Friday, 2 October 2009

An absence of words

does not mean an absence of communication. It does not mean a failure to communicate. It is not silence. Silence is an absence of communication.
I spent part of yesterday 'tweaking' a communication board for an architect. He went to Sumatra last night. There is a building there they desperately want to save. He will need to work directly with some locals. They do not speak English or French or Italian. He speaks all three. He does not speak their dialect. His Indonesian is limited to a few polite phrases and the numbers from one to ten. He will go in with a translator who will explain to a local official how they can communicate with one another and then he will be on his own. He has done this sort of thing before in other places. It is lonely. It is incredibly dangerous. It will be his capacity to communicate with an absence of words which will permit him to succeed or fail. Failure is not an option. This is an ancient and very beautiful building.
The communication board consists of arrows and curves and symbols for words like "over" and "under" and "through", "into" and "hold", "left and right". There are symbols for "wall" and "roof" and "door", for "window" and "steps". It looks as if it is written in Outer Galaxian. It may solve a problem on Earth.
I am not an architect. If Anthony tells me he wants to be able to say, "I want you to hold that beam up this way while I go underneath and look" then I have to be able to help him communicate that exactly. They have to understand. His life may depend on it. Other lives may depend on it. The life of the building will depend on it. It has to be said with an absence of words, an absence of spoken words, an absence of written words.
We can speak without words. We cannot communicate with silence.


Adelaide Dupont said...

Now this is a very important use for a communication board.

Are they getting used in Samoa and the Philipines too?

It's hard to communicate abstract things like positions (like 'over' and 'under' and 'through). They really are (or seem to be) verbal rather than spatial concepts.

The first point is a good one.

catdownunder said...

They are used all over the world. Look up 'Blissymbol' and you will find out how to communicate those concepts in the abstract! (Blissymbols are a non-vocal Esperanto that can be used as a bridge between languages.)

Rachel Fenton said...

I find this subject really fascinating. So much so that I have been reading and re-reading it for much of the afternoon. It is so key to choose the words that are the best fit for what we mean to communicate and I think you express this, and how essential words are, brilliantly.

I seem to have spent a long time developing an ability to keep meaning open ended by using very few words and this often leads to various interpretations - which is good when it comes to reading my fiction, but less good in terms of basic interpersonal communication. Hats off to you, Cat.

catdownunder said...

Thankyou Rachel. I still feel I am working on it! It will probably take me the rest of my life!