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The Landscape of Language

This article appears in the issue April 2006 [Volume 15, Issue 4]

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I am visiting our daughter who is studying in Florence, Italy, for a semester, and last night dreamed the question: "If you lived before language and could make up one word, what word would it be?" In my dream, I at first thought I'd give myself a name. But then I thought how weird it would be to be the only person on the planet with one of those. What sense would people be able to make of a name without a system of names? And the same is true for any other word without a system of language. Words aren't the simple labels we sometimes think they are. True, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once proposed a "block language" that consists of simple, one-word commands that cause workers to fetch blocks, but those are words the way a bell or the tip of a switch is a word. They are not words the way words are words.

As I woke, I thought I ought to choose the word "ouch," but that's half word and half bodily gesture. But that's an appropriate mix as I travel through a foreign country with a smattering of Italian words, several dimming years of high school Spanish, a dictionary and a gullible belief in the power of cognates--"immobilieri" is real estate, not someone who can't walk, and "osteria" is an inn, not an oyster bar. I am reduced to a tiny sideshow of words and common gestures.

That works--at least a little--because so little of language has to do with the definitions of words. The dynamics are the same as with maps. We take out a map when we're unfamiliar with a route, but most of our lives we're in territory we know. We should not assume that when we're not lost, we do what we do when we are lost; we should not assume that we follow an internal map when we're not following an external one. Before maps were invented, people weren't always lost. In the same way, we consult a dictionary--a rather late invention--when we're lost about a word, but that doesn't mean we mentally look up words in the normal course of conversation. It's perfectly possible to use and understand a word correctly without being able to define it; try to define a helix or precisely explain "meandering."

A definition is a map for the lost. Language is a walk through landscape. There is so much more there than the routes and intersections. To listen to a customer talking in Italian with a vendor at a fruit stand in the indoor market, a conversation from which one receives only an occasional slap of intelligibility, is to be overwhelmed with meaning that starts with the building and ends with the movement of the fingertips. The language layer does not separate neatly: Words are not a skin on things, although they may be their surface. Language fades into the world. The tower rising from a large Renaissance building and the piazza in which it is situated are both language--not the same as verbal language but not separable from it either. "Piazza" the word and piazza the thing are both ways we make our world habitable. The word and the thing both particularize the world, the only way we can live in it or talk about it. They are how we make the world ours.

"Language is the house of being," said the philosopher Martin Heidegger. It is where we live.

That's easier to see when it comes to what we've made, but it's equally true of the earth as we've found it. Through language we craft what we've found and what it means to us. This can be read in the history of words and in their resonance--what isn't said when we say a word--such as the unspoken challenge and majesty of the summit of mountains, for which we have no equivalent when we speak of oceans and their floors. Language crafts our world through the rolling hills that recall the constant movement of the ocean as it shapes itself. Without these echoes, language would just be a codebook, words we look up in a dictionary.

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