Taylor: Many ways to communicate

I wonder how many ways we have of communicating with each other.

I wonder how many languages there are.

I don’t mean how many different spoken/written languages exist around the world. I can look that up on Google. Rather, how many ways do we have of communicating with each other?

Far more than most of us realize, I suspect.

This comes up because an editorial acquaintance found an old book among his late mother’s possessions. Published in 1911, it contains the kind of pretentious prose I love to ridicule: “The student of singing, more than the student of any other art, is in danger of one-sidedness and thus of an impoverishment of his human worth and personality, which, in turn, makes it forever impossible for him to interpret adequately the very masterpieces toward which he should aspire.”

But then the author took a swipe at musicians in general: “Why is it unhappily true that the musician can rarely hold his own intellectually among, say, literary artists?”

That characterization felt unfair. It’s like blaming Hungarians for not speaking fluent English. Or denigrating women for not being men.

Yes, “literary artists” can talk intelligently about a wide range of topics. But only in words.

Music, I submit, offers an example of a different language. Verbal language has a relatively limited repertoire of sounds and symbols to work with—in English, a 26-character alphabet, a handful of punctuation marks, and 40-plus phonetic sounds. Instead, music has pitch, duration, rhythm, and tone. A grand piano has 88 defined notes; a violin or a voice can create infinite variations. (And, in inexpert hands, often does.)

Written words cannot define rhythm or pacing; written music can. In addition, music can flavour its message by its choice of instruments. A violin is not a trombone is not a xylophone. Instruments add colour, just as paint does; the late Nelson Riddle’s inspired arrangement of “Life is just a bowl of cherries” set the mood with a tuba solo.

Add the possibilities of harmony, and I suggest that music may be a more sophisticated form of expression than mere words.

I could probably make a similar argument for the use of colour, canvas, and brush stroke in painting; shape and texture in sculpture; posture, control, and movement for dance.

Body language is often overlooked. Skilled actors can carry on entire conversations on stage without saying a word. I’m a wordsmith. I can recognize nuances in word choices that escape others’ notice. But I’m clueless at reading body language. I misinterpret some body signals; I miss other signals completely.

And intuition? I wish I could recognize it.

Anthropologists say that worship has been a central act of humans as long as humans have been around. But at least in my religious tradition, worship leans heavily on spoken words, supplemented with a limited range of music. It tends to ignore all other possible “languages” by which humans communicate with each other. And with God.

Perhaps we have interpreted too literally the text, “In the beginning was the word.”

It seems to me just as arrogant to believe that there is only one language for expressing ultimate truths as to insist that those truths belong to only one political perspective, one gender, one social culture, or one religion.

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