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The Perfect Language

As a religion major specializing in New Testament studies, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the Gospel of Mark. It’s a puzzling text, full of paradox and ambiguity—that’s what drew me to it. As I tried to understand why, in this narrative, Jesus’s closest followers consistently misunderstand him, I decided that it was a linguistic problem: Jesus’s divine language was just too big for the all-too-human ears of Peter, James, John the brother of James, and the other lads. Essentially, they couldn’t pick up what he was laying down.

This led me to the conclusion that the Kingdom of God isn’t a temporal event, coming in the future, but a cognitive one, immediately available: Those who can both hear and understand Jesus’s message are in—right now and forever—and everybody else is out. The task of the reader of Mark’s good news, then, is to read until she understands. I thought of my thesis Wednesday, while I listened to an NPR story about the ability of babies to think abstractly.

Two researchers—Elizabeth Spelke of Harvard and Sue Hespos at Vanderbilt—used conceptual differences in English and Korean to explore the possibility of abstract thought in infants. At the heart of their study was this conceptual distinction: English uses prepositions like “on" and “in” to describe the relationship between two objects; Korean, on the other hand (to use a rather Anglophonic metaphor), distinguishes between objects that have a “loose fit” with another object and those that have a “tight fit". For an English-speaker, a cup sits on a table; for a Korean-speaker, the cup has a loose-fit relationship with the table. For an English-speaker, a pea is in a pod; for a Koreans-speaker, a pea has a tight-fit relationship with its pod.

So, anyway, these researchers found that babies raised in English-speaking homes were able to recognize the tight-fit/loose-fit dichotomy, while English-speaking grown-ups were not. (If you want to know more about the details of this study, listen to the NPR story or check out the July 22 issue of Nature.) Thus, in the words Spelke, “These findings suggest that humans possess a rich set of concepts before we learn language. Learning a particular language may lead us to favor some of these concepts over others, but the concepts already existed before we put them into words.”

This conclusion has interesting—possibly vital—implications for competing theories about language acquisition. According to one theory, language grows as a child grows, and we develop abstract thoughts only when we have attained the means to express them. Other linguists claim that the learning of language doesn't build cognitive abilities so much as it winnows them. In one model, language plants seeds that blossom into abstract thinking; in the other, language prunes away at the wild brush of the infant mind until well-tended shapes emerge, shapes that have meaning within that language. Obviously, this study supports the latter way of thinking.

I have always preferred that way of thinking myself, but it was only as I was listening to this NPR story that I understood why: In every creation myth, chaos precedes order. There may be, as in Genesis, a nothing before there is anything, but, even then, before there is anything, there is everything. Isn’t that the experience we all have, as we grow from wild children into social, rational beings but also again and again as we encounter existence at its most vast and overwhelming? Life, at its biggest moments, more often than not surpasses our ability to describe it. Love, grief, transcendence: These are states only poets can contain with words—and even then only provisionally—but we all can feel them. Our most intense experiences are the ones we are least able to articulate; they remain, nonetheless, true.

Once upon a time, people believed in a perfect language—the language Adam and Eve spoke, the language before the Babel Tower fell, the language in which the thing corresponded perfectly to its sign. Once upon a time, people believed that a child raised without hearing the debased, fragmented tongue of his own time and place would speak that language. The search for that primal mind has produced legendarily tragic results. But what if it belongs to us all, what if each of us retains the latent, neglected potentiality to comprehend fullness? What if we all have ears big enough to hear the language of God?

July 23, 2004 | Permalink

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» What Comes First: Speech or Thought? from Cup of Chicha
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» What Comes First: Speech or Thought? from Cup of Chicha
Jessica Lee Jernigan summarizes and comments upon the recent NPR segment, What Comes First: Speech or Thought? Here's an excerpt... [Read More]

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» What Comes First: Speech or Thought? from Cup of Chicha
Jessica Lee Jernigan summarizes and comments on the recent NPR segment, What Comes First: Speech or Thought? Here's an excerpt... [Read More]

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