In a captivating new book, Language Unlimited, David Adger, a professor of linguistics at Queen Mary University of London, has a jolly good time poking fun at emojis. Much of the early hype around emojis, he reminds us, was about how they were universal symbols. “Anyone who spoke any language would be able to understand them.” That has turned out to be poppycock.
As Adger informs us, “no symbol is truly universal to humankind.” Symbols are connected to the individual cultures that generated them. They are also identified by the individual gangs of neurons in our heads. “A symbol is just some kind of mark on the world that stands in for something else, usually an idea in your head,” Adger writes. And that goes for the crème de al crème of arbitrary symbols, words.
In Language Unlimited, Adger makes the simple but profound observation that language is more than communication. It is more than a bridge between people. “Sentences in language create meanings where there were none before: part of the amazingness of language is its creativity, its ability to conjure up new ideas that have never been considered before,” Adjer writes. “It’s the engine of our imaginations.”
That imaginary engine powers this month’s spotlight on language. We look at how language elevates our spirits and lets them down. We delve into its origins in our animal ancestors and show that while language may distinguish us from our animals, it also links us to them. Language, we show, shapes our thoughts, but also frees them.
Science depends on language, and not just in the communication of ideas, but, as Adger says, creating meanings where none existed before. That’s an apt way to describe the language of physics, as it seeks to present theories such as the emergence of spacetime from quantum wavefunction. As we attempt to display in every issue of Nautilus, language, in science, has to be amazingly creative to reflect the intricacies of nature.
Lead image: Viiviien / ShutterstockRead the Issue