There’s a funny thing about language. We all speak at least one (I’m assuming, that as you’re reading this, you speak English) and to you it just sounds normal. It sounds like all those little syllables correctly signify what you are trying to express. Once you know what the word signifies, you can’t unlearn it. Every time you hear it your mind will automatically translate that into something you understand. So even when you’re listening to a conversation in a foreign language it’ll mostly sounds like random noises until you catch a word you know.
If you weren’t fluent in English but knew the odd word it’d probably sound a lot like this…
Sadly no one has made an equivalent for other languages. I personally wanted to hear a German one but no such luck, just a bunch of muppets making bad jokes based on stereotypes. So what does this video do other than prove English sounds weird if you don’t speak it? Well it’s the perfect segue for me to lead you on to more tricky aspects of looking at language…
Ferdinand de Saussure is a name that brings a chill to the heart and sends fear through the bones of any literature or linguistics student (possibly an exaggeration). I’ll make him sound more pleasant and refer to him as Ferdie. He’s one of those guys that gets a whole lecture (maybe two) because he had some grand ideas apparently. For Ferdie, “Language is a system of signs that express ideas.” And to be honest it doesn’t sound that profound so far, more of a ‘no shit Sherlock’ moment. But the key word there is ‘signs’ because he had this theory that words by themselves have zero meaning. Ferdie thought words were simple signifiers for larger concepts (the signified). For example the word ‘stop’, on it’s own means very little but language and our societal understanding of the sound of ‘stop’ means we understand we must cease whatever it is we are doing (this shit gets even more complex when you then think, well ‘cease’ is a signifier too so how do I explain that without using ‘stop’?)
Another example is seeing the word ‘open’ on a shop front. It doesn’t innately mean anything, but we know that it means the shop is open. So the word ‘open’ is the signifier, and that the shop is available to customers is the signified. And more recent theorists and critics have made this even more minimalist. The word ‘house’ brings to mind a house, choosing the word ‘chair’ is pretty vague but you probably won’t be thinking of a throne.
All this just means words have no meaning. All language is rubbish. There are zero reasons for why a desk must be called a desk, we could have called it a jalky. But isn’t that what’s so special about language too though? This seemingly never ending variety of sounds, syllables and pronunciations that mean nothing are somehow turned into a way for us to communicate with each other. Language with no innate meaning allows us to have thought, explain our thoughts and write our blog posts… a bit mind boggling really, to try and think about words having no meaning but somehow they express meaning.
I’m not sure I totally agree that words are valueless but it’s been a long time since this concept was introduced to me and I still can’t think of a good example for a word or sound that has innate meaning. Shouting ‘no’ only has meaning regardless of language barriers because you shouted it. At my core I want to reject Ferdie’s claims because, can a book that tells a wonderful story full of emotion and imagination really just be pages of valueless words?
But I have been unable to disprove his theories thus far.
Jalky had no meaning in the English language until we talked about it meaning desk. To the select few that read this post, a random selection of letters has now been given meaning. So as a small group of people when we hear the word jalky our brain is going to translate that into a desk, though the chances of us hearing that word are pretty small.
Knowing that words have no meaning until they are given meaning by a society kind of makes me want to invest in word of the day toilet paper. The more words you know, the more you can express!