insane fantasist, subconsciously elevating my life to literature-worthy murder mysteries, romances, or thrillers. But that’s a conversation for another day.)
Since that day, I have thought a lot about our own individual languages, the unique way each of us sees, translates, and attempts to understand our existence. I have noticed how my Cameraman friend is always framing up, seeing the world in clearly defined pictures, looking at a view and turning it into a photograph in his mind. Even those everyday moments, waiting for a bus, going for a walk, waking up in bed, for him are made up of a thousand photographs. That is how he tells the story of his world to himself, by changing tiny pieces of his landscape with an imagined four lines, frame after frame after frame. I have Artist friends who see moments in colour schemes, Designer friends who see arrangement, composition, and texture in everything, and even Project Manager friends who describe their opinions and feelings as though they are neat grid-like diagrams of pragmatism and logic.
For all my ardent earnest and devoted love of language, words are just one type, one narrow strata of communication, a specific language in themselves. Inside each of our heads, only some of us are already thinking in that language. Talking or writing is actually a translation process, more difficult for some than others, of transforming our own private language into recognised verbal communication. If your internal, private language is words, if you are already thinking in those terms, you are at an advantage in terms of what the world requires of you, conversationally that is, to make your thoughts known, your personality felt, and your identity recognised.
And there I was, tied up in that well-trodden convolution of concern for the efficacy of verbal communication, the thought that even in an environment where everyone is speaking English, we might all still be living in Babel. If the way in which each of us thinks is so vastly different, our unique worlds of meaning must inevitably come to bear on the words we use, the way we use them, and what we mean by them. Every word we utter is coloured in a highly personal way that must so frequently go unrecognised by everybody else we speak to.
A classic way to approach this gap in meaning is by considering the word ‘green’, a colour but also naïvety, inexperience, and environmental or ecological responsibility. There are arguably ways to narrow down the precise type of green colour you are referring to, by creating a compound adjective: leaf-green, apple-green, grass-green, bottle-green, lime-green etc. (although, since everybody’s idea of a leaf, grass, bottle etc. is very different, this increased level of clarity is perhaps an illusion). But, if five different people each says the word ‘green’, they will almost certainly each be seeing a different colour in their mind – if you could extract those internal visions and display them objectively somehow. Since they are thinking something different, they are actually saying and therefore meaning something different from what the others think they are saying or meaning. In other words, they are speaking the same language, but they are not understanding each other.
A person’s notion of what ‘green’ looks like, will be coloured (no pun intended) by their experience of being alive, right up until that specific moment in which the word leaves their mouth. It will be affected by who they are, by their eyesight, by the colours they have seen and the things that have happened to them. What’s more, to make successful communication even more elusive – perhaps impossible – their life’s experiences and their personality are being added to and changed every second of every day. The colour that somebody considers to be ‘green’ when they are fifteen years old and surrounded by GCSE text books cramming for their exams, may be very different from their idea of the colour ‘green’ when they are twenty-nine and on a year-long sabbatical to East Asia, lying on a beach and considering the dense forests they have recently travelled through.
I have used a very impressionable and variable word to explore the meaninglessness of words, but on some level the same is happening to almost every single word or phrase we know, use, and think we understand. Each one of us, with our unique internal languages and our ever-evolving experience of this life, brings layers to everything we say, a private cultural palimpsest that – crucially – nobody else can ever access. Nobody else can ever understand what you are saying.
A few years ago, TV presenter Richard Hammond was involved in a high-speed crash while fiming, and was in a coma in hospital for quite some time. He sustained brain damage and memory loss which, when he tried to describe it, led him to understand his own cultural language in a fascinating way. He explained how he had lost all his private, personal connotations, allusions and references. He used the word ‘tree’ as an example. Before the accident, when someone was talking about a tree, a series of images or thoughts from his past would – entirely subconsciously – layer up inside his mind to create his own personal understanding of the word ‘tree’. He would see the apple tree in his garden when he was a kid, the tree he used to love climbing on holiday by the coast, the tree he kissed his wife under on their first date. After the crash though, those associations disappeared. When somebody said the word ‘tree’, he simply heard the word ‘tree’. He knew what a tree was, but he had lost all of his personal references for it, the moments that enriched and personalised its meaning for him. Before the crash he had never been aware of this layering of sense beneath every word; it was something he only missed once it was gone from inside his brain, and he had to simply wait patiently while new memories and connections appeared and evolved.
I don’t know, but I suspect, that there are inaccessible, insurmountable gaps in intention and cognition that exist between us when we speak, and that the process of translation that has to occur – for many of us longwinded and complicated – before a thought even becomes words, is quite hopeless. For many people this wouldn’t be significant, but for me, somebody who has a kind of unshakeable faith in language, written and spoken, humming through my bones, it is quite an injury, quite a loss.
We communicate most effectively then, with those whose internal language closely mirrors our own, regardless of mother tongue, age, or gender. I have noticed the telepathy connections that I occasionally form with somebody from a different country, somebody who I have no scope for traditional communication with, but whose invisible sensibilities, humour, and experience of being, fit perfectly around or on top of my own. And oh how much less wonderful falling in love would be, if we were able to cultivate that sublime sense of deep, wordless knowing of another person, with anybody we met.
The reverse of this though, is more true and more common: a colleague or even friend whose meaning always partially escapes me, or who often interprets my words a hair-thin shade differently from how I intended them to be received. It happens most frequently in meetings. I look around the table and realise that we have been talking for two hours without anybody quite understanding each another. Everybody leaves the meeting with a minutely different interpretation of what has been discussed and what precisely needs doing. We all muddle along, never knowing exactly what is being thought, said, or meant, until by some complicated messy miracle we get the job done and move on to the next confused collision decorated with professional jargon. We may be speaking a language, but we are rarely speaking each other’s.
(Title Image: John Hoyland: Soulless Stars Cascade, 2010)