Over the years, I’ve often heard people say that either they or others don’t have the language to describe something, or, upping the ante, that there is no language to describe something. I think neither sentence is plausible and this post is about why I think that.
The first time I came across the notion of ‘absence of language’ was when I was reading for my book on men’s emotions. There is much literature which proposes that men have lost their language of emotions. Victor Seidler, possibly the harshest critic of masculinity writes this:
We do not know what we feel. We do not have the words to express what is happening to us, nor a sense of how emotional and personal lives have been disorganised (this and more references on men’s inability to talk emotions in my book, see below).
Just commonsensically, the closest neighbour of such a sentence is nonsense, so there is really no point in offering arguments against it. Indeed, the same literature offers a very emotional view of masculinity. Men apparently are angry, aggressive, jealous, they are too emotional and too out of control. Either we have no language of emotions at all, or, alternatively, men don’t have the language of ‘nice emotions’. So, even though this (quite significant) strand in masculinity research can’t agree what language exactly men are lacking, they agree they are lacking a language.
I would like to make a little digression here. I am always astounded by the ease with which emotions are classed as good ones (positive) and bad ones (negative). In other words, love tends to be classified as a positive emotion, while anger is classified as a negative one. And I have a problem with it. I find it difficult to accept that, for example, paedophile love is positive, in the same way as the ‘negative’ anger can actually be a positive goal of psychotherapy. Incidentally, by far most suicide notes of men I have are about love and its destructive power.
So, is there any evidence that men lack the ‘language of emotions’? No, of course there isn’t. What would it mean? That men don’t understand the word ‘love’ or ‘hate’? And when a man says ‘I love you.’, he really has no clue as to what he’s saying? And that all those men who are teachers, counsellors, psychologists, psychiatrists and let alone psychodynamic psychotherapists really don’t have a clue? Or they overcame the void in their language and quickly learnt the ‘emotion words’ (there should be another digression here on the simplicity of the assumption that emotions are inextricably linked to emotion-words, but one digression is enough). Again, just commonsensically, this is nonsense, even if we get to see the film Ghost, where Patrick Swayze’s character cannot bring himself to saying ‘I love you’ and only responds with a ‘Ditto’.
Some time ago, I did research on fathers with mental illness. Interview after interview, I heard stories of complete devotion, love, sadness, feelings of rejection when contact with children was broken. And I couldn’t help wondering where all that came from. Where did those men find the language of emotions?! Magic!
The second situation in which I hear about not having a language is when people are assumed to suffer. When the suffering is assumed to be significant, or very significant, and the person is not communicating, they are said not to have the language to put their suffering into words. This is reinforced by academics. Arthur Frank says:
Suffering is the unspeakable, as opposed to what can be spoken; it is what remains concealed, impossible to reveal; it remains in darkness, eluding illumination; and it is dread, beyond what is tangible even if hurtful. (This and other references below can be found in my book on depression, see below).
The unspeakability of suffering is quite ubiquitous. Suffering is said to be mute, voiceless, ‘wordless’. It cannot be put in words totally; it might even be beyond language.
I’m having trouble with such pronouncements. The men in depression I interviewed told me many stories about their experiences. Some of those stories were almost unbearable. A father telling me about his child killed by a car, an event followed by his wife trying to kill herself, was just painful. He clearly did have a language to speak with, his stories, incidentally, felt very rehearsed. I don’t think there is a way of knowing to whether things were left out or impossible to be said.
I also have no way of knowing whether they did or did not have the ‘language’ to speak about their pain. I wonder how they would have known of such absence. The point, however, I am yet to see the description of suffering in terms of silence accompanied by any evidence for the absence of language. I suspect this is because it’s very hard (if possible, at all) to offer evidence of absence. What would such evidence be? But if I am right, it’s perhaps better to leave the arguments of ‘no language’ alone.
And here is the main point I want to make. Just because someone doesn’t know what to say, doesn’t mean they don’t have the language. Just because they don’t want to speak, doesn’t mean they don’t have the language. Just because someone says they don’t have the language, doesn’t mean they don’t. Sometimes telling a story is hard, sometimes very hard. Sometimes, we don’t want to put it in words, because it is too painful, it brings the reality home. All that doesn’t mean, however, that there is ‘no language’.
The ‘no language’ thesis has a number of potential consequences. First, removing a sphere of life from discourse, declaring it mute, also makes the story unavailable. In other words, the question that arises is what happens to those who do have a story and do want to tell it. Is anyone ready to listen to them? Furthermore, declaring suffering mute means also declaring those who do have a story, somehow not suffering enough. After all they’re not mute, they do ‘have the language’. At the same time, we relieve ourselves of the responsibility to listen.
I guess, I should finish this with a brief argument about the idea that there is ‘no language’ at all. I must admit that I cannot imagine there being ‘no language’. Yes, I accept that there might be no word for a particular aspect of reality. For example, if we ever meet alien civilisations, we are more than likely no to have a word for their warp engines or speeds. But that doesn’t really mean that there is ‘no language’. There is quite a distance between absence of lexical material and there being no language. We will still be able to describe something and its function. We still will be able to say that they travel the universe in a ship with the engine that makes super-light-speed possible, way before we’ll call the engine warp or something entirely different.
I think when someone says that what they feel is beyond despair and pain, and their pain is too great to put in words, they’re not saying, in my view, that there are no words/language. They are simply using a metaphor to render the greatness of their pain.
I recognise the attractiveness of the ‘no language’ statements in describing the mass of suffering, but such descriptions should only be used as metaphors, and not literally. I also think that the metaphor should be used only in contexts in which it will be understood as such, and not as a factual description of emotional reality.
Galasiński, D (2004). Men and the Language of Emotions. Palgrave. Galasiński, D (2008). Men’s Discourses of Depression. Palgrave.