“George, don’t make no full moves. Please make it quick, fast and furious. Please. Fast and furious. You get ahead with the dot dash system. Oh, oh—dog biscuits! And when he is happy he doesn’t get happy. No hobo and pobo I think he means the same thing. I am a pretty good pretzler. Don’t put anyone near this check. In the olden days they waited and waited. I don’t want harmony. I want harmony. There are only ten of us and there ten million fighting somewhere of you, so get your onions up and we will throw up the truce flag. The sidewalk was in trouble and the bears were in trouble and I broke it up. You can play jacks and girls do that with a softball and do tricks with it. I take all events into consideration. No. No. And it is no. It is confused and it says no. A boy has never wept nor dashed a thousand kim. I am sore and I am going up and I am going to give you honey if I can. Mother is the best bet and don’t let Satan draw you too fast. They dyed my shoes. Open those shoes. I know what I am doing here with my collection of paper. Come on, open the soap duckets. The chimney sweeps. Talk to the sword. French-Canadian bean soup. I want to pay. Let them leave me alone.”
—among the last words of Dutch Schultz
Especially here on the tubes, human beings most often use language—words—to communicate with one another.
Not everybody thinks this is a good idea.
William Burroughs insisted that language is a virus from outer space, one that is up to no good. For “a virus operates autonomously, without human intervention. It attaches itself to a host and feeds off of it, growing and spreading from host to host. Language infects us; its power derives not from its straightforward ability to communicate or persuade but rather from this infectious nature, this power of bits of language to graft itself onto other bits of language, spreading and reproducing, using human beings as hosts.”
Leonard Schlain, meanwhile, argues in The Alphabet Versus The Goddess that language rewired the human brain, shifting dominance from the “feminine” right hemisphere to the “masculine” left hemisphere, thereby allowing brutal patriarchies to supplant worldwide more pacific matriarchal cultures.
Schlain’s brainshower seems to fit with Burroughs’ blood-curdling description of how the alien language virus reproduced itself in early ur-humans:
[A]lterations in inner throat structure were occasioned by virus illness . . . This illness may well have had a high rate of mortality but some female apes must have survived to give birth to the wunder kindern. The illness perhaps assumed a more malignant form in the male because of his more developed and rigid muscular structure causing death through strangulation and vertebral fracture. Since the virus in both male and female precipitates sexual frenzy through irritation of sex centers in the brain the males impregnated the females in their death spasms and the altered throat structure was genetically conveyed.
It is not necessary that we lark in lulu-land with people like Burroughs and Schlain to recognize that language is an imperfect servant.
It is said, for instance, that in face-to-face communication as much as 80% of all information is transmitted non-verbally. So one can imagine how much is lost when talking to people here on the tubes, where all information must be imparted through pixellated words. I have been paid all my adult life to express things in language, yet have not infrequently found myself failing to get across to people on blogs, in email, in newspaper and magazine stories. Or on el telefono, for that matter. Don’t always get it right in person, either.
Then there are the effects of intoxicants. Peter Farb notes that “[h]umans eat and drink a variety of substances that disorient the mind, interfere with the ability to walk upright that took millions of years to evolve, and produce personality changes counter to the sociality that has been a hallmark of human existence.” Robin Williams puts it more succinctly: “The main purpose of alcohol is to make English your second language.”
Currently I work in the law, a field in which much of the wrangling involves determi-ning first what was meant by what people said, or what other people said they said, or did, and then divining the meaning of the words in the multitudinous statutes and cases that govern the words and deeds at issue. The members of the United States Supreme Court, the highest judicial body in the land, are primarily tasked with attempting to serve as oracles, teasing out what those who inscribed the words in the United States Constitution would have said about the cases that come before the Court.
A song that speaks beautifully to me about the limitations of language is Suzanne Vega’s, uh, “Language.” I doubt that any of the lines will be featured in any Supreme Court decision anytime soon. Though some of them should be.
The New York Times recently featured an interesting piece in which it was demonstrated that people’s thoughts, even on such abstract subjects as time and space, translate into movements of the body, even when they do not emerge in speech.
Researchers at the University of Aberdeen found that when people were asked to engage in a bit of mental time travel, and to recall past events or imagine future ones, participants’ bodies subliminally acted out the metaphors embedded in how we commonly conceptualized the flow of time.
As they thought about years gone by, participants leaned slightly backward, while in fantasizing about the future, they listed to the fore. The deviations were not exactly Tower of Pisa leanings, amounting to some two or three millimeters’ shift one way or the other. Nevertheless, the directionality was clear and consistent.
