If two strangers meet at a bus stop, pretty soon they talk

If two strangers meet at a bus stop, pretty soon they talk

The pictures in our heads are better than the pictures on the screen

Usually they’d start with the weather. Perhaps the bus schedule if theirs is running late. Then on to more impersonal trivia. But the need to connect is very real. Most of us want to be accepted and and to be accepting socially, most of the time.

Psychologists have found that one of the most difficult tasks they can give to volunteers is to put two people in a room and tell them not to talk to each other

Naturally enough most people when asked would offer the opinion that the whole point of language is for communication with others. We chat, we bare our souls, we argue, we opinionate, we instruct or give orders, we cajole and we flatter. We say all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons and listen and read and reach agreement or find inspiration or end up thinking that the other person is hopelessly stupid. And sometimes we do all of these things on FaceBook.

But modern language theory suggests that communication, which of course means communication with others, is a minor and secondary function. The deepest thinkers about thinking now tend to believe that language is first and foremost an internal matter. In this view our language ability is principally a benefit to thought. Furthermore, it is argued that most language never emerges from our brains.

If you think about it for a few moments – by which I mean, if you talk to yourself about it – that immediately becomes obvious. We incessantly carry on conversations with ourselves – at least until we take up Buddhist meditation and try to make our monkey brains stop talking. Although my experience with meditation some decades ago suggests to me that no matter how successful we might be in stopping the internal dialogue, it comes snap the link now back with a vengeance when we quit saying “Ohm!”

We talk to ourselves. We argue with ourselves. We lapse into sing-song when an ear-worm infects us with a favorite song. We think about what we should have said or what we ought to say. We remember past conversations and imagine future ones.

But it goes much deeper than that. It seems that our innate ability for language, the so-called “language gene” has equipped us with a language that is deeper than the sum of all the words we know. There exists an interior “knowing” that is expressed in our thoughts but which very often fails when we attempt public expression.

Have you ever seen the movie version of a book you have previously read and loved? My own experience, and an experience I have often heard repeated by others, is that the movie version fell short in some way. That falling short, despite the best efforts of screen writers, directors and actors, is, I think, because we have created an interior version, triggered by the author’s words, that is deeper and richer and more nuanced than the attempted transcription. Our interior version is expressed in ideas we can’t easily articulate, because the language of exterior communication is so much more limited than our personal internal vocabulary.

Imagine for a moment what it might have been like to be the first human being with a language gene with an innate ability to put thoughts together in a row. Of course, when I say “imagine for a moment” I mean talk to yourself for a moment. Our closest living primate relatives, the chimpanzees, have been tested extensively and show not the slightest evidence that they possess the faculty of linguistic thought. They can learn some sign language, for example, but are completely unable to distinguish between specifying an apple, the place where an apple might be stored, the knife that cuts the apple, the person providing the apple, and often the difference between an apple and some other treat.