I’m reading In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent. My nephew is inventing a language and I’m trying to make myself useful. (I can tell he’ll be absolutely astonished if I’m any help at all.)
Sometimes the motive for a new language is clarity. Inventors want to eliminate the uncertainties contained in a sentence like “I spoke to a man on the boat.” (Was he on the boat? Was I on the boat? Were we on the boat?)
It turns out to be tough to make a language that’s perfectly clear, and one of the pleasures of In the Land of Invented Languages is observing the linguistic and other conniptions that result from this quest for clarity.
Finally, though, Okrent wonders whether the quest isn’t wrong-headed.
Ambiguity, or fuzziness of meaning, is not a flaw of natural language but a feature that gives it flexibility and that, for whatever reason, suits our minds and the way we think. Likewise, the fact that languages depend on arbitrary convention or cultural habit is not a flaw but a feature that allows us to rein in the fuzziness by establishing agreed-upon meanings at different levels of precision. Language needs its “flaws” in order to do the enormous range of things we use it for. (p. 258)
This will come as good news to the blogging community. Personally, I intend to use Okrent’s discovery as license for the several places in this blog where you may be asking yourself ok, what’s he saying that isn’t really all that clear to you the reader as a meaning co-creator in so many different ways?
But the larger “take away” is “don’t look down.” Our lives depend on architectures of meanings, as those come to us from language and from culture. And these architectures are sometimes a little underspecified. They are a little more like the “building concept” drawings than the actual blue prints.
Normally, the seams don’t show. (Make that the “seems don’t show.”) We take for granted that the architecture of meaning can bear our weight. Furthermore, a certain kind of story teller, entertainer and brander reassures us that we occupy a deep, resonant, redundant, completely seamless world. (Other artists like to take us to the edge of the built world and invite us to look over the edge.)
Over the last couple of weeks here, I’ve been looking at the possibility that popular culture is improving, that it’s becoming more like culture. But this, the imperfections and insecurities of meaning, may be the one place that popular culture will never go. Well, let’s watch and see. If and when popular culture does take us to the edge, this can be a measure of how much it has thrown off its “popular” mandate, conditions, and constraints.
And on this note, I’ve been watching The Kroll Show and Inside Amy Shumer on Comedy Central. There are moments when it’s good (and wicked clever) fun, but there are moments when you are being asked to stare into the abyss. (Thanks, Nick! Thanks, Amy!) This might be evidence.