Monday, 16 December 2013

Mind your Language

My dear friends,
"The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for." Ludwig Wittgenstein
When teaching medical students I use this quote regularly. Seldom has a sentiment been truer to me through my practice in life or in medicine.

During my more contemplative and playful moods I like to occasionally undertake a simple thought experiment. I came across it when reading a book by a modern French philosopher, Roger-Pol Droit. Try it yourself if you would like and you have a spare minute or two. 

Take a simple object. It has to be small and light enough to be held comfortably in your hands, e.g. an apple or pencil. Look at it. Speak it's name. Then repeat. Keep repeating it. The word should be that which most naturally relates to you the idea of the object to hand. Do this for at least one minute. Notice how as you keep saying the word, the object and word begin to separate from one another. The word, which is now just a sound becomes almost silly and is never exactly the same. The object remains static, unchanging. Note how the sound you make becomes partitioned from the idea of what the object actually is. Give the object to someone who does not speak a language you know and they will have the same idea of what the object is, but the sounds they use will be indecipherable.

The point of this thought experiment is to demonstrate how language is more than just letters on a page and sounds one makes. It's about the transference of ideas and thoughts. That example was just using a simple, small, everyday object. Something that can be seen, measured and felt. The idea behind what an apple is, for example, is relatively straightforward. Some ideas are not so simple to relate.

Let's think about how the transference of an idea occurs. An idea comes to mind and an area of the speaker's brain sends a signal to the body. Air is forced through the vocal cords that vibrate producing sound, a series of vibrations travel at a fixed speed towards the listener. The sound reaches the ear of the listener, the vibrations are transferred to their eardrum which move the three tiny bones in the inner ear, amplifying the signal that travels to their brain. The listener's brain then deciphers the signal.

That whole process works well for simple objects or concepts. Things which day to day affect everyone. But when an abstract concept is used there is always an element of trust involved and that trust is not always deserved.

Say a word like "Love", or "Fear", or "God." I know most people have an idea of what those things are, but they won't be my idea. Not exactly. So for language to work at all for these concepts, one must trust that the person listening has some clue as to what you mean when you say "Love" for example.

What do you feel when you hear the word "Love?" What is your idea of "Fear?" What is "God" to you?

I don't know. Nor will I ever truly know. Through years of contemplation and introspection I feel I am closing in on what I think "God" is. I may never get there. But have you taken the same thought journey as I have? Of course not. You've had your own. Just as valid, just as real. Just as all of us have. We experience our lives only through our own perspective, not through anyone else's. Your truth is just that, yours and no one else's. 

"God" is just one example. No one but you knows exactly what you mean when you use thousands of other abstract words. You may casually say that you are "Starving", when you're merely hungry, but you probably (I hope) do not really know what "Starving" is. You might say that you're "Terrified" about a job interview or a public speaking engagement. Yet that word might stir different feelings in a Holocaust survivor, or child soldier in the Congo.

It's all relative I know. I am not trying to belittle peoples emotions, but it is important to understand that language is not dead and the words you use are actually ideas and thoughts you are trying to express. Words are not just letters or sounds. 

A professional needs to know the words they use, because everyone in that profession will expect them to. It is required to make the transference of ideas to be as seamless as possible. Complicated matters will take an age to relate if every other technical word needs defining and agreeing upon before moving on. A doctor may know all the technical words they need for their profession, but should they eavesdrop upon a group of structural engineers discussing the construction of a bridge, they will probably find it difficult, if not impossible to follow the discourse.

It's not enough to think you know what you mean when you use a word, you need to actually know it, because sooner or later your ignorance will be found out. Again I am not preaching to anyone from a pedestal. Everyday I have to reference a word or phrase I thought I knew from childhood, learning its meaning and its origins. I do it to learn about my work and about our history.

I do this because I think what Wittgenstein said about language is true. Even if I have thoughts and ideas which transcend my limited language, what use is it to be unable to relate it?

I'd love to hear what you think.

Yours in words,

the Filosofer


You can contact the Filosofer at: or twitter @xmphilosophy or on Facebook


  1. Very interesting and thought provoking as always. The words we use I think define who we are to some extent. You can often spot when a patient has a medical background with in a few sentences. Equally I think we make judgements over the phone about colleagues competence purely based on the words they have used. We get used to our own language so much we forget that words we use freely (such as coma, tumour, chronic, reflex) may have totally different meanings to others. I often make the point to trainees that using the "right" or language is important because peers / examiners will judge your entire career very quickly on your ability to sound the part.

  2. You been reading Saussure and his post-structuralist mates? Good stuff.
    There's a bit in Waking Life that says something similar about the word 'love' and how can we know that the other person means the same as us, that we're all trapped in our own subjectivity.

    On another note (foreshadowed pun intended) applying similar thought to music adds another dimension to the gaps between words:
    "After silence, the nearest thing to expressing the inexpressible is music". (Aldous Huxley).

    Next time you listen to some music that moves you, think about the same process as outlined above, i.e. a thought, feeling etc in someone's head passed through to their fingers on a piano, the string is hit and vibrates, the air moves, your ear perceives it, you feel and respond to it in your own unique way, perhaps the hairs on your neck stand up. Get a genius at the front end of this and they can translate the most nuanced and inexpressible feelings and ideas from their mind to yours, no wifi, just the beautiful play of the senses and human minds through air.

  3. Thanks both for your kind and thoughtful comments.