Symbolically

Today is the first day of school for everyone but my oldest, who started last week. I have hours of free time all to myself once more, and we’ve spent the last two weeks moving and unpacking and settling in to our new house, which means I can finally start writing regularly again. Right? Well…today didn’t go exactly as planned, as I had a miserable night of sleep thanks to random indigestion, and I could barely drag myself out of bed. It certainly doesn’t help that it’s another day of record highs for September. Blech. Once the kids were happily at school, I basically just collapsed back into bed. Good-bye, theoretically productive morning. And I’m well aware that even with two or so hours left, I’m not going to have much success getting into my novel again just yet. My writing muscles are rather sadly atrophied. Hence, this post. I’m hoping to jump-start my brain with a little random mulling. If nothing else, I can articulate some of the bits and pieces of what’s been floating around the back of my brain lately.

I want to write about symbols. More specifically, how they permeate pretty much every aspect of what sets humans apart from other life forms. I wrote in an earlier post about how remarkable writing systems are, but it goes even deeper than that. A symbol is, at its simplest level, something that has little to no intrinsic meaning on its own. Yet we imbue it with some kind of association or correlation, and suddenly it carries meaning. This is the very essence of our ability to communicate in complex language systems. Sure, lots of animals have simple calls or gestures, and as humans we can even teach them to understand more, but nothing that comes even close to the vast and varied symbology of human language.

Let’s consider, first off, how many potential sounds can be produced by the human vocal tract. Just by slightly adjusting the shape of that tract, we can create dozens, arguably even hundreds of vowel sounds. Then if we start blocking the flow of air, we have stops (full obstruction), fricatives (vibration), nasals (block the mouth to send air out the nose), and far more that I could list if I pulled out my old phonology textbooks. But not a single one of those sounds has any inherent, intrinsic, universal meaning. Think of it. Even simple interjections like “Ah!” “Oh!” or “Ow!” vary from language to language, though it feels completely reflexive to utter them when you’re surprised or hurt or excited. I realized this when I noticed that my non-verbal son never says “Ow” when he’s hurt. He’s more likely to just cry, or perhaps let out a prolonged “Aaaaah” sound. We learn to endow each sound or collection of sounds with meaning, but until we do, they’re just meaningless sounds, empty symbols.

Consider our approximation of animal sounds, some of the most obvious cases of onomatopoeia. Even when language is at its most literal, look at the variation that shows up. Pick one of those sounds at random without looking at which animal it’s supposed to represent. Can you guess? You might, if it’s really close to a sound effect. But I doubt any non-English speaker would immediately guess a rooster’s crow for “cock-a-doodle-doo.” Yet any young child who knows English could tell you in an instant.

Of course it becomes much more extreme once you go on to non-imitative words. Why do we think of an object for sitting when we hear the word chair? There is nothing about that combination of sounds that has anything to do with sitting or furniture. Yet its association is so potent that you probably have a default image of that word tucked away in the file cabinets of your brain, and that image leaps forward every time you hear it. The same thing happens for non-English speakers, with a completely separate combination of sounds for the word for chair. We are all the same species, yet we have no inborn set of verbal symbols that all of us immediately recognize upon birth. Instead we have an almost infinitely flexible inborn ability to take hold of a vast lexicon of symbols that are presented to us, and attach the requisite meaning to them. When new words or even whole languages are formed, there is usually an initial attempt at literalness. If you look at the comparatively new languages of signing among deaf communities, you might be able to guess at the literal image a sign is approximating. Over time, however, those literalist tones become more and more obscured by pure abstract symbology. This isn’t a negative thing. It allows far more flexibility in how we use individual words and language as a whole; the ability to express metaphors and abstract concepts. It’s tremendously versatile. It has no comparison among the communication systems of any other life forms. It is uniquely human.

Symbols matter. We are constantly creating new ones, in language and otherwise. And their absence of literal meaning is not a point against them; their very utility depends upon it. What am I getting at here? Well, one of the things I find most enjoyable about world-building in my novels is creating fictional religions or mythologies, and with that all the trappings of ritual and symbology that would presumably characterize the peoples and cultures. And as I’ve imagined what exactly would comprise those rituals and symbols, I’ve come to realize that by its very nature, a lot of symbology is going to look kind of odd or random to an outsider. Because to them it’s just a motion or a gesture or a collection of behaviors that carries little to no intrinsic value. They are essentially hearing a babble of sounds without meaning. But that does not mean it’s universally meaningless. The culture that involves those rituals would see strong, vivid associations within every gesture. It’s the way our brains are wired. When we perform a task over and over, it becomes associated with any accompanying thoughts or feelings. It serves as a reminder of things. It is the reason we are inclined toward habitual behavior. The tendency to form habits is  neutral. It can lead to great good if we use it for our benefit (something as simple as brushing our teeth every morning). It can be devastating if we allow it to spiral us into addictive or compulsive behaviors. And it can make the apparently empty gestures of a ritual profoundly meaningful.

I’ve never heard anyone argue that because most of our words don’t have a basis in literal meaning, we should just disregard them. I seriously doubt that any reasonable person would deride our species for letting out an intricate series of modified air flows that don’t mean anything to a non-native speaker, and demand that they start speaking more literally, with concrete, purely onomatopoeic expressions. That would be absurd. And yet we do criticize other things we don’t understand because we can’t see any meaning beneath the abstract trappings. That’s sadly short-sighted. Understanding the world through symbols isn’t just a thing we can do. It’s the very definition of who we are as humans.

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