How Much Language Means, and, Yet, How Little


There are times when syntax functions like the Powerball operated by a discombobulated robot-arm. The mind feels hollowed out, the tongue is an idle instrument. Moments like this, we face a terrifying reality—words only mean as much as their sounds. The times I truly feel that language is insufficient are during the quiet exchanges between my father and I, my English scrimmaging with his Wuchuan dialect. The other time that language fails is during the high-tide of sentiment when anger or sorrow drowns out rhetoric with meager curse words or tears. Perhaps, during these occasions, one can’t be bothered with the etymology or the definition of a word. Sometimes, words function exactly as they should—as sounds, as a means for cathartic release. 

Last semester, I had the opportunity to take Professor Ryan Black’s Genre course that focused on elegy and its conventions. A motif in this course was the inefficacies of language during times of loss. We learned that despite this insufficient mode of articulating loss, we are very much dependent on language to tether our grief—to extinguish the budding of an existential crisis or melancholia. This is a very human thing, to depend on a means that offers so much, yet so little to the human cause. 

I must digress for a moment.

At dusk, flurries of starlings trailed each other in spirals. I didn’t know the word for it yet, I could only reason what I was seeing with sentiment—a deep-pitted nostalgia and dejection. I’ve always found myself that way with birds, which was entrenched in a displaced baby bird that I failed to save three springs ago. The prefix of the word is murmur, a low rumbling of voices. There are no sounds, yet the sight of it rumbles, interrupting a still sky. I find that knowing the word only benefits in exchanging this sight with others in speech or writing. I can’t help but feel that it is self-indulgent and exploitative to pin down this natural sight with the artifice of language. Regardless, I will always associate murmurations with loss and human fragility.

As I am writing this piece, I rely on language to coherently translate my thoughts. Yet, these words function as mere placeholders. I am in search of an alternative that I may never find. To reiterate, the most terrifying part of language is our codependency with it—how much we depend on reading, writing, and explaining things. Sometimes, it is truly not enough. Poet, Jack Gilbert writes in “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart”:

How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,

and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,

God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words

get it wrong.

There are moments when language is censored. In its place, a quietness. It is a quietness that only exists in a moment without speech or the mind rambling away. It is a murmuration of sorts. Though, I can’t quite explain it.

Featured Photo Credit: Unachicalinda via Pixabay

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