The Naming of Things (Part I)

June 28th, 2010 | Meera

Last Saturday night, I heard a reading of an extraordinary story by Swedish writer Lars Gustafsson, published in his 1981 collection Stories of Happy People. The piece takes as its central character a severely mentally disabled individual, following him from boyhood to middle-age in a dense fourteen pages and constructing a delicate contrapuntal narrative in which outward circumstances—harsh and melancholy—and an inner world—complex and immensely beautiful—act as intertwining melodies. In its entirety, the story is infused with sweetness and melancholy in equal measure, and it is well worth your investigation.

The reason I’m telling you about it here, though, is because I was struck by how Gustafsson uses nomenclature as an alienating force. In a deep and surprising way, the story reminded me of my own interactions with the scientific world and its language. More about that later.

First, here is how Gustafsson describes the uneasy relationship between the boy and the array of tools he encounters in his family’s woodshop. (Throughout the story, his inability to grasp the names of things sets the boy, who clearly suffers from a profound language impairment, apart from others—who approach objects and command them comfortably through their names.)

Grownups had such funny names for their things: that was their peculiarity, and they had a right to all those names which he didn’t have. He always laughed awkwardly and crept into a corner when his brother and sister tried to teach him those names.

Those things belonged to them: dovetail saws, punches. The old wooden mallet used for pounding in fence posts…they hit him when he came in from the woodshed with wounds and gashes from the tools in the woodshed. They were afraid that he’d really hurt himself. They wanted to keep him away from the tools.

His brother and sister, who knew how, were allowed to handle them. It gave him the feeling that the words, too, belonged to them. Sometimes they might send him to fetch tools that did not exist, “bench marks,” things like that. It gave him a feeling that it would always be vague and uncertain which things existed in the world and which did not. Evidently using words was harder than you might imagine.

They always laughed loudly, doubled up with laughter when he returned empty-handed, or when they had fooled him into going to the far end of the barn searching for impossible objects. In actual fact, the strong decided what words should be used for.

—Greatness Strikes Where it Pleases

The Cruelest Cut

When I heard this passage read aloud in the firm voice of actor Colm O’Reilly, I felt a funny tremor of recognition. At first it seemed odd to me that I should so empathize with the boy’s mistrust of language. I spend my life, after all, with words. They are my instruments and my toys. And generally, I love learning new words, especially nouns.* One of my favorite things about skinning a bird is the act of writing its names in my log. I take a special pleasure in tracing those letters, doing my best to control my wayward script and form the words precisely, as if it really matters that I get their shape just right; as if by laying down ink over Dendroica fusca, Blackburnian Warbler, I am not simply recording something that already exists, but re-creating it as well. When I name a bird it becomes known instead of unknown.

Of course, there are many ways to know a thing. I can scrutinize the patterns of a bird’s plumage, the shape of its bill, its size in my hands. I can construct knowledge of a thing, quite deep and true knowledge, in fact, by adding up a hundred different pieces of information. But to hold them together is difficult. Give me a name, and I have a sturdy container for those hundred pieces: a shape for my knowledge.

This is exactly what science tells us, isn’t it, about the human brain? That it craves order? That the unique gift of language is to provide a set of labels with which the brain can produce order out of the too-great tidal stream of data it accepts from the world through the sensory organs? In 2001, for instance, an elegant series of experiments with 36 no doubt adorable participants showed that as early as nine months after birth, saying words aloud while introducing two similar and unfamiliar toys helped babies to reliably differentiate between them.

Playing sounds while introducing the objects, like a spaceship takeoff or a car alarm, did not—and neither did a human voice producing a non-verbal expression of emotion, such as a sound of satisfaction or disgust. Words, and words alone, enabled the babies to place each toy into a separate category. (This was true whether the names were real or nonsense labels, ruling out the notion that the babies were simply responding to word-object pairings they already knew.)

There is also the possibility—not proven, but tantalizing—that language doesn’t just organize sensory information, but influences how it is perceived. Most famously, a number of experiments have shown that speakers of languages with a greater number of words for different but similar hues are better able to distinguish between those hues in the color spectrum.

Last year one study of Greek speakers—who unlike English speakers make a linguistic distinction between light and dark blue with the breathy nouns ghalazio and ble—went a step further. By measuring the electrical activity in their brains as subjects looked at visual stimuli, researchers showed that the greater acuity for color enjoyed by Greek speakers could actually be recorded, in the form of electrophysiological differences, as early as 100 milliseconds after being presented with a colorful shape. This interval is consistent with what we know about the time it takes information to reach the visual processing areas of the brain, and is considered too brief for the participants to have engaged in a conscious awareness of what they were seeing. In addition, the differences arose even though subjects were instructed to attend to the shapes of various stimuli, not their colors. (The paper, along with a few caveats, is detailed here by Language Log. The most interesting caveat has to do with the suggestion, drawn from previous studies, that this kind of language-based interference in color perception is likely limited to the right visual field, which sends information to the left—language dominant—hemisphere of the brain.)

So there is some evidence, preliminary though it may be, that the names we know really do affect, on at least some level, “which things exist in the world and which do not.”

