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Languages, Words, and Their Limitations

By Dharmbir Rai Sharma

Language and culture are inherently related. A language is made up from elementary sound elements that are symbolically represented by letters of the corresponding alphabet. Words are made from these sound elements and each word represents a concept. The concept itself may be a product of the culture and, therefore, it may become very difficult to convey the concept from one language to another. This is one of the main problems in translating languages. One can translate the language but not the culture.

The limitations of words show up also in the same language. We often come up with a situation where we have an idea but do not find a way to express it. A person is forced to say: I don't know how to say it. It simply means that one has a concept but cannot find adequate words for describing it. Languages and words are meant for the things external to us, not for the inner world. The very purpose of language and words is to isolate aspects of the whole into parts and label them. So it always deals with concepts that are finite and can be easily conjured by the mind. In a general sense though, any mode of expression is a language.

There are, of course, languages without words. The sign language is the most common. Apart from the one used for hearing impaired persons there is the language of gestures. Here again the influence of culture comes in. The same gesture in one culture may denote an altogether different idea or concept in another. This usually leads to misunderstandings and even to awkward situations.

Classical dances in many cultures are perfect examples of expressing and communicating ideas without using words. Every aspect of the dance carries meaning and one has to know these nuances to fully appreciate the performance. Thoughts also find expression in gestures and physical movements. Of course thoughts can be also communicated passively. In the realm of occultism we have people with supernatural power of reading other's thoughts. In recent years there has been an attempt to understand these in terms of human energy fields and that imparts such phenomena a scientific categorization.

Another example of language without words is the language of mathematics, which uses symbols. Modern science cannot do without this language because the concepts involved at the fundamental level are impossible to express using the languages of the real world and cultures. To make unambiguous statements in the field of science it is necessary to resort to the abstract language of mathematics that has nothing in common with the languages we commonly use.

Then there is the imperceptible language that invokes feelings. The language of an image, whether of an object or of nature, does not involve words. Here the sight invokes feelings that no words can. We have all heard the phrase - a picture is worth a thousand words . An image conveys ideas that may not be possibly put into words. Facial expressions also belong to this category. A smile cannot be described in words and often it may mean different things in different circumstances. People have been interpreting Mona Lisa's smile forever.

The ultimate limitation of language and words is seen when one faces the task of describing the Reality behind the existence of the universe. The Reality being infinite eludes description for the very reason that it cannot be sliced into parts and categorized. We cannot say what it is; at the best we can say what it is not. That is where the famous words of the Vedas, "not this, not this" (neti, neti) come from.

Dharmbir Rai Sharma is a retired professor with an electrical engineering and physics background.

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