How to order coffee with the (un?)necessary complexity of human language

How would you pick just seven words to compose the entire universe of human language?

Abu Nuwas, Drawing by Khalil Gibran, al-Funun ...
This is not Khalil Gibran (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The poet Kahlil Gibran said that people will never understand each other unless language is reduced to seven words, and today’s prompt wants our input on that.

I don’t think he was being literal, for what it’s worth, but that he was making a statement about the complexity of human interaction and the difficulties we have in understanding each other to the fullest extent. Is it even possible to really understand someone else? Even if you comprehend the words, the meaning, and the context of what they say, I propose that it’s impossible to have a full understanding of why they say what they say.

I think that he was saying that human language itself is so complex – I say necessarily so – that it is impossible to understand one another, to penetrate the veil of language we use to interface. At the end of the post, with or without cheese every single one of us is an enigma wrapped in a riddle on a sesame seed bun. We often have to take for granted without even realizing so that the words of a generally truthful person are truth, and we find ourselves suspecting the words of a person who is untrustworthy or unproven. This is why people have the ability to surprise and betray us.

In that light, would we even want the ability to reduce language to seven words? Wouldn’t that remove some of the spontaneity and privacy of our inner natures? Think about it from the point of view of the person who uses language as a tool, rather than the person on whom it is used; we use the complexity of language as a utility to get things done – how primitive would we be if we only had seven words to do that? I mean, we could work it like machine language, have complex matrices of meaning that could turn seven words into a usable language, but that would make interaction long and cumbersome, and the creative and inventive nature of humanity would inevitably create more words to reduce the burden. That is why simplifying language would make it a jillion times more complex. Irony!!

In effect, if we shorten language to seven words, we would just undo it all over again.

7words

But imagine for a moment that we could – what would my words be? First of all, if we take everything for granted as a positive statement, then we need a negation: the word meaning not, no, or none. Then we need a word to identify ourselves, and combined with the negation we get “not me”, which could mean you, they, he, or she. That’s two. Maybe a word for “it” and a word for “like” – that’s four. “Eat”, “sleep”, and “make”. That’s seven all told, and that would be scary – because how long would I be waiting in line at the Starbucks if the guy in front of me plans to order a venti quad skinny caramel macchiato with just those seven words at his disposal?

I’d rather just make coffee at home after that.

What do you think? How might we get around the seven word barrier? Is it possible? Would you even want it to be possible? Would you make reading War and Peace a lifelong project? Use your words in the comments!


This post was prompted by today’s Daily Post prompt.

34 thoughts on “How to order coffee with the (un?)necessary complexity of human language”

  1. Presumably we could point for ‘you’ and ‘me’, although this would be hard on people who’ve lost fingers. And you couldn’t make coffee at home, because 7 words wouldn’t cover the instruction manual. I agree – it’s not possible to understand anyone fully, even with complex language, so just think. With 7 words, would could do what we liked and and plead ‘misundertood’.

    1. Exactly, and that’s why we would be primitive, because how can you even teach manners if the brevity of one’s linguistic cannon is used as an excuse for ignorance?

      That being said though, pointing would work well enough for ‘you’ and ‘me’ if there were no telephone or written communications. And making coffee could easily be learned through observation, but that might make it difficult for coffee to move outside of its originating region!

  2. With only seven words no way to have a good conversation or to write a good story. No communication. Life would be so boring. I would feel trapped by my seven words and isolated.

        1. That’s the thing – we’re thinking it through right now. We could use a visual, pictographic sort of language, but we also have to be able to understand the concepts comprising the images. It’s hard to imagine getting to that point with only seven words…

            1. Ha, have you seen heiroglyphics? That’s not terribly complicated. It would probably be the same as penmanship – some would care, some would not, and quality would fall into a spectrum from legible to “I just broke my pencil – again.”

              1. But then hieroglyphics, though pictures, are technically also words. So that might be cheating and going above the 7 words allowed.

                I agree with you, though; I thought about how language started, or actually communication, and it really was related to cavemen and finding the best food, or warning against danger. That’s pretty narrow. It definitely doesn’t allow for the depth of creativity that has developed since – philosophy, debates, treatises, novels. And it’s so basic it probably doesn’t allow for coffee, either. Which would really suck.

                1. Right, I completely agree about the hieroglyphics and the cavemen. Furthermore, I think with those basic words it’s an inevitable road to “see a need / fill the need” until the language has become robust again; like a plant, it can grow back if you cut it off above the ground. This is part of how language seems to act like an organism, isn’t it?

                  1. Yes, absolutely. I like that metaphor. Language developed out of a need to express ourselves, to name and discuss the world around us, and out of a greater understanding of that world. With all that accumulated learning and understanding, I don’t think we could go back to caveman-style communication.

                    And with all the personal interpretations of words, as both you and I have pointed out in our posts, even if we had 7 words, we wouldn’t really understand each other.

                    So I guess Gibran’s theory has been disproved…but maybe it only takes 7 words to do so 🙂

  3. It is not just seven words but what seven important words can do to all of us…………. seven words in all languages meaning the same…..not the same words but equivalent words which match the deeds. So no not seven words in literal sense otherwise Khalil Gibran would not have used so many words to illustrate his ideas

  4. During a time when our ancestors really did lack language – they were still able to communicate, through both actions and reading each others’ faces, which is why we have developed such a sharp ability to tell what others are thinking just by looking at them. I would hate a world with such a primitive language, but through that this was worth throwing out there.

    1. It’s true, and you make a compelling point – if we were reduced to seven words, there’s still gestures and body language, and actually if our verbiage were so abbreviated we might develop an even better knack for reading expressions and body language. Imagine such a world! I’d admit in such conditions, it might be possible to progress somewhat beyond the ‘caveman’ stage, but how far depends upon the society itself, right?

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