Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Language Unleashed :: Words in the Radiolab

Words, words, words.  What are they?  We know that they are slippery things, as Shakespeare reminds us.  Their power to confound is as great as their power to shape beauty and feeling.  With words we can encapsulate the quintessence of man and capture the conscience of a king... or we can fritter them away and let meaning slip our fingers. 

But is society possible without them?

Nowhere (outside of Shakespeare) is this discussion more artfully encompassed (at least in my opinion) than on a recent show called Radiolab.  And in fact, no discussion of language - least of all the English language - can be undertaken without delving into Shakespeare, so much of our modern language and idiom owes much of its existence to his prolific pen.  Ranging from the deaf learning their way in a world of noises they cannot hear to the scribblings of the Bard of Avon, the Radiolab guys trace what words are, what they mean and how the connect with meaning in our brains.

How much human society is possible without words?  How much has language formed us rather than the other way around?

I should point out that when I first encountered this story, I came in toward the end.  And I didn't like what I heard.  I got in the car, turned on the engine and got only the end of the story.  Lacking any of the necessary context to understand the discussion already underway, I found it difficult to catch up.  From what I was able to glean, I couldn't really grok what they were on about. 

The show regularly paints word pictures and challenges the bounds of radio, stretching the possibilities of the spoken word.  Their give & take format and conversational progression intercut with interviews and soundbytes is an artful way to present stories, but this is both blessing and curse because as I discovered, it makes it difficult to come in late.

I couldn't catch up.  So I did what I always do -- I went looking for the answers and found the podcast and listened to the end, astounded that what had seemed unsupported assumptions about the nature of language were - of course - much more than that.  In fact, many of my own assumptions about words and the structure of language and thought were at fault.  Whether or not any of that is true, the story is just as amazing and beautiful as I knew it had to be.  It is a journey and to jump in in the middle is to do a disservice to your storyteller and your fellow travelers.

At this point you would be well-served to take an hour and listen to the original and moving episode "Words" HERE.

When I took the time to listen to the full show, my mind was blown.  Thoughts were provoked, gobs were smacked, and the relationship between words and symbolism and the physical objects they refer to took on new depth and meaning.

I'm still assimilating it all.  I'm not entirely sure I agree with every conclusion, but it is nonetheless a fascinating story, artfully told and it's a darn fine way to spend an hour of your life.  Take it from me, I'm parsimonious with my hours and this is one I don't want back.

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc'd it to you,
trippingly on the tongue...


As a bonus, below is a followup video to the show, further exploring the topic.  Two Radiolab contributors bring us out of the radio and into a visual style of wordplay in "an exploration of how language connects our inner thoughts to the outside world." 

Beautifully done!

1 comment:

  1. Great read, sir! The thought of a wordless society intrigues me, while causing me to long for a rapport with those who do not communicate verbally. What a potentially powerful audience to be captured; moreover, what an innovative method for writers to appeal to their readers sensually--sans the sense of hearing. Somehow, I believe that a greater sense of society can be captured without words; however, it will take a great deal of mastery of non-verbal communication and someone willing to attack non-verbal communication barriers on a huge scale.


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).