Some Thoughts on Language and Consciousness

Language is a tool for communication (though it often backfires and un-tools its toolhood). It is always changing and moving, and as such, it carries references to histories of change and movement. It is a living recorder that reflects the remains, traces, and ruins of cultures in contact, cultures that have journeyed. 

Language is double-edged, double-voiced, and the meanings it carries often double and multiply. It can unite people/separate people; can lead to understanding/misunderstanding (some linguists have said that 70% of our communication is misunderstood!); create war/peace; it can entrap/open possibilities; it can lock us into a mode of seeing/allow for new ways of seeing; it can empower/be a tool of oppression. 

Some say that human language pre-conditions the way we view the world. That it creates a framework for people to understand the world; a structure of seeing and hearing and experiencing the world that determines the way we observe. Others say that language pre-disposes us to a whole range and structure of feeling that differs between groups. 

Language gives new life to ideas. It is our experience of the world encoded in systems of grammar and phonetics. The great Caribbean writer and philosopher Wilson Harris states that “The concept of language is one which continuously transforms inner and outer formal categories of experience, earlier and representative modes of speech itself… The peculiar reality of language provides a medium to see in consciousness… and to hear with consciousness.” (From “Tradition, the Writer, and Society”) It determines and “transforms” what we experience and the categories through which we perceive — both internal categories that we create for ourselves and external categories that are passed down through philosophy, religion, and the concepts that language carries in a “mere” word. Through language we can “see” in/into consciousness; both our own and a collective consciousness. We can “hear” and experience the world through language, and perhaps only through language. Language allows us to “hear” and “see” the workings of the self, our cultures, our histories, and the relationship between them. 

Language opens windows into/onto history and the forces and influences that have shaped our cultures. It is inseparable from our structures of power, our hierarchies, the practice and “location” of our cultures [see Bhabha], our values and the ideas that have impacted our worlds. To understand the way our cultures and consciousness shifts, we have to look at the ways in which our languages move. And that movement can also sharpen our understanding of the past: the meeting and re-meeting spaces of cultures in contact is iconified by our languages. Language, then, can refer to a space and time of contact. Its carries that history with it.

Encoded in language is our appreciation of time and the ways in which we perceive time. It codifies the ways we measure time (preterite, imperfect, pluperfect, historical present, future)  and as such, the ways in which we remember. Language provides a structure and life to/of memory. Likewise, the structure and life of memory is linked to the ways that our language systems categorize time and allow time to have a life and meaning of its own. In other words, the ways in which we perceive memory and allow it to transform our present and future is intricately connected to the ways in which language understands and transmits temporality. 

Language always transforms and creates new meanings. It is a generative code that spawns new codes. It carries ideas from ancient history to unimagined futures. 

Language is the consciousness of of our consciousness, and the consciousness of our cultures and societies.


Jacob Dyer-Spiegel @ www.lenguamente.com  (2008)

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