On Language

Imagine the following situation,

Your girlfriend has just left you. Bewildered and listless, you sit down at the table outside where you shared so many happy memories together. You think of how she used to throw her head back and laugh when you made a particularly witty remark. You remember how she would meticulously roll out the cinders at the end of her cigarettes on the ashtray. You remember how she would tilt her head to the side and smile self-consciously, almost embarrassed that she found someone who felt that way about her. But, now she is gone. You sit alone, staring across the table at an empty chair. You have this inexplicable feeling…

And it is precisely here where language is so important because it helps describe what would otherwise be indecipherable, delineate what was previously opaque. Although there is no word for it in English, you may be experiencing what the German’s call worhanden, where something’s presence is magnified by its absence. It may bring you to a second realisation; that you did not know what you had until it was gone. This feeling is zuhanden, another fantastic German word which means ‘hiding in the light’.

Language can help us realise – that is, to make real – the subterranean and previously indescribable feelings of our heart’s. Indeed, language can clarify and obscure. But, when used mindfully and with care, language can help deepen and sharpen our understanding of our own feelings.

However, there is a sense, in which this is not true, or at least, not relevant. While language may help us identify and make sense of our feelings, it has, like any tool, its own shortcomings. If I learn your name, I still don’t know anything about you. Or, at least, nothing that matters. If I really wanted to know you, understand you, and have communion with you, naming you would not help me. What I would need to do is listen, feel, and identify with you. The same holds true of feelings.

If you say what you are feeling is worhanden, or that you are feeling angry, or sad, or listless, you do not really know anything more than you did previously. You have, however, put a conceptual and fragmented box around your feelings. To truly understand the feeling, you have to act how you would if you wanted to understand a person: you have to listen. Rather than telling yourself what the feeling is, allow the feeling to tell you what it means. Then, you may reach an understanding that cannot come through language. You may not be able to put that understanding into words, but perhaps that is the point.

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