Linguists see a difference between things and what we call them. The terms they use are signifier and signified. A signified is a thing itself, while a signifier is a name or label given to the thing. For instance, the signifier “keyboard” refers to the signified thing I push my fingers into to make these letters appear on my screen. My example is imperfect since my description of the signified thing relies on signifiers like “fingers” and “push” — which indicates there are many layers of signification. Whether signifieds have any being separate from signifiers is a debate as old as human language itself, but I’ll leave the ontological question for another post. What I want to say here is that it’s almost impossible to communicate without the use of verbal signifiers, and that it is important to understand that there is a difference between words and what they describe.
Most of our social interactions take place on a high level, high meaning on top of many layers of signifiers. A word as common as “hello” bears a tremendous amount of meaning that we can’t describe without getting dry mouths and headaches. “Hello” is shorthand for the sense of recognizing one or more people whom we’re communicating with. Sometimes it’s a question, like when answering the phone, that acknowledges the person who made the call and announces a willingness to hear what this person’s going to say. We accept that the simple word stands for the complex idea, and rather than explaining the complexity every time we encounter someone, we just say, “Hello.”
We don’t give it much thought. Because it’s pretty well accepted we don’t have to. In this way language is like money. A five dollar bill is not a valuable thing apart from the fact that it stands for a certain thing that is worth trading for another thing. The paper note does not itself mean something necessarily, nor is the other thing necessarily equal to the note. The thing is that we agree the note has a meaning equal to that of the other thing. It is less common for us to think about the real, actual, in-the-world things that invest a five dollar bill with that value than to accept that it has that value. Money, like human language, stands for things that aren’t the things themselves.
It’s not uncommon to find things that don’t match with words. Many experiences can’t be described — love and grief are two experiences that demonstrate the inadequacy of language. At the point of language’s failure we tend to take one of two courses. One is to resort to metaphor, where we speak another level removed from the experience we mean to signify. We say it’s like something it’s not actually, “like a red, red rose / That’s newly sprung in June,” speaking about the thing by speaking around or above it.
The other course is to make explicit admission of the fact of lacking words and to let the thing stand on its own, without signifying it.
If you’re reading this, then it’s probable that like me you’ve inherited a culture ill at ease with that second option. The scientific temperament that informs Western culture wants to name things so it can place them within a rational order, and whatever escapes classification is a threat to the order. The way we think and communicate in this culture places great value on signifiers and distrusts whatever resists signification. The things that stand for things seem to matter more to us than the things themselves.
And not without good reason. But it’s for this exact reason I’ve struggled most of my life to take part in the culture. It was a watershed in my intellectual and social development to discover the possibility that my brain simply works differently than most people’s brains. My own thinking seems to happen on a level much lower than others’, closer to the objects themselves than the language we might use to describe them. I parse the world in terms of things and their relationships to one another — objects defining spaces, color variation, patterns, discordant sounds. Mine is a language, but it’s not a social language.
With practice I am less and less conscious of the cognitive process by which I get from my language to the social language, but some moments the gears of my talking machine need a good oiling.
At a coffee shop yesterday afternoon I was headed for the bathroom and saw a woman standing it in a way that suggested either she was looking at something on the door or waiting for someone else to vacate the bathroom. I needed to use it and had to know what sort of an obstacle she posed. The accepted way to learn this information is to form the problem verbally. In a couple arduous seconds my thoughts became the words, “Is someone in there?” Not the clearest formulation, but still revised from what preceded it in my mind, something like, “Thing in the thing?” The first thing was the visual conception of a nondescript person occupying the second thing, the familiar space of that particular bathroom.
The only way to bridge what I visualized and the response I and my parasympathetic nervous system needed at that moment was to translate these things into words that would make sense to the woman. In the limited time I didn’t get as precise as I’d wanted. And by precise I mean the higher level of signification at which most of our social interactions take place, where the things that stand for things are crucial, because we’re not understood without them.
Related: Dissecting the language of music