In our everyday life we don’t usually stop and think about the relationship between a word and the concept it refers to: we just choose the words we need and use them in order to communicate. But what if we actually stopped and tried to figure out the link between, say, the word book and the object we associate to it? And what happens when the word doesn’t seem to designate anything, but is rather tied to the individual utterance, such as our hmmms , ahs, huhus and so on?

Interjections are used to convey the speaker’s mental state, action, attitude or reaction to a situation. We wouldn’t be able to understand what a hmmm stands for unless we had the whole context, whereas we would always guess what a book is, wouldn’t we? Then here’s the question: are these two ways to refer to ideas somehow related to each other? Or are they just two completely different things?

Asking ourselves this we’re entering a philosophical maze that will bring us far back in time and then forward into the present days to some of the big questions about our place in the world. Let’s start our journey through these two ways of meaning, the designative (book) and the immanent one (hmm) and see where it leads us.

We love to see ourselves as detached observers of the world, and words help us keeping this attitude: they don’t have to be involved in what they refer to, the way we keep the distances from the world. But what if they somehow stick to what they should lift themselves out of? What if words named the very things they refer to accurately? Would that mean we are not as detached from the world as we love to imagine?

Ed Robertson: Books
Source: Ed Robertson via Unsplash

Plato’s Cratylus considered words as the correlative of the things they designated: ‘Anyone who knows a thing’s name also knows the thing’. This may make us smile at the naivety of the idea nowadays, but according to some recent studies there are some near-universal connections between some sounds and sensory perceptions: some words make us think about rotundity for instance, others about spikiness, some will remind us about a bitter taste or a swift movement, offering a glimpse about how our ancestors uttered the very first words.

While Plato and the other ancient Greek philosophers kept switching from Cratylus’ point of view to Hermogene’s one, who thought language is arbitrary and just a matter of convention, the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure in the first decade of the twentieth century convinced the world of linguistics that the sound of words do not reflect their meanings. However, the experiments of the German psychologist Wolfgang Kohler in the late 1920s showed that people associated one word to the thing it referred to because of its sound, thus highlighting that some words really fit the objects they describe better than others.

His studies weren’t really explored though, not until, in 2001, Vilaynur S. Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard from the University of California published their hugely influential works, which showed how synaesthesia works: people tend to blend certain images and sounds, thus showing that a word’s phonetics influences our choice when we are asked to associate a sound to a concept.

Synesthetic number form. Richard E. Cytowic, from Cytowic & Eagleman (2009), "Wednesday is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia." MIT Press
Synesthetic number form. Richard E. Cytowic, from Cytowic & Eagleman (2009), "Wednesday is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia." MIT Press

As Walter Benjamin wrote in his essay On the mimetic faculty, language is based on our skill to recognise a pattern of similarities and to create and extend them in order to convey meaning, so imitation is the first source of development for human languages. The process of ‘name-giving’ is not the only one where this mimetic faculty is implied: as the philosopher Charles Taylor wrote, we also use words related to one domain in others. Whenever we talk about ‘grasping’ ideas, having ‘deep’ feelings, ‘burying’ emotions we are creating similarities between concepts belonging to very different fields. These similarities suggest that meaning is not only conveyed by words, but it also so deeply rooted in them that it’s just not available without words.

The Bouba-Kiki experiment
The Bouba-Kiki experiment - source

One of the big differences between language and other ways to communicate, such as music or visual arts, is that we can replace one word with another, whereas we cannot replace one musical theme with another, because each of them is unique and does not amount to the same thing as another one. However, this does not apply to music and art only: the meaning of a scream, or a hmmm, is immediately there for us to understand it, according to our beloved Wittgenstein. In those cases there is no sense of a meaning apart from the expression itself: a chilling scream can’t be put in another way, and the same thing applies to interjections such as hmmm and so on. Even though these two ways of understanding and expressing meaning may seem opposite, according to Wittgenstein they can’t be divorced from one another: our language is a sort of spectrum between what designates its meaning and what actually embodies it, and in many cases meaning is more sunken into words than we may think, as we just saw.

According to Walter Benjamin the Fall from the Garden of Eden can be read as a metaphor for the externalisation of human language: from a primitive name-giving (the process of imitating the reality through onomatopoeia and figurative language resembles Adam’s naming the animals) we managed to create more abstract words that stand for things instead of just trying to imitate them, but this change in perspective led us out of Eden. We lost that direct connection between words and the things they refer to, which was considered a divine quality, as St. John’s “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” suggests. The paradisiacal language then must have been one of perfect knowledge, “fully cognizant” in Benjamin’s words, whereas being expelled from Paradise we lost that perfect fusion between word and meaning and we were thrown in a world where it’s impossible to recreate that fusion.

Language after the Fall is thus comparable to a faded painting, still portraying the things, but in a much more abstract and arbitrary way. This is the reason why, to Nietzsche and other philosophers, language and it abstractions fall short of the real world, even though they should portray it as faithfully as possible. However, going back to Wittgenstein, we should actually question the divide between language and the world: maybe the question is not how to create a bridge connecting those two entities, because they are not really detached from one another.

Friedrich Nietzsche, 19 years old. Photography by Gustav Schultze, Naumburg, probably between September 8 and 22, 1864.
Friedrich Nietzsche, 19 years old. Photography by Gustav Schultze, Naumburg, probably between September 8 and 22, 1864.

Ludwig’s wrap-up

Language is our main tool to communicate, so we don’t usually spend much time thinking about it: as long as words help us in our interactions there’s no need to question them and their relationship with our world. What if we tried to figure out the link between words and the objects or concepts they relate to, though? Well, we’d discover that some words are meant to designate something (book refers to a collection of sheets of paper bound together to hinge at one edge, containing printed or written material, pictures, etc. ) and others are used to refer to feelings or reactions to a given situation, so they are immanent and cannot be understood without their context. However, the divide between those two groups may be less sharp than we think. Recent discoveries lead us to point out some near-universal connections between phonetics and sensory perceptions: we tend to associate certain sounds to concepts such as rotundity or spikiness, a bitter or sweet taste or a swift movement. Maybe we should stop thinking about ourselves as the detached observers of a world we don’t actually belong to, if even the sounds we use are deeply rooted to some concepts: our language is not as far away from the world as we’d love to think. Am I wrong? Hmmm…