November 10, 2020  |  David R. Novak

Where Language Resides

Where Language Resides

Where is language? Kind of an odd question, I suppose, isn’t it? We have language in common — in that we all do it. It’s a primary mechanism of our interactions. Language is part of communication. But I ask again, where is it?

Language exists in a cloud that surrounds us. It comes from everywhere. The cloud grows around us, we get language passed to us and we absorb it just from being around other humans. Patterns reflect patterns.

We hear words, but rarely think about their power enough.

Languages change and language changes. They’re all different. Language preserves the past, expresses the present, and foreshadows the future. But we can also reject language. That is, we all talk in certain ways and not in others. Single humans can operate in language in multiple ways. Code-switching is evidence of this.

Jeff Lichtman, professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard who has studied how language works in the brain at the neurological level argues, “Language itself is a fundamentally linear process, where one idea leads to the next. But if the thing you’re trying to describe has a million things happening simultaneously, language is not the right tool.” [1] He’s certainly right about language being an inadequate tool to express things. I’d say that’s generally the case. But language certainly isn’t linear except in our perceptions of how it comes out of us. Language is far more rhizomatic and hierarchical.

Language isn’t the same as communication. Communication is the house, language is the tool. You can communicate in language’s absence.

Language Lives and Breathes

Plenty of people seem to think (or not think, I suppose) about language as static, much like many think about communication strangely enough. In reality of course, both are dynamic.

Language lives, breathes, and changes all the time. As a species we’re always remixing and adding to language as we go. Prescriptivism does not reflect reality. People make up words and create things. Language changes. A few years ago nobody knew what it meant to google anything (our data overlords) or a lick of Dothraki (GoT) or said holy forking shirtballs (Kristen Bell, The Good Place). But anyone can create language and that language might only have meaning within the context of a given relationship or tiny group, but that’s language changing right there.

Language isn’t confined to relationships, it scales up as well. Slogans, portmanteau, pronunciation play — it’s all up for grabs. Ask any rapper. Heck, Shakespeare is still known today in part because he created vast amounts of language including swagger, lackluster, and lonely — W.S. ~The Original Goth.

Language is in all our minds and on our tongues all at once — all of us. We change it and it changes us. It is potential energy — stored in us and used when we reach out — part of our communication attempts to connect in the mechanisms of meaning-making with others.

A Formative Language Experience

As a graduate student, I was able to do research at an organization called Passion Works as part of one of Dr. Lynn Harter’s research teams at Ohio University. I learned more than I could ever articulate, but one essential takeaway for me were some views on language.

Passion Works is an art studio serving the region in and around Athens, OH. I was able to be part of a team studying, helping, and otherwise volunteering with Passion Works as the fieldwork part of a bigger project on art, disability, creativity, and narratives. Our fieldwork consisted of volunteering, creating art, observing, helping, talking to participants. It was loose and creative. Very fun but emotional and reflective as well. Formative for me.

Passion Works’ hook was/is giving people with different abilities the chance to create and connect. All sorts of wonderful, colorful art was created in the process.

[[Art: Hippo by Carolyn Williams - A piece that hangs in my own home.]]

Passion Works was an amazing space to observe. It was raw and controlled and ordered at the same time. Many of the Passion Works artists could speak, though a few did not or were very difficult to understand. Some artists had language ticks that you had to navigate or ignore. Others could articulate why they were voting for George W. Bush or John Kerry — an important topic in Ohio around those times. Some language ticks or tendencies were difficult to impossible to navigate around and every conversation seemed the same — though they were not. Others were like talking to a friend or just being there while someone expressed themselves creatively. I’ve rarely felt care for others as I felt in my hours at Passion Works. Some of that care came out expressed through the language as part of communication.

Though I would generally classify the language elements of communicating at Passion Works as often difficult, this was despite it’s simplicity, and the beauty that came out was undeniable and profound. I have pondered certain fundamentals of human communication many times since those formative experiences — what I thought communication was, changed; my assumptions about how it works, shaken; and my profound belief in what was possible when people connected and acted together; confirmed.

Language doesn’t have to be flowery and colorful or complex to work. Though language certainly plays a major part in how we’re able to accomplish what we do in communication, meaning creation is possible well beyond language.

All these years later, I’m drawn back to those experiences of watching beautiful art come out of a process where communication was obviously flourishing, yet often felt like a struggle. Quite a paradox to reckon with.


So, uh, where is language again? Everywhere. Nowhere. In all of us. Potential energy. A key element of communication but it’s just that — one element. Language is wonderful. Revere it, play with it, have fun with it. But communication is bigger than just language.

Language can shape your reality. Don’t like how something is? Start talking about it differently and watch it and your perception change. Be more positive in your language and see what happens. Try communicating with more care towards others and see what results.

Language can indeed be wholly inadequate to represent experiences which is part of the reason that communication always fails to deliver an exact representation of reality to the mind of a communication counterpart.