My eight-month old daughter now makes three sounds. She gurgles raspberries, aspirates a popping “P” sound, and purses her lips to deliberately and painstakingly makes a little lamb “Baaa”. The latter in particular is an all encompassing communication and not merely a noise. She looks me in the eye, holds up a chubby hand to command the room, and “Baa”s meaningfully. Her great-grandmother uses her hands when she talks, too.
It really is a miracle that humans are able to speak at all. I don’t mean the making of sounds, which is fascinating enough from a physical perspective, but I mean it is a miracle that we communicate in any medium. I once read in a semiotics essay that, when humans communicate, the signs we use include symbols. We can speak with animals and animals can speak with one another, but the method of communication in the animal world is by way of sign and response and does not use symbols. A prairie dog lookout shouts that a specific man in a yellow shirt is approaching and everyone scatters. A dog hears a command from his owner to sit and sits because he knows a delicious treat is soon to follow. Animals have an amazing capacity to interpret signs and make responses, but, as semiotics would have it, this falls short of making use of a sign in the manner of a symbol. A human hears the word “sandwich” and, while he may or may not begin to salivate and look for a particular sandwich to eat, is also in his intellect able to contemplate the ideal of a sandwich. The particular word conjures a universal idea. We can even contemplate that which we have never even seen in the real world, for instance a 40-sided polygon. Through symbol, we are able to make the leap from a particular thing or situation requiring a response and into the realm of universals.
It is not hyperbole to refer to this human capacity as miraculous. From whence does it come, and why are we capable of that which is far beyond our evolutionary needs? This capacity is why humans write novels and poems and songs, a faculty having nothing at all to do with how large a mastodon I am able to shoot with bow and arrow.
Language is an irreducible triad connecting us to real objects and allowing us to make a conceptual leap to the whole. I say that it is irreducible because the clues to how we communicate seem to be irretrievably hidden in pre-linguistic clues. You either communicate or you don’t. Even an infant child, although physically inferior to pretty much every other creature at the same age of development, seems to be capable of communication. Any mother will tell you so. The ability to communicate reveals the intellect that is the distinguishing mark of our species. We are rational animals.
As I was playing with my daughter, I showed her a “DaDa” sound, hoping she would gratify me by saying my name. She watched my mouth intently, trying to see how the sound is formed. She reached out her hand as all babies do in their adorably pain-inducing way and pinched her fingers onto my lower lip to capture the magic of the sound. She is a Fisher of Men and I her catch.
We are hooked by language, enchanted by the innocence required by speech, to venture a communication in this vast, veiled world of sign and symbol. I say innocent because surely we are naive to expose ourselves to others through the act of communication. I don’t mean merely misunderstandings of intent but, more specifically, the fundamentally incomplete nature of language itself. Perhaps artists feel this most keenly. I once fancied myself a poet until I realized I am utterly, devastatingly, aggghhh…incapable! (incapax for all you Latinists). I am incapable of finding the words that truly express my intent. It is a helpless feeling. I am in awe of those who are able to write well and, to me, a poem is a finely polished gem of inestimable value; it reflects and colors the atmosphere. Novelists often feel that their work is unsatisfactory and would almost certainly continue revising forever, happily impoverished in a garret room lit by a single coal if a cruel editor didn’t eventually force them to cease and publish. Musicians find their past work inadequate and often refuse to play it. St. Thomas Aquinas himself exclaims that all he has written is like straw compared to the reality of God’s love.
We are all so many toddling babes struggling to form clumsy sentences. I cannot help but feel that, even in the masterpieces of great art, there are depths of emotion merely gestured towards, unbounded vision stuck within the strictures of a formal framework, artistic intent of infinite expanse compromised to the present world. There is no use pretending that our ability to communicate is anything other than incomplete. What is odd, though, is that if we depart from formal structure we achieve the exact opposite of what we might intend. Form is left behind because it feels constricting and what we want is a grand, all encompassing statement. What is left, though, is but a moment, a stream of consciousness snapshot of the mind of the artist with very little value. Formality turns out to be the container by which eternity is bounded. If we break with formality, the meaning of our words slips away like water from a broken pot.
Language is an interpretation of the universe, a way of making sense. There are always other interpretations but, although it is conjectural, it is not what we would call subjective. Rather, we might say that it is both accurately descriptive and incomplete at the same time. Michael Polanyi writes in Personal Knowledge, “Our choice of language is a matter of truth or error, of right or wrong–of life or death.” We are not nominalists and language is not a game. Babbling babes and poets alike are engaged in serious business.
Language is but straw. This ought to make us happy, because it reveals that language is analogical. If all we wanted was to receive a banana when we push the correct button marked “banana” in the lab experiment, then our communication would be perfectly adequate, for the banana would swiftly be ours. Human communication is much more! It is truly a miracle that binds earth to heaven, a word that participates in the eternal Word who speaks worlds into being, a part that somehow brings with it the whole.
Human language has pried open a crack in the fabric of the universe. We peer through and glimpse our future. Maddeningly, the future remains just that, far ahead out of reach in the present moment. We are babes forming earnest but ultimately inadequate speech. Let’s never stop, because it is truly a miracle.