Imagine a language you don't know. Look at the two shapes above. If you had to guess, which one do you think is called 'bouba' in this language and which is called 'kiki'? (While you're thinking, insert terrible, repetitive music here: the kind of thing you get when a company puts you on hold). Done? If you're like about 98% of people, you'll have guessed that the jagged shape is 'kiki' and the splat or blob is 'bouba'. That's what Vilanayur Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard found when they tried this experiment with students in 2001. Why does this happen? Is it because the spiky shape reminds us of the letter 'k' and the rounder shape looks a bit more like a letter 'b'? Performing this experiment on non-English speakers who use different writing systems suggests not.
So what on earth's going on? V.S. Ramachandran suggests this experiment offers a clue about the embodied nature of our language. As he says in 'The Tell Tale Brain': "the gentle curves and undulations of contour on the amoeba-like figure metaphorically (one might say) mimic the gentle undulations of the sound 'bouba', as represented in the hearing centres of the brain and in the smooth rounding and relaxing of the lips for producing the curved 'booo-baaa' sound. On the other hand, the sharp wave forms of the sound 'kee-kee' and the sharp inflection of the tongue on the palate mimic the sudden changes in the jagged visual shape."
Of course, this is an artificial example: the words and shapes have been invented. But some neuroscientists believe all language is strongly connected to the physical world. To oversimplify things vastly, an evolutionary argument might go a bit like this: in early human life, communication was primarily gestural (what some theorists call 'protolanguage'), then gestures accompanied by expressive vocalisations. There is a link between manual gestures and lip and tongue movements. The origins of language are thus physical and words correspond physically to the things they are supposed to represent. Correspondences might be visual or auditory. For example, words like 'enormous' or 'large' require a physical enlargement of the mouth as they are spoken. If you think about the phrase 'come here', you'll know it's gestured by flexing the fingers of the hand towards the palm. The tongue makes a similar movement as it curls back to touch the palate when you say the word 'here'. Words, it's argued, are fundamentally embodied.
Broca's area in the frontal cortex of the brain (see the picture) contains maps which send signals to the various muscles of the tongue, lips, palate and larynx to generate speech. It's no coincidence that this area also contains many mirror neurons (I'll return to these elsewhere) which help us to connect the oral actions for sounds, listening to words and watching lip movements. Mirror neurons help us to link concepts across different brain maps. They are just a crucial 'jigsaw piece' in the puzzle of language evolution. They suggest evidence for the argument proposed by Feldman (2008) and others that "language and thought are adaptations that extend abilities we share with other animals". They are a bridge between us and the external world.
Thinking of language as something 'embodied', something that arises naturally from the world and from neural networks does not, perhaps, make it seem any less miraculous. A common experience for writers (and, I'd venture to say, poets in particular) is feeling like they don't have 'the right words' for what they want to express. Language does not always feel adequate. A common theme in John Burnside's work, for example, is seeking to be in a state 'beyond' language. This echoes the idea that poems somehow aspire to a kind of silence, without the interference of language at all, a controversial and interesting idea advanced by Don Paterson. P.J. Kavanagh has described poetry as "an attempt to find the music in the words describing an intuition" and any writer who has experienced writers' block will know how quickly that 'music' can seem lost. To quote Anthony Hecht: "Sooner or later even the poem I'm most proud of lies lifeless on the page before me, completely inert and without merit; and I have no idea where another will come from and when."
Language, then, can quickly seem like an empty vehicle. Here's John Burnside's poem 'Septuagasima' *:
I'll let him have the last word for now.
* For a clear explanation of this poem, the site 'Ready Steady Book' is a good bet.