This meaningless sentence was coined by Noam Chomsky, an American linguist and philosopher. It’s a perfect example of how a sentence can be grammatically correct yet have no semantic meaning whatsoever.
On first glance, I thought it was some deep metaphor. Memories of English class came flooding back, hours spent being forced to find hidden meanings. Teachers never seemed to accept my straightforward answers: “He wrote the sky was blue because the sky was blue.” No, they wanted some dramatically creative interpretation, so bullshit I did.
As impressive as human language is, sometimes it can be difficult to understand. Try your hand at understanding a few lines from a prestigious publication:
“A predominant concept is the distinction between without and within. If precapitalist socialism holds, we have to choose between the cultural paradigm of expression and the conceptualist paradigm of consensus. However, the subject is interpolated into a post dialectical libertarianism that includes art as a paradox.”
Completely understood? Nice job. Had a hard time getting it? You’re not alone. These lines are not some brilliant synthesis of socioeconomic paradigms of libertarianism; they’re complete linguistic jargon created by some online postmodernism generator. I lied about the prestigious publication part. But put something like this in an academic essay, and you might be applauded for your brilliant inspection of the state of man. It’s this type of convoluted jargon that makes me wonder who decided that more complicated was better.
We communicate with each other through language. It’s how we express our thoughts, feelings and ideas. Our channels of communication expands daily; from coffee chats to job interviews, texts to emails, we’re bombarded with messages from a variety of mediums. We communicate with each other through language, but language changes depending on the speaker’s personal experience and upbringing, and it adapts based on who we’re talking to, where we are and what mental state we’re in. Do you speak to your friends in a different way than how you speak to your professor? Compare your texts to your mom to an email for a job interview; they could be written by two entirely different individuals.
Words and concepts mean different things to different people. I may associate Starbucks with international comfort and well-designed branding, and you might associate it with a big corporation chasing profit and monopolizing the market. So when we decide to meet at the “cozy coffee shop on University Avenue,” we’ll show up at different places. Can you see how easily miscommunication occurs? If only all of our conversations were as innocent as where to grab a latte.
Our world and personal realities are shaped by our past experiences and genetic makeup, and language is our expression of that. We need to move away from the crutch of language when expressing ourselves. An evolution to include different forms of communication, whether through dance, music or some other form, could be extremely beneficial in our understanding of one another. Though dependent on culture and upbringing, these various forms of art reach beyond words. Have you ever cried from a performance or felt a visceral connection to a photograph that you couldn’t describe with sentences? These are levels of emotion that humans are capable of but which are beyond the scope of verbal language.
An Austrian philosopher named Wittgenstein once said, “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” Thoughtful, but I disagree. I recall a summer trip to Mongolia. I was there with a small group to spread awareness about domestic violence in the country. Our team partnered with a dozen kids from the city’s youth circus, all smiling, boisterous children who didn’t speak a word of English. I connected with kids in the Mongolian countryside by making music and playing together. Dance, art and physical interaction are all ways in which our world expands beyond the limits of language.
This change to a more fluid form of self-expression is already happening around us. Facebook switched from the dual “like” or “comment” options to a more expansive array of reactions: hearts, smileys, frowns and more. No longer will we have to feel that awkward sense of “liking” a friend’s unfortunate status update. These emotional reactions give both the user and receiver the freedom and flexibility to express a broader range of responses with more accuracy.
Understanding each other isn’t an easy task. It takes a lot of consideration, patience and empathy, but true human connection is one of the most rewarding feelings one can experience. It’s worth the effort to be open and expressive with the ways we communicate. Let emotion and movement into the mix. It could be the difference between a horrible misunderstanding and a beautiful friendship.
Contact Maika Isogawa at misogawa ‘at’ stanford.edu.