Over the past few years, I’ve taught a lesson, slightly varied, on the subjective nature of language. Before the rambunctious youth enter the classroom, I write on the whiteboard: “I told you I didn’t take your money.” As the children file in, they notice the sentence; some ask questions, which I don’t answer. As the bell rings, I tell the students to look at the sentence on the board, and answer this question: What was the sentence/question, stated by a different second person, that spurred this response? In other words, why did our speaker say, “I told you I didn’t take your money”?
The students tend to stare at me blankly, not really understanding the point of the exercise. I prompt them to take out a pen and answer the questions in writing. They are confused because they find the statement innocuously clear. What they don’t understand is that their reading of the statement is actually only a single interpretation of at least five; but their minds take the first interpretation as the sole version.
The first few answers are usually like this: “Did you take the money?” or “Did you say you didn’t take the money?” These seem like obvious answers. Both of these could very well be proceeded by: “I told you I didn’t take your money.” I then inform these students that they unconsciously emphasized a word in the original sentence. They read the sentence as follows: a) “I told you I didn’t take your money,” as if the speaker is annoyed at having to repeat himself. I then proceed to underline a different word in the sentence, so it reads now: b) “I told you I didn’t take your money.” This reading of the sentence has a different meaning altogether, as if the speaker is implying that he took a different person’s money: the implication is that money was taken.
We continue the process, and by this time the students themselves start emphasizing different words out loud. They usually get boisterously excited, as if they are discovering their own intellectual prowess. Here are other ways of viewing the sentence: c) “I told you I didn’t take your money.” This sentence implies that the speaker has taken something of the second person, just not his money. d) “I told you I didn’t take your money.” This implies that the speaker may have told someone else a different story. e) “I told you I didn’t take your money.” This implies that the speaker hasn’t taken the money, but that he probably knows the person who has.
The moral of the lesson: The same sentence can mean five (at least) very different things. Some of the readings contradict one another, while others simply emphasize different things. I’ve used this lesson for two different purposes: 1) To show the importance of tone in reading. We need to recognize the general tone of a writer or character, as well as the context of the words, if we want to truly understand the meaning of a text. 2) To show how performance can and does affect the written word: a Shakespeare actor can play the character Iago different ways, perhaps contradicting a different interpretation, by simply choosing a specific tone of voice.
As I completed this lesson a few weeks ago, and my students paraded out of my room (already forgetting anything I ever taught) my mind drifted to the ideas of Derrida. The infamous linguist deconstructionist explored and explained the meaningless of language. I thought of my sentence, still in blue marker on my board. Here was what seemed to be a simple eight-word sentence: it’s clarity seemed obvious. However, it could mean at least five different things; and without anything but the words themselves, how is one to know to prefer one interpretation to another? I imagined Derrida in his legendary public debate, who approached the podium after his opponent presented his argument, and simply crowed like a bird. He said something to the effect of: “My words have as much meaning as my crowing, so what’s the point?” Then he stepped down from the podium, and left the room.
I thought of Derrida, the legend, and my sentence: How poor of a conduit of meaning is language! Even without shades of meaning, variations of connotations, and obscure grammar issues, I cannot write an eight-word sentence that really means one thing! But then I thought of Derrida’s words after the crowing. I understand them. I know how they apply to the situation.
As much as linguistic deconstructionists want to show the meaningless of language, it still retains its practical use. True, language is not objectively true, for it is not objective. Truth does not reside in language; instead, language does its best to act as a mouthpiece for truth. It is a means by which we can come to and learn truth – to communicate and debate truth. But like every tool, it has its limits. Not all truth can be expressed linguistically; and even the truth that we can express linguistically is not expressed in its fullness or entirety in words.
Far from making me depressed, this realization gives me peace. There are a few reasons for this. First, I think a certain amount of philosophic problems we deal with are simply linguistic problems, for reality and Truth necessarily cannot be broken down into the same categories as language is. For example, the Trinity. To simply say the God is three in one – that He is three Persons in one God – doesn’t make much linguistic sense. A secularist without Faith may validly call this nonsense. But Christians recognize that the reality and Truth of the Trinity resides outside of the statement “three in one.” The statement, while subjective and limited, points us to an important Truth: God does not exist alone. Even this linguistic construction does not capture the reality of it, for that is impossible.
Second, as much as I love language, I am glad that reality, truth, and beauty cannot be captured by it. I tell my students that poetry uses indirect language – metaphors, similes, imagery, etc. – because certain things and experiences, and often the greatest and most powerful of these, cannot be captured by language; and the closest we can come to capturing the reality of these things is through indirect language. For example, the simple metaphor “my anger is a volcano” is more apt to convey my experiential reality than a direct explanation of what is occurring in my brain when I am very angry. But the point is that even the metaphor can’t truly explain the experience of being extremely angry. And although this may have made me sad in the past, I am somehow very pleased that the reality of my experience, and the reality of God and the world around me, cannot be fully explained by the finite words of the English language – or any language for that matter.