We are limited by words, yet they have magic. Their utterance can become a wall, or it can create new and wonderful realities.
Many years ago a friend of mine’s five-year-old son was holding a screwdriver and said to his dad, “You know, Dad, this screwdriver isn’t really a screwdriver. That’s just what we call it. And this hand isn’t a hand; that’s just what we call it. And this grass isn’t grass; that’s just what we call it.” And on and on he went in an orgy of epiphanies about the difference between words and reality.
He had discovered naming, the human habit that supposedly separates us from the other species. Other species, though, are not all that words separate us from. We are limited by words. They can be a wall, or a web that becomes all we know. We begin to believe that experience can be captured in words, so we say too much and think too much. We can act as if experience came with handles attached, but it doesn’t. We attach the handles.
But, oh, what beautiful handles. Words may obscure, but they are also lovely. And while the word may not be the thing, paradoxically words themselves are a part of reality. An image in a mirror is not the thing itself but it is just as real, and in that sense, words—like their partners, images—are magical. Naming is limiting, as my friend’s son discovered with his screwdriver, but it is magical just the same. Words are incantatory. Their utterance creates realities.
The magical quality of language and its inadequacy come together when ideas arise in our mind for which we have no word, no name. We reach for words. In the run of a day, we have a full menu of experiences that have no precise name: the pique you feel when someone is giving you excessively lengthy unsolicited advice and you are straining to detach yourself; the slight hesitation you have that reveals to someone that you are about to tell them a painful truth; the combination of dread and desire that drives you to finish something in the face of a looming deadline. Just as only a small portion of all possible sound combinations have become meaningful words, there are many more meaningful experiences than there will ever be names.
Yet, it can be wonderful when we learn a word that expresses a notion for which we had no word. The word can even be a touchstone for a deeper understanding. The Sanskrit dukkha, for example, is most often translated as “suffering,” causing many people to reject Buddhism instantly when they hear the formula, “All life is suffering.” But dukkha covers everything from the fleetingness of pleasure, to the feeling of being mildly unsettled, to anxiety and terror. When we come to a broader understanding of the meaning encompassed by dukkha, the whole thing makes more sense.
There’s a delightful book—They Have a Word for It, by Howard Rheingold—which is a compendium of untranslatable words and phrases that shows how words have the power to impart new understanding just by putting a name to something. I love to swim around in it from time to time, stumbling across words that express understandings of the world I hadn’t encountered before, or that simply have hit on something worth naming.
The Huron word orenda, for example, is a complex word that is similar to the notion of prayer but is not quite as submissive as that. It contains the idea that by calling out, one can bring one’s intention into reality. It combines both humbleness and confidence. To say that one is “arrayed in one’s orenda” means to be hopeful and affirmative but not proud and presumptuous. One approaches the future neither arrogantly nor helplessly.
The Spanish conmoción seemed particularly apt when the space shuttle came apart on re-entry in February. The word refers to an emotion briefly held in common by a gathering of people who may be strangers to one another. It could be the roar of a crowd when a goal is scored, the sympathetic awe of a symphony audience or the anger of a mob incited to rebellion.
The Arabic alam al-mithral gets at the very idea that language and imagery are a part of reality. It refers to the world where images are real, as in the reality that can be approached through dreams, visualization and imagination. Instead of thinking that we came up with a great idea when it occurs to us in the middle of a daydream, we can treat it as a child of the alam al-mithral.
Not all untranslatable words are philosophical; many simply refer to everyday occurrences that for some reason or another one language has chosen to label while others have not. There are many examples that accord with our own experience whether we have ever had a name for them or not. The German Schlimmbesserung refers to a “so-called improvement that makes things worse.” A related idea appears in the Yiddish farpotshket, an adjective for something that is all fouled up, especially as a result of an attempt to fix it. You may occasionally be accosted in a public place by an attaccabottoni (Italian), a doleful bore who buttonholes people and tells sad, pointless tales.
Many words about communication seem to reveal something about the culture that developed them. The Japanese haragei refers to “visceral, indirect, largely non-verbal communication,” the look that is worth a thousand words kind of thing. The Hindi talanao refers to idle talk as a social adhesive, a Bollywood staple. Its polar opposite, the Balinese Njepi, refers to a national day of silence. How great that would be—on a weekly basis.
Naming is a power we too often take for granted. The young boy’s realization that the name is not the thing is powerful, but it’s only half the story. Words and names indeed are hollow, but they resonate like a most lovely flute, and sometimes they let us hear notes we never heard before.