Crossed wires?

Over the next four months I shall be releasing one small excerpt of my new book, Who Needs Words, on the first day of each month until publication.  This particular excerpt looks at the complexity of even the simplest encounter:


Every time we communicate, from the simplest instruction to the most complex philosophical concept, we engage in a series of intricate manoeuvres across the space which separates two human beings. Let’s imagine that Samantha wants to tell Fergus that the rose outside the window is yellow. Even in this simple exchange, there are numerous steps involved:

  • Samantha sees the rose through the window.
  • Signals from Samantha’s eye travel up her optic nerve into the brain, where it registers the colour yellow.
  • Signals travel from her brain to her facial muscles and her tongue, where she forms the word ‘yellow’.
  • Air particles in the space between Samantha and Fergus are agitated in such a way as to produce a sound wave which travels to Fergus’ ear.
  • From his ear, the signals travel up his nerve to the brain.
  • Fergus then registers the colour yellow in his brain.

Of course, we don’t know whether he is thinking of a deep, rich yellow, or an acidic one. We don’t even know if he is thinking of the particular flower that Samantha is describing. It is these kinds of puzzles which have made the study of linguistics and semantics such a rich one over the years. As soon as we start to look under the surface to see what lies beneath the words we say and the ways in which we combine them, we realise that language itself is a complex and enigmatic thing.


Who Needs Words can be pre-ordered through the Saint Andrew Press.