The Language of Everything

Everything has a language. By that, I mean everything is a history and usually can only be truly appreciated in context of the history around it. This history forms the linguistics of understanding something on a deeper level. And I do mean EVERYTHING. From plumbing to architecture to sculpture and stories, if you don’t engage in the larger context around something, you might enjoy it, but you won’t understand it.

I was struck by this when I read a post recently asking: “If you meet someone who has never seen a movie, what movies would you introduce them to first?” The answers, well meaning, were almost always film classics like Casablanca or Citizen Kane or The Godfather, etc, etc. The problem with these answers is that all these movies (and more) are complex studies in filmmaking. Regardless of how one might feel about them, each relies on a reasonable understanding of filmmaking language to really understand.

I’m reminded of Farenheit 451, where when our protagonist and his wife try to read a book for the first time, they are literally overwhelmed by it. The basic language of writing, of ideas, is impossible for them to grasp. So much so, that it is a distressing, anxiety-ridden experience.

Lately, I’ve been thinking more and more about this Language Gap. It’s obvious in so many regards. I know almost nothing about mechanical engineering, so when someone tries to share a basic idea in that field, something anyone remotely familiar with it would understand, I’m at a loss. It’s not that I don’t want to understand. It’s that I can’t. I don’t have access to the mental tools. Pop culture is the same thing.

There’s a scene in Man of Steel where a young Clark Kent stands in a field, hands on hips, towel wrapped around his shoulders like a red cape flapping in the breeze. It’s meant to be iconic, and for us, the audience, sure it works. We know who Clark grows up to be. But on a storytelling level, it falls apart because who the heck is young Clark pretending to be? We, as the audience, have had this image seared into our popular culture. Even if you haven’t ever read or seen a Superman story, you probably recognize the character and the pose. But why would Clark Kent find this appealing? What about this makes any sense in the cultural language of a fictional character where Superman has yet to appear?

It doesn’t, but it’s easy to miss for the audience because the language of that pose is so second nature.

“Use the force, Luke!”

Without Star Wars, that line makes little sense. Though now, it’s so ingrained in our culture that even people who have never seen a Star Wars film understand what it means. It’s become cultural default, something that can be used without worry about losing the audience. There are millions of such additions that we don’t even notice.

“Beam me up, Scotty.”

“Autobots, roll out.”

“Hulk smash!”

“Play it again, Sam.”

And so on.

The thing about language though is that it’s really easy to forget that you’re using it. It becomes such a default understanding that we eventually expect everyone to share our understanding. You’re reading this sentence effortlessly, but for someone without the right tools, it’s just gibberish.

So it is with all language, including the language of storytelling.

There’s a reason we start kids with simple media. It’s not because kids are stupid, but because they need to develop the tools to understand. We all start on the ground floor and climb our way up, step-by-step. Most people only climb as far as they need to function comfortably, but that’s a post for another day.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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  1. Frank Limido
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Dear Lee, you read my mind. And what you say is absolutely true, even for “basic” language. Language is a tool, a tool that might help you to understand and survive in this game called “society”. It’s a game; you know the rules, you can follow them (or bend them), but you got to know them, it’s capital if you want to survive. Same thing for more specialized languages, corporate languages, meta languages, foreign languages. If you cannot say what you feel or what you want, how can you obtein it? How can you live with others if you can’t express what you think or what you want to say? “Mal nommer les choses, c’est ajouter au malheur du monde” disait Camus. (“To name things wrongly is to add to the misfortune of the world”). I could write books about that, but I’m not clever enough and I don’t want to spoil your blog with my iddle thinkings.
    Anyway, excuse my bad english, for I am of the french persuasion, and give us another of your great novels very soon.
    Yours kindly

  2. Philip
    Posted July 11, 2017 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    Yep. Just as the cultural references that allow us to think we understand Citizen Kane or The Godfather are buried in our history of watching other films and media, our language has abstracted so far from its metaphorical roots that its etymology is often mysterious. Therefore, said Babel, we cannot communicate. Heh.

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