Has this ever happened to you? You’re sitting there writing/typing a paper. You’re already one or two paragraphs in, and then you get stuck. It’s not writer’s block; you just don’t have the right words to express what you’re thinking. Some words come to mind, but they’re not quite right. They don’t properly express the idea you’re trying to convey. The words just don’t have that certain je ne sais quoi. So perhaps, crazy thought, your English teacher’s probably not going to like this; you make up a word and its definition.
Right now, I’m reading Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. In the book, Vonnegut invents two words: Karass (kuh-rass, not car-ass) and Granfalloon; two words that are actually quite useful if you look up their definitions (on google). I used to think that making up words was a dirty practice by writers; a cheap way of skating by complex writing. Until I watched a Mental_Floss video where they counted down words invented by authors (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x63y-zV152w). Did you know that Charles Dickens invented the word “Boredom?” Shakespeare invented “assassination,” “swagger,” and “lonely”. Can you imagine how hard it would be to describe boredom without “bored” or “boredom”? Sure, you could maybe describe the feeling through other means. Maybe even say, “It’s when you have nothing to do.” But that would take longer than necessary and doesn’t quite capture the essence of what you’re trying to convey. If you say “bored” or “boredom,” people know what you’re saying, and quickly too. If you’re referring to a specific type of boredom, that’s going to be harder though. Same goes for the other words. Think about how hard it would be to describe the feeling of loneliness without lonely.
If you think about it, words are pretty arbitrary. We make organized sounds with our mouths and we understand the ideas we’re trying to express. Language (the method through which two beings communicate) may not be a human construct, but when talking about sophisticated language, like any human language, the line between simple communication and human construct starts to get blurry. Whenever there are complex ideas and thinking, there needs to be the ability to express those ideas. Hell, if we’re taking into account all these ideas, the ones following and the ones proceeding, then it’s not too far off to say all words are arbitrary. French philosopher Jacques Derrida once wrote, “There is no outside-text.” Derrida is not saying that a work’s meaning is concrete and not bendable to perception, but rather there is nothing beyond the text because everything is textual. Everything is ambiguous and open to interpretation. While you may not find a Communist exposition in Super Mario Brothers, there’s nothing stopping you from interpreting the information as such. This quote is usually used in the context of literary analysis, or the deconstruction of other media and narratives, but it can also apply to a linguistic context. Let’s give an example of this. Let’s say that one day you have a child, and one day you give them a notebook. Instead of calling it a notebook, though, they call it a “candle”. At first, when they start saying this, you’re confused because it’s so unconventional. Over time, however, you become familiar with your child’s use of the word and depending on the context, you know that when they say “candle” they mean “notebook.” Words simply stand in for the ideas themselves, and thereby can be interpreted and used in any way to mean anything. As a matter of fact, we already do this to an extent. If you’ve ever used a secret phrase with someone, wherein you say certain sentences that mean entirely different things, then you have switched out the meaning of words.
In an age where philosophy and critical thinking are far more advanced than any time previously, more and more complex thoughts are going to need explaining. Sometimes you can’t explain them though. Try as you might, when someone reads your paper; no matter how many analogies, metaphors, or large words you throw at them, they just don’t get it. When they give you their interpretation, they’re on the right track, but they just fall short of reaching true mutual understanding. Key details are just not expressed. Expression of true meaning and understanding escapes you, you’re close, you can feel it, but you just can’t. The true meaning of the idea escapes language. Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once stated, “Whereof one cannot speak, one must be silent.” It is commonly interpreted to mean “If you’re not familiar with a subject, don’t speak on it.” I’m guilty of using it in this context (it’s very snappy and profound). The widely accepted sophisticated interpretation is more like, “When you can’t explain something, it is perhaps best to leave those things unexplained.” Wittgenstein also followed this thought up by saying that his work consisted of two parts: the parts expressed and the parts unexpressed, and it is the latter part that is more important. The latter part is the true meaning/understanding. You may be entirely familiar with an idea but be incapable of conveying it. Think of it like a glacier; your words are everything on top, but the true depth of the idea is everything beneath it. It’s hard because words are just so flimsy.
Where I don’t agree with Wittgenstein is the silent part. This ideology assumes that, with silence, people will reflect critically on the words expressed and eventually reach that full understanding (either through their own critical thought, circumstance or another explanation) at a later time. This aspect of the ideology is incredibly optimistic and puts a lot of faith into human beings. Instead of relying on the hope, that given time, they’ll understand, it’s best to actively seek out a way to convey complex ideas. Life and people are far too unpredictable to have that much trust in them. A way that we can assure more comprehension of ideas is through the invention of new words. Vonnegut invented the word karass (even if it isn’t officially recognized as a word) which he defined as a cosmological network of people that are all connected by a similar higher purpose or goal. See why he needed to invent that word? New words could be our stepping stones to a higher comprehension of more refined thinking. We can’t just simply leave deeper understanding as it is. At its simplest, the evolution of critical thinking may need the invention of a few new words. At its most difficult, it may mean large scale changes to the nature of language and communication as we know it. Either way, we can’t leave deeper meanings alone just because we’re currently unable to express them.
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