The Paradox of Language

I am probably the only person who, when writing notes or letters to friends, pulls the card back out of the envelope and rereads it, just to make sure the name hasn’t changed and the words haven’t rearranged themselves into something wild and dangerous.

Language is unwieldy, and too often our words are loose cannons that we place under the illusion of control. Other times they fall short, their combined symbols failing to capture our true emotions on the page.

In Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, one of the characters reflects on the beauty and power of language:

“…a story was a form of telepathy. By means of inking symbols onto a page, she was able to send thoughts and feelings from her mind to her reader’s. It was a magical process, so commonplace that no one stopped to wonder at it. Reading a sentence and understanding it were the same thing; as with the crooking of a finger, nothing lay between them. There was no gap during which the symbols were unraveled. You saw the word castle, and it was there, seen from some distance, with woods in high summer spread before it, the air bluish and soft with smoke rising from the blacksmith’s forge, and a cobbled road twisting away into the green shade…”

Despite our best intentions, stories and texts can change. One linguistic theory suggests that no one can read the same text twice. The printed letters may stay the same, but the context has changed and the text has a different effect. Writing is so removed from reading; the author imagines a reader just as the reader imagines an author, neither one grasping the exact nature of the other. Our words may not be taken as we wish them to be. But what other means do we have? How else can we convey the urgent murmurs of the heart?

I think I love language for this paradox: it can never fully express what we want it to, but it comes tantalizingly close, close enough to work and close enough for words to change the world. We can try to categorize it scientifically, and that will work to a certain extent, but what is truly beautiful to me is not the placid surface of the canal, but the wild waves of the open sea.


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