It may be an elemental part of who we are, to see something of ourselves in the world around us. To infuse the other with parts of ourselves. Chairs have arms and legs, clocks have faces and hands. Leaves whisper, kites dance, winds caress, storms rage and die.
We think of personification and other rhetorical devices as tools, something we use to describe the world in terms our reader can understand or empathize with. But maybe it’s more instinctual than that. Maybe it’s a type of knowing. Knowing the other as ourselves. Knowing there’s no true separation between ourselves and the world around us.
And perhaps by opening that door, we allow the other inside us, where it too finds a larger embodiment of itself, dwelling in our minds, our words, our stories.
“Language is the very voice of the trees, the waves, and the forests,” writes phenomenological philosopher Merleau-Ponty in The Visible and Invisible.
“We regularly talk of howling winds, and of chattering brooks. Yet these are more than mere metaphors. Our own languages are continually nourished by these other voices—by the roar of waterfalls and the thrumming of crickets, It is not by chance that, when hiking in the mountains, the English terms spontaneously used to describe the surging waters of the nearby river are words like “rush,” “splash,” “ gush,” “wash.” For the sound that unites all these words is that which the water itself chants as it flows between the banks. If language is not a purely mental phenomenon but a sensuous, bodily activity born of carnal reciprocity and participation, then our discourse has surely been influenced by many gestures, sounds, and rhythms besides those of our single species. Indeed, if human language arises from the perceptual interplay between the body and the world, then this language ‘belongs’ to the animate landscape as much as it ‘belongs’ to us.”
The more I write, the more I see how language not only shapes the worlds we inhabit, but how that “perpetual interplay between body and the world,” between I and Other, shapes us, our language, and how we know each other.
This all may sound rather mystical, but theoretical science makes similar claims. Noted physicist Werner Heisenberg once wrote: “What we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” His colleague Niels Bohr echoed that observation: “It is wrong to think the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns only what we can say about nature.”
The importance of language in shaping not only what we know about the world but what we can know about the world is the subject of Bruce Gregory’s Inventing Reality, Physics as Language. At the end of his book in which he writes about the work of Heisenberg, Bohr, Einstein, and other modern physicists, he concludes:
“Physics shows that while the world shapes us, the language we use shapes the world. We might even say the language we are shapes the world, for language undoubtedly defines us more profoundly than we can begins to imagine.”