language and meaning, linguistics

All the world is words.

All goldfish have eyes (except those that don’t) and, all people are people and, all men are people and all women too. We live in a very peopled place. People use words to become people. Prose, particularly (not purple prose) presents purpose to people (perhaps like this?).

Presently we number about eight billion souls and each one uses words. They all use the big ones like good and bad and understand them on their own terms. There are over 8 billion types of good and bad in the world. All words in the English alphabet are derived from 26 symbols we call letters. All letters are good (except the type that contain bad news but these are no longer sent because we have email and WhatsApp and Facebook and LinkedIn and Snapchat and and and).

Truth is a popular word. All people believe they know what it is. Some truths are also contained in words. Words like good, bad, true, false, honour, virtue … they are all words. But, truth is just a word too. And words, contain the ideas we give to them, agree upon. There are over 8 billion versions of all of these in about 6500 languages which each contain variations of symbols. Some truths, the important ones, like love, are felt and difficult to translate into words. That is why we love stories and art. That is why writers still write. They write to translate the felt experience of life into words. Words are an unreliable medium because we all feel them differently. We have all had different experiences and how we feel is the translator of the words forming inside each of us. We speak our way into the world.

When people (of the all variety) say “all” I am immediately sceptical. Can you see why? Apart from all people being people, there are few times that we can use the word “all” with any certainty. We want the whole world aligned to our use of words. We call something good or true or bad or wrong and expect over 8 billion minds to geneflect at the altar of our perspective.

So how do we even begin to talk?

We talk too much, too quickly with too great a sense of authority, too much conviction that we are right.

When I hear the world “all” I recoil. I see your mouth move and shift air that has been pressurised by your vocal chords and choreographed into sounds by your tongue. I think:

wouldn’t it be nice if we used words with some concern for how they are heard. If we could use them to navigate through hostility to find love. Wouldn’t it be nice if we were kinder. But, you said all like your experience of the world is the template for all people. That’s unkind.

That’s all.

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ownership, philosophy, suburbia

I own therefore I am

I am on my way home, in my car, listening to my radio, I stop at our beach. We call it ours, this stretch of sand on this continent that is now my home. My country, this is how I refer to the 7,682,300.0 square kilometres beneath my feet. I have a passport which confirms my citizenship of the state. It is navy, embossed in gold, official looking. The cover is bendable but thick. It will not easily be damaged from frequent use. It holds the allure of adventure. This is how the institution of state draws us in and places the spell of attachment on us. “With us you may travel freely, ” it seems to say, “you are not the citizen of the world you imagined you were. You are not as free as you thought you were. This book marks that you are owned. We call this state of being owned ‘citizenship’.”  

It contains, inside, a black and white photograph of me, unsmiling. One is not encouraged to smile for official photographs. So here I am in my country seriously wishing to understand how I assume that so much is mine. I have even purchased a piece of land with a house on it and that I call mine but really, it is the bank that has deemed me fit to speak of it thus. I earn a salary, paid fortnightly. Most of this goes to the bank so that I can one day, decades from now, call the house truthfully, mine. Strange isn’t it? To speak of it seems strange, this suburban ritual of possession. I am told that it was not always so. I have read articles by clever men on the history of ownership and possession and it would appear that Indigenous people worldwide never considered themselves owners of land. My mate Matt, a Noongar man, once laughed off the notion of buying a home. “Why would I buy dirt cobber?” he asked me. Indeed, why?

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It seems to be a distinctly European invention, this idea that ownership begets identity. We assume it has always been so, genetic even, like violence. Seems we have been wrong about many things. They really started something those restless fifteenth century Spaniards and Portuguese. Further back the Goths, the Vandals, the Huns, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans and the Vikings caught it; this contagion of land-greed. Their desire to possess was passed on to the English, the Germans, the Belgians, the French, the Dutch and the Italians. What formed their view of the world? Why did they think a first meeting ought to be followed by the planting of their flags, declarations of ownership and brutal oppression? It’s a fundamentally flawed human practice that we continue to emulate 500 years later.

Where does this language of ownership came from? How did it come to be the mode of my tongue, my mind? The pronoun ‘mine’ is one of a child’s earliest words. It defines the boundaries of their existence: ‘my nose’, ‘my mummy’, ‘my house ‘. What does it mean to ‘have‘? How do I ‘have’ this home, ‘have’ this toothache, ‘have’ this bruise, ‘have’ these thoughts? In the marriage union I get to ‘have’ and to ‘hold’. I have a great deal, but when was I bestowed ownership of ‘my’ character? Who is this ‘me’ I speak of?

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Studies of human society suggest that one of the prime forces in our history is ownership. We have evolved through ownership. From feudalism to mass consumerism we have organised our social structures around competition for land and artefacts. We call land ‘real estate’. It forms our reality. Being landless thus presents itself as a an ‘unreal’ condition, an undesirable state of being. Material poverty is perhaps more an indictment on our modern tendency to insulate ourselves with our possessions. Poverty represents the way we think about the world, not a way of the world. It is perhaps more a consquence than a condition. It is a word denoting what one does not have. A street vendor in Mumbai, India told me there was no poverty in India. I did not understand what he meant. It appeared self-evident to me that poverty was not only real but rampant as well. I’m beginning to realise what he meant. I’m seeing more of it living in the first world.

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