“When we talk about time, we often use spatial metaphors like ‘I’m looking forward to seeing you’ or ‘I’m reflecting back on the past,’” said Lynden K. Miles, who conducted the study with his colleagues Louise K. Nind and C. Neil Macrae. “It was pleasing to us that we could take an abstract concept such as time and show that it was manifested in body movements.”
The Times piece indicates that science people are now proving the wisdom in Kenneth Patchen’s observation that “There is body; there is mind: they are mixed up together. Shakespeare with a hole in his sock will not write the sonnet of a Shakespeare with socks intact.”
You say a person is warm and likable, as opposed to cold and standoffish? In one recent study at Yale, researchers divided 41 college students into two groups and casually asked the members of Group A to hold a cup of hot coffee, those in Group B to hold iced coffee. The students were then ushered into a testing room and asked to evaluate the personality of an imaginary individual based on a packet of information.
Students who had recently been cradling the warm beverage were far likelier to judge the fictitious character as warm and friendly than were those who had held the iced coffee.
Or maybe you are feeling the chill wind of social opprobrium. When researchers at the University of Toronto instructed a group of 65 students to remember a time when they had felt either socially accepted or socially snubbed, those who conjured up memories of a rejection judged the temperature of the room to be an average of five degrees colder than those who had been wrapped in warm and fuzzy thoughts of peer approval.
The body embodies abstractions the best way it knows how: physically.
The Times piece concludes wisely:
Yesterday is regrettable, tomorrow still hypothetical. But you can always listen to your body, and seize today with both hands.
In the last millennium, I hired on as editor of a music publication staffed by people considerably younger than myself. I think at the time I was preparing to leave my 30s; these young’uns were all in their 20s.
One day the publisher of the enterprise cheerily announced that, though he himself was in the newspaper business, he did not like to read anything longer than what might fit on his computer screen at any one time.
Reeling from this announcement, I passed to another staffer a New Yorker with a story on Tupac Shakur that I thought he might like. Two weeks later he returned the magazine, shaking his head. “Sorry it took me so long to get this back to you,” he said, “but that story was really long.” Except that the thing was less than six pages, including photos. What would he have done, I wondered, back in the William Shawn days, when the magazine, shorn of illustrations, would confront the reader with 30 solid pages on something like bark beetles?
So today I read that our current young folk are abandoning even blogs, because they are insufficiently brief and mobile. They are wedded instead to Twitter and Facebook, a phenom-enon that a young blogfriend—GenXangster—tonight dubbed “twitface.”
Could it be that blogs have become online fodder for the—gasp!—more mature reader?
A new study has found that young people are losing interest in long-form blogging, as their communication habits have become increasingly brief, and mobile. Tech experts say it doesn’t mean blogging is going away. Rather, it’s gone the way of the telephone and e-mail—still useful, just not sexy.
So why are young people less interested in blogging?
The explosion of social networking is one obvious answer. The Pew survey found that nearly three-quarters of 12- to 17-year-olds who have access to the Internet use social networking sites, such as Facebook. That compares with 55 percent four years ago.
With social networking has come the ability to do a quick status update and that has “kind of sucked the life out of long-form blogging,” says Amanda Lenhart, a Pew senior researcher and lead author of the latest study.
More young people are also accessing the Internet from their mobile phones, only increasing the need for brevity. The survey found, for instance, that half of 18- to 29-year-olds had done so.
Arax-Rae Van Buren, who writes about trends, travel and food on her Kiss and Type blog, is relaunching her site with a mobile audience in mind. “It is imperative that the site design is translatable to a phone,” says the 24-year-old New Yorker.
All of that rings true to Sarah Rondeau, a freshman at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.
“It’s a matter of typing quickly. People these days don’t find reading that fun,” the 18-year-old student says.
It would be so easy to gnash our teeth and rend our garments about how young people like Ms. Rondeau are racing like lemmings towards a fallen future in which all brains are smooth and civilization itself has collapsed. But why bother? Old folks have said that sort of thing about young folks ever since words have been said. Maybe they’re evolving to something finer; shrugging off the virus of language. It’s worth remembering that the adults in works like Childhood’s End and The Midwich Cuckoos initially thought their children were dullards, too.
Meanwhile, on the theory that as long as we have language, we can never have too much Peter Gabriel, I’ll close with this.