This makes it easy to understand why Gustafsson’s boy, so ill-equipped to learn names, finds the external world vague and uncertain. When you cannot grasp how words connect to objects, navigating amongst objects is confusing and unpredictable. You might find yourself searching for impossible things or overlooking what is right in front of your nose. Also easy to appreciate, in the light of these color studies: the boy’s sense that the right to use each tool is inextricably linked to the ownership of its name. The things in the shed belonged to his brother and sister and so did the words for them. Whereas the boy, lacking words, had neither the right to use the tools nor to know if they existed.

What does all this have to do with me and science and scientific nomenclature?

Well, this: If I make a few edits to a sentence from Gustafsson’s story, it captures something of the experience I sometimes have when I try to navigate within the scientific world.

He wrote:

Grownups had such funny names for their things: that was their peculiarity, and they had a right to all those names which he didn’t have.

I would say:

Scientists have such funny names for their things: that is their peculiarity, and they have a right to all those names which I don’t have.

If anyone is still with me, I’ll talk more about this in Part II of this essay tomorrow.

Where to address all future correspondence

*(Incidentally, in Hebrew the prosaic “vocabulary” is rendered as the lovely phrase “treasury of words.” I still have the notebook, thin and yellowing, in which I collected some of my first words in that language: book, picture, boa constrictor, prey, primeval forest. If you don’t know or haven’t already guessed why I began with those words in particular, ask me sometime and I’ll tell you.)

9 Responses to “The Naming of Things (Part I)”

  1. tina says:

    i’m still with you and looking forward to getting into part II. this subject reminds me of a seminar i took in college called ‘language and thought’. we had to choose a side (which comes first, language or thought?) at the beginning of the semester, research our position and take part in a big debate at the end. i don’t remember which side i was on but i remember we won the debate. :)

  2. Anya Weber says:

    This is terrific, Meera.

  3. I’m fascinated by language, but have never had the will to learn one. Instead, I tend to collect little bits of trivia about all sorts of languages.

    A few years ago I learned some Hebrew words and a smattering of grammar from a Hebrew-speaking email correspondent of mine. The vocabulary list would look rather perplexing until you realise that it grew out of a conversation with all the organic randomness that implies, and also out of the lyrics to some songs he sent me once.

    To a large extent the song lyrics triggered the rest of that conversation. For example, a discussion of the song “The Gate of Mercy” by Meir Banai got us talking about the Hebrew grammar for phrases like that, and to clarify the grammar I would ask for translations of made-up sentences like “the colour of the roof of the house of the neighbour of the grandfather of the keeper of the gate of mercy” or “the tall broken gate is the big unsolved problem“.

    Other sentences involved words concerning topics we’d discussed, such as politics, dragons and cockroaches (and therein lies a tale), often in conjunction. And I began to have a stab at sentences of my own, asking for corrections. Thus, among my first Hebrew sentences were such things as “The cockroaches in the knesset are your problem. Your problem is unsolved. The problem of the knesset is the dragon. The dragon is big.” Also, “There is a gatekeeper inside the dragon and he is delicious.

    Some day I might turn some excerpts from this conversation into a blog post.

    • Meera says:

      I love your sentences, Adrian. As might be obvious from what I said above, I began learning Hebrew by reading a Hebrew edition of The Little Prince with a friend. He translated each word, and explained sentence structure and grammar as it applied to each phrase, as it came. It took us weeks to get through the first couple of pages, and because of that process I can still recite the first paragraph in Hebrew from memory. I wouldn’t have thought this would be an efficient way of learning a language, but in fact it was marvelously coherent and motivating. I always had a reason to learn what I was learning at any given moment.

      About a semester later I started taking classes formally, and had a huge head start because of the Prince.

      Are you still in touch with your correspondent?

  4. Yeah, I’m still in touch, but with nothing like the prolificity of the old days. Lately I’ve been getting an email once every few months.

    I find your essays are good to read when I’m in the mood for something meatier than a blog post, but don’t feel like listening to a podcast. (Or sometimes when it’s simply too late at night for a podcast because my neighbour would hear it through the wall.) They fill a niche which, once in a while, is just what I need. And because your topics tend to be fairly timeless, I can take as long as I want to get around to them and know that their relevance will not have diminished in the meantime.

    Someday, however, I’m going to catch up… :-)

  5. Jeffrey Harpeng says:

    I came to this blog from a proboards workshop site concerned with tanka and tanka prose where another writer had referred to cicadas ‘thrumming their ardour’. I cringe at crumpling up science for the sake of poetics. That’s not counting the anthropomorphism of cicadas having ardour.

    I went looking for the science of that thrumming, which led by three or four steps to this page and Tina’s post about being in a debate on which came first thought or language.

    In his documentary series on India Michael Wood refers to Vedic hymns that have been handed down for millennia and than the sounds of these mantras are not in any known language. Years are spent teaching and memorising these mantras. The closest sound patterns are bird songs.

    If I were a hound following a scent, and thought had a scent, I’d be sniffing around the birds that the humans were aping.

    Thanks for these essays, a glorious winding side road.

    • Meera says:

      Jeffrey, thank you both for the kindness of your comment (including the note about how you arrived here, which is always of interest to me) and the tip about the Vedic hymns—I will follow up, as that is exactly the kind of thing I am looking for right now for a little book project I’m working on. I am in your debt. Hope you visit again! I’m currently in Sweden volunteering at a bird observatory and plan to post about some of my experiences here very soon.