The Unbearable Preciseness of Language

First, accept my heartfelt apology in advance for employing the word preciseness over precision. I was seeking a term closer to lightness, a conceit to the Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Audio: Podcast rendition of this page content

It appears that I am at odds with Iain McGilchrist if I am interpreting The Master and His Emissary correctly, His position is that verbal and written language is too precise for accurate communication. Gestures and facial queues are necessary to convey the entire payload; otherwise, it is easy to miss nuances in empathy and metaphor. Missing most are signals conveyed by the eyes, which are interpreted by the right hemisphere. The left hemisphere is more concerned with the mouth.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, the position I’ve asserted for years is that of the insufficiency of language. As diametric as this might seem at face value, I feel that it’s both, and it depends on the words and the contexts, though it feels that we are in disagreement here as well.

It’s long been said that the eyes are the window to the soul, and these people were onto something. The eyes convey emotional content to be interpreted by the right hemisphere. This hemisphere is all about seeing the big picture as well as metaphor.

The left hemisphere is more concerned with maps and symbols, so it is looking at the mouth and lips for minute details.

People with right hemisphere deficits can’t decode meta information conveyed by the eyes. Practically, this means that they can’t interpret metaphor, innuendo, sarcasm or humour. This is also the case for schizophrenics and people further right on the autism spectrum, including those with Asperger’s syndrome. I don’t know if the connexion between these psychological conditions and right hemisphere effects is due to a deficient right hemisphere or something related to the communication channel between the hemispheres. This has not yet been mentioned.

I also find it interesting that this deficit creates a situation where a sufferer can’t discern a joke from a lie, which is telling. In a manner of thinking, a joke is a bit of an untruth or stretching a fact or omitting some details to make a point, so without the larger context that this is the purpose of the joke, it might easily be interpreted as a lie.

All of this is interesting, but these are not the insufficiencies I am concerned with. In these cases, these deficits inhibit the receipt of relevant information. My contention involves the majority of people—the ones we term as ‘normal’.

One of my pet peeves is weasel words. Justice is a big one among these. I wonder if he feels that the Gestalt of the right hemisphere is what I am missing. This is the pornography the US Supreme Court judge, Potter Stewart, who says he can’t define it, but he’ll know it when he sees it. I say that this imprecision is meant to allow for arbitrary and capricious application on a whim or to meat some ulterior motive. This is decidedly not a problem of over-precision, and this is where I hold issue. Can it be too precise, too sharp to a point it needs the edges rounded? Yes. I can see that as well.

Intermission

I feel that missing non-verbal cues is a massive challenge for videoconference calls—even when the audience is one-to-one. First, the resolution needs to be high enough to see the eyes and face, so the person needs to be in frame and not one of several people barely discernible, presume, of course, that they are showing themselves on camera at the start.

Assuming that the resolution and lighting are appropriate and the person’s face is framed in a manner to reveal their eyes and mouth, gesticulation and body language are likely missing, so we are missing more non-verbal cues. I’ll also assume that we can discern aspects of prosody which as timbre, pitch, and intonation.

Add to this a videoconference with multiple participants. Sure, you might be able to see all of the faces, but there is still something missing from these thumbnail views. In some cases, I’ve seen long shots, say, in a conference room, but the detail is notably lacking. No nuance here.

Can we adapt to this situation? Yes, Of course. Should you meet in person where it’s possible and importance is of the utmost? Of course. You’d be a tone-deaf fool not to.

Epilogue

The last point I’d like to make about language being too precise is that for an erudite person like McGilchrist, it just might be, but most people don’t have large vocabularies and have barely adequate grammatical skills. They are hardly at risk of precision. An apt analogy might be to liken them to three-year-olds with crayons—no offence to three-year-olds with crayons. Plenty of people are a step or two above functional illiteracy, but that’s not saying much. To these people, language is less of a sword than it is a blunt instrument, a proverbial bag of bowling balls.

Voltaire once quipped that he’d have written a shorter letter if he had the time, noting the effort necessary for concision. The problem with trying to encode a message not conveyable by body language into a document is that its word count might need to double or treble, which I argue would at the same time reduce interest and comprehension, opening room to misinterpret the intent—all because missing non-verbal queues were lost.

In the end, I am doubling down on my position. Language is insufficient for all but the simplest and basic communication, and it is not too precise. The word McGilchrist is looking for is blunt.

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