The Problem With Language

In 2006, my girlfriend and I were driving back from a skiing trip.  During the car ride we dreamed aloud how it would be fun to live in a foreign country one day.  In hindsight, I was probably just agreeing with her to sound equally impressive with grandiose plans for the future.  The next day, I got a call from her while at work.

Jenny – “Hey Dan, remember that conversation we had yesterday about living in a foreign country?”

Dan – “Uhhh, yeah.”

Jenny – “Well, I was just asked to take a project in London.”

Dan – “Cool! (secretly scared she’s going to dump me).  When?”

Jenny – “This Friday.”

Dan – “Wow!  Congratulations, that’s awesome! (Awww, shit, I’m dumped).”

Jenny flew off to London a couple of days later and after a year of doing the whole long-distance relationship thing, I joined her across the pond.  Just like Good Will Hunting, I had to go and see about a girl.

Upon arriving in London, I quickly noticed that Jenny was now speaking with a British accent, saying things like, “hiya”, “cheers”, “right” and “mate” a little too often for my liking.  For better or worse, she sounded like a mix between Emily Blunt (hot!), Sporty Spice (ehhh) and Peppa Pig (oh hell no!).  Not knowing what to make of my “new” Downton Abbey Girl, I figured my American influence would have her back to normal in no time.

The day after arriving in the land of perpetual rain, fish & chips, and football, with Jenny at work and me working out of the flat, I decided to venture out for a sandwich.  With a busy lunch crowd of about 10 people behind me, I stepped to the plate and ordered…

Dan – “Hi, I’ll take a ham and cheese on wheat, please.”

Sandwich Maker Bloke – “Ya wanna brown bap?”

Dan – “No thanks, I’ll just have a ham and cheese on wheat bread.”

Sandwich Maker Bloke – “Right, a brown bap then mate?”

Dan – “No, not a brown bap, I’d like wheat bread.” (and what’s my mate got to do with it?)

Sandwich Maker Bloke picks up a Brown Bap (it looks similar to a wheat bread roll) – “Yea, you wan a brown bap?”

Dan – (blushing now profusely), “Yeah, Umm, sorry about that sir, I’ll take the brown bap.”

Sandwich Maker Bloke – “Right, with meat and salad then?”

Dan – “Uhh, yes to the meat please (at this point, I would have taken Monkey Brains), but I don’t want a salad.”

Sandwich Maker Bloke – “No salad?”

Dan – “Salad?  No, no salad please.  But I would like some lettuce on my bread.”

Sandwich Maker Bloke – picks up a stack of lettuce and says, “Yeah, SALAD then!”

Dan – “Oh man, I’m sorry, yes salad, salad please.”  At this point, I can now feel the disgruntled Guinness breath of the guy behind me and the staring eyes of everyone else as they shoot angry James Bond laser beams through the back of my skull.

Deathly afraid to ask for anything else, I throw a ton of British Pounds onto the countertop (probably the equivalent of the GDP of Burma), grab the sandwich, and run out the door dodging questioning eyeballs and lasers at the same time.

Safely back in the comforts of our 400 square foot flat, I bite into the sandwich that nearly caused the dissolving of the Special Relationship.  “Wait, what the hell is this!?”  I pull back the meat (still not sure what animal it came from) and discover a huge glob of butter smeared all over it.  Butter on meat!?  Who ruins perfectly good unknown meat species with butter?  Is this the cause of Britain’s dental problems!?  I finish the rest of my meal missing the disgusting deliciousness of an American meatball and cheese sub.

In the voice of a stereotypical British Soccer Hooligan, “language is f*cking bollocks.”

While I could tell you another 10 or 12 embarrassing stories of how I came to realize that the English language has two extremely different dialects (British and American), the point I am trying to make is language is grossly imperfect.  It is a tool we (humans) have created and it is a ridiculously poor creation, yet we go about our days not thinking anything of it.

Putting aside the American and British English example, the attempts at my own wife and I to speak the same language are at times laughable.  My best guess is that over 80% of our disagreements or arguments are due to language.  Notice that I didn’t say communication.  In the traditional sense of the word, I think my wife and I are pretty good communicators (she was on a national champion debate team and I have a blog with beautifully crafted prose around stories of getting fired a lot) – but it’s not communication, it’s the language we use that lets us down.

Do me a favor.  Pinch yourself.  Go ahead, give your arm a little pinch.  Now say out loud what the pinch felt like.

For me, I felt a little pain and after a second or two, the pain is gone.  Here’s the thing, no matter how we try, we can never give ourselves a pinch in exactly the same way and experience the exact same thing.  However, we use the word, “pain, sore, hurt” to describe thousands or even millions of extremely different experiences.  To be perfect, language would have to develop an individual word for each one of these experiences to truly get our feelings across.  Therefore, when my wife tells me that she’s “upset” with me, she is using a word that could mean a gazillion different things.  Only after 45 minutes of robust conversation (usually including tears, raised voices, and much explaining, defending, and pleading throughout) will I truly understand what she means by the word, “upset.”

In my opinion, no matter what language we are using, we are ALL terrible communicators because we are all using a tool, that is the equivalent to a severely outdated Apple IIe computer.  Even the most adept computer programmer can’t create photos, videos, and music with an Apple IIe from 1983, the same way my 8-year-old nephew can with the power of an Apple iPhone 8.  While slang is an attempt at keeping up with our times, there have been no modifications to our language to properly describe all the feelings we face.  To do so, a software update wouldn’t suffice, we need an entirely new operating platform.

One such platform that never needs updating (but it certainly needs care), is nature.  Recently, there have been a lot of movements and discussions around the need to get away from our phones and screens and spend more time in the outdoors.  While, it’s easy to postulate as to why we need less screen time, I think it is a little less self-explanatory as to why nature is good for us versus say just sitting on our sofa talking to friends or reading a book.  Here’s my best guess – nature, whether it’s taking a walk in the woods, hearing the birds or looking out upon a stunning vista requires no translation.  Nature gets its point across without the need of technology such as language.

If you are anything like me, you have a million thoughts running through your mind most of the day.  However, when I actually stop to take in the smells of the woods after a rain, my brain is at ease.  In that moment there’s comfort.  Comfort that I know what the forest is saying and that it gives me exactly what I want – peace, no butter included.

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