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When Words Fail

The limits of language might, on first consideration, seem a curious topic to write about. But then, like all topics, if not discussed in language, then it is not discussed at all. And by most measures, this language – the English language – is least likely to impose constraints on what can be said and written. According to the people who write the Oxford English Dictionary:

…it seems quite probable that English has more words than most comparable world languages.

The reason for this is historical. English was originally a Germanic language, related to Dutch and German, and it shares much of its grammar and basic vocabulary with those languages. However, after the Norman Conquest in 1066 it was hugely influenced by Norman French, which became the language of the ruling class for a considerable period, and by Latin, which was the language of scholarship and of the Church. Very large numbers of French and Latin words entered the language. Consequently, English has a much larger vocabulary than either the Germanic languages or the members of the Romance language family to which French belongs.

There are many English words; 200,000 if calculated conservatively, a million if we indulge the wilder estimates. Studies show that an educated native speaker might be familiar with 20,000 words at best, leaving them lots of opportunity to learn more. If that were not enough, the proficient may simply resort to inventing new words. Shakespeare is estimated to have added 1,700 words to the language, including ‘assassination’, ‘bump’ and ‘critical’. Yet for all its expansiveness, and its willingness to borrow from slang, science and other languages, English is not infinite. At some juncture we may always reach a limit and find there are things that cannot be said.

A shortage of words is the bane of the writer, of course. Whilst I have no pretension to include myself in that category, this post counts as halfthought 127, or well over 2 years’ regular writing if you kindly overlook the one week I missed (more by accident than laziness; the halfthought had been written but I blundered and failed to publish it). From that voluntary output, it might seem that I am tapping a plentiful flow. Not always so. There has been many a weekend where I have neared its end full of angst, because no fresh ideas have come to mind. Thankfully, life is rich even if the imagination is impoverished. A look around at the diversity of what occurs on this planet is guaranteed to reveal something worthy of comment before too long.

Whilst a lack of imagination may be the writer’s curse, even pure intellect has its limits. The philosopher Wittgenstein went to some pains to hint at the existence of an outer border to our expressive capacity in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. This was concluded in the final statement of the book:

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Having written everything that needed to be written about philosophy, and satisfactorily proven to himself that to write anything more would entail scribbling gibberish, Wittgenstein did the decent thing and stopped doing philosophy. He turned his attention to teaching and architecture instead. However, like a top sportsman that spoils a perfect career by coming out of retirement, Wittgenstein changed his mind. In later life he explained why there was a lot more to say about philosophy after all.

That Wittgenstein was able to change his mind says a lot about both the academic and societal freedoms he enjoyed thanks to his upbringing and lifestyle in Europe, and the freedom that language afforded him to explore his ideas. None of these freedoms should be taken for granted. Though most readers of Orwell’s 1984 focus on surveillance and torture as the most obvious evils it depicts, I find another of his inventions to be much more chilling. Newspeak would be a language that progressively reduced its vocabulary, and as it did so, increasingly limited the speaker’s ability to express or even think thoughts they should not. As a consequence, thoughtcrime would become an impossibility, as there would be no objectionable thoughts any more:

By 2050 – earlier, probably – all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron – they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually contradictory of what they used to be. Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like “freedom is slavery” when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking – not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.

Thankfully, we have so far postponed the impositions of an Ingsoc-like tyranny for more than a couple of decades beyond the date Orwell envisaged. Whilst oppression is to be dreaded, sometimes it is in our own interests to keep schtum. What we say and write is a kind of advertisement for who we are, and may be made public even if not intended. Recently revealed recordings of Mel Gibson’s tirades against second wife Oksana Grigorieva are even more troubling than the antisemitic remarks he made when arrested for drink driving in 2006, placing him firmly at the head of a long Hollywood walk of shame. Mad Mel would have been better off heeding the advice of Abraham Lincoln:

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.

Whilst we recognize intellectual limits to language, it is more often that emotion causes us to reach an impasse where words simply will not do. Heightened emotion, whether the emotion is anger, fear or lust, draws our energies away from the verbal. The idea of a conversation during love-making might be presented as comical, especially if the topic is banal. Most sex talk involves a few usefully intense expletive utterances meant to signal encouragement, or, if things go awry, pain and a desire to reorient proceedings. However, two people with the right relationship might enjoy stimulating and erotic chat that goes beyond the monosyllabic.

For some circumstances, words can only seem paltry for their allotted task. At the other end of life’s cycle from love-making, language can seem desolate and paltry for the task of mourning a loved one. For all the craft of the eulogy, it is poignant that silent contemplation is our society’s most elegant means of showing our collective respect for the dead.

Speechlessness due to anger or fear is hard to overcome, as anyone who suffers from stage-fright can attest. There are few greater psychological agonies, for either the person who dislikes public speaking, or indeed for an audience that tries to listen to them. In contrast, anger may turn curtness into the epitome of apt expression. When the Germans surrounded Bastogne during the WW2 Battle of the Bulge, they sent a communique to US General Anthony McAuliffe, asking him to surrender. On hearing the request, McAuliffe uttered one word:


So pleased was he with the eloquence of this instinctive response, that he wrote it down and this was relayed back to the German command as his official answer. McAuliffe’s defiance was a morale raiser. In contrast, the American wordsmith Normal Mailer was a hellraiser who resorted to punching or even stabbing people in order to make his point. At one party he socked his literary rival Gore Vidal, knocking him to the floor. Vidal, though still down on the ground, got the upper hand when he quipped:

Words fail Norman Mailer yet again.

At least that goes to prove that whilst the pen may not always be mightier than the sword, wit is always sharper than a fist.

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