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Are you unable to think about things you don’t have words for, or do you lack words for them because you don’t think about them?

How do I tell you exactly what I mean? Words, words, words! What words do I use?

It doesn’t matter because you read the same words and your brain processes them differently than my intent may have been when writing them. Trying to convey a situation or feeling exactly, through writing, is ironically crippled by the language used to describe it. As soon as they are read, the writer’s words are subject to the interpretation of readers with their own thoughts and biases. Even if this game of “telephone” is transmitted perfectly in the technical sense, the interpretations and ideas may be limited by the language being used.

The tragedy of writing (and perhaps the beauty, too) is in the ambiguity of words and what they mean.

It’s what electricians and plumbers would call a “line loss” problem. You need a way to convey things (electricity with wires, water with pipes, ideas with words) but there is unavoidable loss in the transmission itself. Anyone who has tripped a breaker by plugging in too many extension cords has experienced this.

Just as well, there is no way for the writer to take her feelings at the very moment and be sure that the reader is experiencing exactly what she wants to convey. The writer is forced to use a language, a very limited array of words and letters, to transmit thoughts and emotions not only to a different place, but also to a reader who only exists in the future. And on top of being in a different space and time, the reader and writer have lived completely different lives. So everything has a slightly different meaning.

The trouble with words is that there are only so many… And I only know so few.

A painter mixes paint to get the exact hue she needs. A musician rifs off into an extravagant solo to express things through her instrument. And in the world of physics and mathematics, calculus and derivatives express the concept of everything in between numbers.

The emotional world we are living in is filled with in betweens and uncertainties, but these things are expressed with concrete words and language. I’d say it is quite impossible to express the entirety of this human experience with any limit of vocabulary and lexicon.

To go back to the painter, she is equipped with only three colors. But with practice, she mixes these colors ever so precisely to obtain the perfect shade she wants. Only three colors! And through mixing and mixing ever so delicately come the masterpieces of Pablo Picasso, Georgia O’Keefe, and Vincent van Gogh. How many times do we have to keep mixing words and letters to get enough ideas to exactly transmit what needs to be said?

This NPR article takes a deeper dive into how the Chinese language seemingly affects the way they memorize numbers. Because the Chinese numbers are all one syllable, they are quicker to think. Easy to memorize in comparison to English.

The Hopi speaking people of northern Arizona are said to think about the concept of time differently than the English notion of a timeline. For them it is a continuous cycle that doesn’t need to be divided up into hours, minutes, or seconds. They have no words for these concepts. And if you just sat up and said, “But how?!” then you are getting my point.

A different language offers an entirely different way to think.

Do people who think in Japanese have Japanese thoughts and feelings? Is my empathetic capacity restricted to the words I have in my brain?

The Quechua people of South America have a word, “Kusikuni,” which was described to me as “the whole body being engulfed in joy.” Most English-speaking people would describe joy in only the head or mind, but the Quechua people can access an entirely different feeling and experience, simply by the existence of a word.

Imagine, if you can, your whole entire body being warmed and overcome with joy. Joy through your fingertips and toes as well as your ears and smile and elbows and shoulder blades. Now that you know it exists, can you feel it?

What’s more fascinating is that the person described it to me (an English speaker herself, might not have fully grasped the concept) almost made me feel something I’d imagine to be close to this feeling with the expressions and mannerisms she used just talking about Kusikuni, which does not even translate directly into English. I will have to live with potentially not knowing what this feels like, or accept the fact that even if I do feel it, I will need more than words to convey the feeling to people who haven’t come across it yet.

Take the long-standing philosophical question, how to I describe colors to a person born blind? What is blue?

Or a more fun example, how would a person describe what sex feels like to the opposite sex? Even in that sentence I am relying on you to know the difference between multiple usages of the same word.

But let’s keep it PG-13 and take the word “love” for example. Because it is apparently all that I write about. There are SO MANY meanings behind the idea of love. But the word can mean many things.

I love you in the way exiled souls love each other when they meet in the desert.

is quite a different phrase than

I love to travel.

What is the right combination of words to perfectly express the feeling that washed over me as I sat alone one evening and watched the sunset over the water from the dunes of Cape Cod on a cold night in February? And do the sounds of the waves come into play here? How do I describe this scene perfectly?

Even if I’ve taken extreme care to describe a scene or situation, how readers interpret it and apply their own context means it will never fully convey exactly what I meant. You’ll never know what I saw or felt at that sunset.

Should the writer keep adding words to try and place a reader exactly where she wants them? Set the scene perfectly? Or is there beauty in the blank spaces between the thoughts?

How could I possibly describe the sense of joy and laughter that I was filled with after receiving a simple text of nothing but a GIF from my sister, poking fun at how weird a family situation was? You might be able to relate to a situation where you belly-laughed (even being all by yourself), but there will never be a word for exactly the type of humor my sister conveyed.

What if you have felt a something that there is no word for yet? Something in between exact words that no one has mixed together yet.

Even the thoughts in your brain are a culmination of the words that you think in; the voice in your head is a lifetime of influences working inside your mind even when you think you are alone in your room. So it begs the questions: have we ever had a purely original, unbiased thought?

Do we ever even know what we really mean?

Billy Hafferty

Billy Hafferty is probably still hanging out of the passenger side of his best friend's ride trying to holler at you.

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