I recently finished The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts, and one concept fired up unused neural pathways in my brain. It is this idea that words can only be described or defined with other words. The meaning of any single word is not self-sufficient. Ergo, any language made up of words is dependent on the relationships between words. There is no set of first-principle words that are self-evident.
This brings to mind a certain earthshaking theorem by Kurt Gödel. The incompleteness theorem is not easy to summarize, but its implications are basically this: for any mathematical system, there will always be true statements that cannot be proven true or false statements than can be proven true. Of course, language is not strictly a logical or mathematical system. But maybe some intuition can be found here. It’s the problem of asking ‘what does it mean’ over and over again.
Jacques Derrida, who came up with deconstruction, describes this with the idea of différance. Watch the following video from 8 Bit Philosophy.
But wait, what if there were some words complete unto themselves? Or, some words that if you tried to explain, you only ended up obfuscating? Are there some words that morph and change with frequency?
An Imitation Game
Let’s tackle the first question. A word that is self-sufficient in meaning. Think a while if such words even exist. Are there any words that you don’t need to look up in a dictionary?
The answer is onomatopoeia.
While it’s a handful to pronounce, we are all familiar with such words. Brrrr, bam!, boing, buzz are some examples. Now, some of these words do have dictionary definitions, and sometimes your understanding of what the word refers to might be aided somewhat. However, you might agree that these are a form of ‘words unto themselves’. Look at comic books, for example. It may be necessary to drill children into understanding that the sound apple refers to this fruit by ceaseless pointing and uttering. But once they can convert graphemes (written marks) into phonemes (units of sound), comic strips are easy to understand.
The meaning of onomatopoeia is taken as to ‘imitate sound’. In the Nepali (Parbatiya) language, too, such words are referred to as अनुकरणात्मक , where अनुकरण means mimesis. The Greek origin, however, suggests ‘word/name making’. It is not a stretch to say that perhaps in many cultures, the origins of language is tied to imitating natural sounds, trying to capture them in an ur-word. (Some researchers agree.)
Some other forms of non-denotation exist, such as scat singing, mumble rap and vonlenska, a language ‘invented’ by the band Sigur Ros.
We can define a buzz as the sound a bee makes, though. If someone has not experienced a bee firsthand, this might aid their comprehension. Another catch: onomatopoeia differs among cultures, often dramatically. Does this mean a clock actually goes tick-tock in English speaking countries, but tik-tik in India, dī dā in China and katchin katchin in Japan? Or is even onomatopoeia tainted by other words in that language?
Let’s move on to the next thought. Are there words that lose meaning as you describe them?
It’s Hard to Explain
Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process. - E.B. White
If a joke loses humor when analyzed, there may be some words that lose purpose when defined. We considered mimetic words, but what about memes?
The term meme was coined by Richard Dawkins to refer to units of culture that replicated through imitation. While sites like Know Your Meme try to explain the different memes that crop up on the Internet, the best they can do is provide a sample. Surreal memes are even more frustrating to try and explain.
Slang also factors into this hard-to-explain phenomenon. There is a local word I’m particularly fond of that was common in my hometown of Pokhara, Nepal: झप्स (pronounced /dʒɒps/). This word originates from gang-terminology and captured attention of young kids of that era. A close relative would be the word shiv.
It is most certainly a weapon, like a shiv. Unlike a shiv, it does not have to be improvised - even a sword can be a झप्स. But even a saw blade can be categorized as a झप्स, if used in the proper gang-revenge manner. Now, even as I am defining the word, its potency for myself decreases. The urgency of the situation - one of life, death or likely injury - is lost in translation to the dictionary.
We’ll revisit this obfuscation later again. Let us now consider words that change the more you look at them or utter them.
At times, I am baffled by brain. Not my brain, but the lexical term. The more I look at it, the weirder it seems. Bray-in? First of all, the grapheme-phoneme dissonance seems unnecessary. Why not just write brein and be done with it? Secondly, the ‘ai’ in the middle just irks me. Brian seems fine and dandy, a passable name. But the more I analyze brain, the more I am convinced that my own noggin made up this word.
This is known as semantic satiation. When you inspect, analyze or repeat a word or phrase enough, it loses its meaning for a while. These words seem to be hollow shells which any meaning can inhabit with ease.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the primary tool of many religions and mystics around the globe. From mantras to prayer hymns and chantings, repetition of certain words features heavily in the day-to-day business of belief. This practice is found also in different forms of music, including Sufi Qawwalis and genres that heavily feature loop pedals.
The effect is undeniable if you have experienced it. The words meld and flow, slithering outwards from their original meanings; they become colorful with shades of intonation and duration becoming more apparent.
A majority of Hindu and Buddhist hymns are in Sanskrit, and one particular discussion among scholars is thought-provoking. Sanskrit is supposed to have competed with Prakritic languages, which can be translated as natural languages. The division between Sanskrit and Prakrit is one of purity vs naturality. Prakrit is instinctive to children, and it is not a stretch to connect onomatopoeia to this proto-language. Sanskrit, on the other hand stands on the sublime purity of grammar.
According to Ermes Marana, a character in Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler,
…literature’s worth lies in its power of mystification, in mystification it has its truth; therefore a fake, as the mystification of a mystification, is tantamount to a truth squared.”
This guy creates a secret society - the Organization of Apocryphal Power - which later splits into two sects. One, the ‘Archangel of Light’, proclaim themselves enlightened, and are tracking down ‘true’ books among the numerous fake ones in the world. Their counterpart, the ‘Archon of Shadow’, are nihilists who believe that only the highest level of falsehood represents value, ergo truth.
I think these two groups represent quite nicely our spectrum of words.
At one extreme, there are words closer to physical phenomena that predate meaning. At the other end, there are words that transcend meaning and seem to have an essence of their own.
If some sort of truth is to be found in words, where would one start to look? Or do you agree with Derrida and deconstruction, that no objective truth can be found? Would that realization not be a sort of truth, however, and an end to the relentless search? This hurts my brein, ergghhh.