The Physicality of Language

There is an emphasis–dare I say overemphasis?–on the intellectual, cerebral, and cognitive aspects of language today, especially in academia. Camille Paglia has written countless essays on the dominance of postmodern deconstructionism, how we are in a Foucauldian and Derridean era, so to speak. We are unfortunately in a paradigm of a very heady way of approaching ideas and language, and it is important to think beyond this. What of other aspects of language? We have explored the importance of rhyme in my post “Time for Rhyme” on this blog which also appeared in the Macedonian online magazine Blesok. But it is important to go further than rhyme and to think about how language can be physical, auditory, something that invokes movement.

French stage actor and pedagogue Jacques Lecoq did quite a lot with physical movement and mime in his teaching. I was fortunate enough to have the rare opportunity to watch a video of one of his classes, given to me by someone who had studied at his school (from what I understand students are discouraged from revealing too much on video about it). There was one exercise where students from different countries were asked to make a hand gesture related to a certain word. It was interesting to see the diversity of responses as to how language is physicalized, and how different cultures perceive the same words.

The Italian language is so enjoyable because it is so kinesthetic. I’m not only referring to the stereotypical hand gestures that most people imagine when they think of an Italian talking, but also the way in which the inflections and the double consonants and the way vowels are drawn out for emphasis resulting in a very rollicking, physical way of speaking. There is a reason why opera was born in Italy: opera requires the physicalization of language in one’s body. There are a number of physical gestures in Italian that express a certain emotion or thought. It is also important to mention that from region to region, the language varies greatly. Italy is a country full of not only mutually unintelligible accents but dialects. The singsong calls of the Neapolitan vendors at the market (in dialect, or with a Neapolitan accent) are not something that would ever be heard in, for example, Milan, nor would they easily be understood by people of different regions, if even understood at all. This gives a richness to the linguistic culture of “the boot” (as some people lovingly refer to Italy, due to its shape), which is unified through a “standard Italian” accent even though many people still speak dialects at home or within their communities.

I am bilingual in both English (my dominant language by far) and Tamil. The latter is a Dravidian language, completely unrelated to the Indo-European family. Tamil speakers, in my observation, do not always use their hands when they talk, though there are some common gestures and it is certainly a more gesture-heavy language than English. What is noteworthy is that Tamil has quite a lot of onomatopoeia in it. To me, this is a different sense of physicality in language: the actions and motions and sounds of things as well as objects themselves are represented well by the language. For example, the word for firecracker, “pattoss,” is an actual noun that is onomatopoeic. Of course, there is always the much-mocked head nod on the Subcontinent (which I do find hysterically funny). A cousin once told a story of a four head-nod conversation at a train station between him and a vendor on the platform in which both parties completely understood what the other was saying!

We cannot ignore the tonal languages in which meaning is conveyed by tones. This is a very simplistic way of describing the complexity of how pitching one’s voice, the inflections used, and the subtleties of sounds are equally as important to a language as its orthographic and cognitive features. We think of, immediately, Chinese, and there are numerous others such as Thai or Vietnamese and even Swedish. And to go beyond tones, there are families of languages with clicks, such as the Khoisan languages of southern Africa. The language of Xhosa, which is a Bantu language spoken in South Africa, features a high degree of click consonants that can be quite challenging to non-natives. Comedian Russell Peters even has a routine about this that many readers might find funny.

In our digital era where everything is two-dimensional and on a screen, highly physicalized languages are a welcome relief. English is a rich and complex language, but American English in particular can be so literal, efficient, and to-the-point that we need to think about different ways of expressing ourselves, both verbal and nonverbal. Americans need to know more about different types of languages around the world, because when you understand a language, you get to know the people who speak it.