On the limitations of language

Image: Jessica Ruscello

We paint our worlds in words.

Not only writers or speakers, but anyone who communicates with anyone else (or themselves), ever — which, I’m guessing is you.

We’re immersed in a world of words and we don’t often realize how much we really are in the hands of the dictionary. Especially in our western culture, if you can’t ‘look it up’ (my dad used to tell me that ALL the time and it drove me crazy) and specifically define the word, it’s to be discarded.

But there are just some things — the most important things, in fact — that can’t be easily defined by a word. Or two. Or three. Or volumes of them, in fact.

Like the love I feel for my wife. Or my daughter…

Is it worthy to just say I ‘love’ them?…

No... Not hardly.

If I stop short at the limitations of definable language, I limit myself to not being able to feel the heft of what’s available in the moment.

Our boundaries in life are drawn by the words we use.

This is where it helps to learn the tongue of poets. No, you don’t have to start writing poetry. This is more of a new set of glasses to try on and see the world through.

This is why Jesus spoke in metaphor and parables and why he hardly ever gave a true definition of anything. Pretty much everything he’s recorded as saying is open-ended. He threw layers of questions upon the questions addressed to him.

Material language is made to fit material needs, and it simply will not satisfactorily express true spiritual ideas.
 — Emmet Fox; Power Through Constructive Thinking

Language only does our true experience justice. But a lot of us go through life with a very language-oriented experience. Everything must be definable. If it seeps outside the boundaries of the dictionary, we close it off and limit it to what we can define.

Fox goes on to say…

We think certain thoughts; we have certain experiences; and then language, with its hard and fast boundaries, says, “You shall not say that wonderful thing — you shall say only this” — and we find on paper the pale lifeless shadow of the thing that came to life in our soul.

Try loosening the boundaries of the language you use. Play with using language outside the parameters of what you’re used to in the conversations you have both in your head and out loud.

If you’re talking about love and a word comes to mind like pungent or brawling for whatever reason, let yourself use it. It may not make sense to the mind that lives in the material, but it makes sense to the heart and soul.

An expanded use of language is an immediate way to deepen our human experience.

Test your edges often. And if it doesn’t fit within the grasp of material language, allow yourself to experience it with the language of the soul which is perfect without words.


Jonas Ellison is a spiritual writer, teacher, practitioner, and an interfaith minister-in-training. He helps people deepen their lives through applied spirituality while documenting his journey along the way.

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