I would do anything for a friend
On the limits and pitfalls of language
I am fascinated by language. It is a tool with an amazing capacity and appalling inability to effectively communicate emotions, messages, intentions. And THIS is the point where I usually stop writing, because I find myself caught in a deconstructionist loop of nonsense. Lately though, I’ve been wondering, do other writers find themselves thinking, wait- that is not what I mean, when reading others’ comments and reviews? Perhaps it’s just me, but I have suspicion that it happens to others. When this perceived miscommunication has happened to me, I blame myself, both as a writer, for not explaining my position very well, and also as a person, for holding an incorrect position.
Then, the other day, while watching The Princess Bride with my daughter, I heard an exchange between two characters, in which one said to the other, “I do not think that means what you think it means,” and I realized that language itself was more often the vehicle for perceived miscommunications.
For instance, two people can both see a color and agree that the color they see is called “Red,” but there is no immediate way to understand that they are perceiving the color in the same exact way. The experience and the name are separate, and can only be approximations of each other. So if they need to coordinate colors for a nursery (hypothetically), and they disagree, what is it that they are disagreeing about? The color called “Red” or their experience of the color, which is unknown to the other person?
An easy way to play with this concept is to repeat a simple word 30–50 times. Or write it, or read it. Regardless, eventually the word will become meaningless, just a jumble of consonants and vowels fumbling around in your mouth or head, sounding more like a foreign language, or just complete nonsense. It’s a fun, if not disconcerting exercise.
Leon James coined this phenomenon “semantic satiation” in his 1962 dissertation, however people have been aware of it for m much longer. It is described it as a separation of a word’s form from its meaning due to cognitive exhaustion caused by repetition. Semantic satiation provides a fascinating glimpse into how we use words, as well as how we fail to understand the limitations of language. In fact, simply repeating a word over and over again, demonstrates the tenuous relationship that language has with meaning.
All of which reminds me of a story my grandmother used to tell me. Loved by everyone she met, my grandmother was a welcoming, generous and joyful person, always surrounded by friends. The only person that didn’t enjoy her presence was her own mother, a sad and unpleasant women.
One day when she was an adolescent, my grandmother told her mother, “I would do anything for a friend.” Her mother was horrified, and told her she was “a desperate little girl” and “a disgrace.” At first, my grandmother was confused, and thought, wait, that is not what I meant.
Over time, she realized her mother had misinterpreted her statement as, “I would do anything to obtain a friend,” when she had actually meant, “I would always be there for my friends if they needed me.” Vastly different interpretations from the same exact words, one of desperation and one of loyalty. They never revisited the conversation. They never understood their misunderstanding. My grandmother reminded me that words matter, but people and their experiences are more important if your goal is to understand their message.
And so I think about words like race, and racism. White and tan. History and CRT. And I cannot help but wonder if I am speaking the same language, if any of us are actually speaking the same language. And if we are not, what would it take to accomplish this? I don’t know. At the very least, time and space to ask, what do you mean? What is your experience? Understanding a person and their experiences is the only way that a word’s form and meaning will come together and make sense. Otherwise, we are all just repeating the same words over and over and over and over again, into meaninglessness.