Thursday, June 12, 2008

Why We Communicate

They say some large percentage of communication is nonverbal. Indeed, even some small percentage of this, written communication, is purely visual. Length of sentence and of paragraph. Typoes and missplelings. Letters that rise above (and that fall below) the median. Abbrs. How much more, the ideographic scripts. As for face to face, doesn't that rather depend on line of sight? But even, say, perceived proximity carries its own subtle meaning -- a sort of silent body language, affirming the powerful fact, I'm near you.

It's words, though. I'll often hear the etymology along with the word. I'll remember where I first learned it, and rehearse again the by-now tiresome rote. I'll be thrown into the mood of the thing. Like "contradict." I was in the backseat with my older brothers. My father said something that was inaccurate, and I, eight or nine years old, presumed to correct him. My brother said, in a heavy, precise and ominous tone, "Don't contradict dad." And my father said, in the same cadence, "Yes. Don't contradict dad." What's contradict mean? Same sort of thing, with "seduce": Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me.

Not that words are what they mean. Hysteria: the wandering of the womb throughout the body. And then it took on other meanings. Well might Freud have wondered, what do women want ... he clearly didn't have a clue. But womb-wandering has a male counterpart in East Asia and in Africa: koro, Buginese for "wrinkled", and more felicitously, Malaysian for "turtle-head" -- the belief (hysterical) that one's penis is shrinking into the body. Of course we have a word for eating your own hair -- trichophagia. It only sounds Greek. So there you go then.

Words shape perception. We all know of the dozens of words the ice-dwellers have for snow. Albanians have 54 words, equally divided, meaning mustache or eyebrows. Vietnamese has 18 words for 'you,' yet we had to get rid of thou. Japanese marks the gradations of bowing, from the 15 degree nod of eshaku to the epileptic groveling of pekopeko. On the other hand, a Liberian language has only ziza for red/orange/yellow, and hui for green/blue/indigo/violet. That's a pretty narrow rainbow.

Some of it just makes you laugh. The French coined ordinateur to spare their lips from the vulgarity of "computer": con is slang for "vagina" and pute is slang for "prostitute". Talk about your Xbox. Bakku-shan is Japanese for a girl you think will be pretty when you see her from behind, but in front, not so much. That happened to a friend of mine in high school. "Yum," he said ... but it was a guy. Again, Japanese has senzuri and shiko shiko manzuri, for male or female masturbation; "a hundred rubs" and "ten thousand rubs"-- you guess which is which.

The tune that you can't forget: in German, ohrwurm, "ear worm". Scratching your head to remember: pana po'o, in Hawaiian. Words, like the predictability of the human form, remind us that we are all the same. We count our babies' fingers and toes, and are relieved.

There's the Bantu word, considered the most untranslatable in the world: ilunga -- who'll forgive anything once, tolerate it a second time, but oh, the third... There's German's torschlusspanik -- the fear of diminishing opportunity as you age; most apropos in childless premenopausal women. There's the French esprit d'escalier -- the thing you think to say, too late. There's an Inuit verb, iktsuarpok, that means "to go outside often to see if someone is coming." The sound isn't beautiful, but the meaning tears at your heart. And if you say it slowly, as three hard and lonely syllables, it sounds like what it is.

Such a history of fragility. What words do we have, that for their familiarity have lost their power or poignancy? Anguish. Rage. Loss. Lost.

That's how we communicate. With words. With our bodies. With the arrangement of images and of objects in space. And why?



Jack H said...

The feeling that you get, from that question remaining unanswered, is the answer.

Bumped up from Nov '06.


Anonymous said...

You once said you have the "disease of words"...i love you for that. Some of us struggle to find any words at all.

Jack H said...

What, *this* old thing?

But thank you. The prognosis hasn't improved, but one learns to live with the malady.


The Merry Widow said...

It's the disconnect from physical proximity.
We cherish the physical(face to face), and end up substituting that with physical symbols. But as the distance increases, even the symbols become ephemeral(excited electrons on a screen that needs electricity). Then even the ephemeral symbols get degraded into computerese...we are losing our humanity and ability to be intimate in a nonsexual way.
Good morning, G*D bless and Maranatha!

Makes what Paul said in Corinthians more personal, "...and then we will see face to face."