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When Words Are Not Enough

The difficulty of describing the indescribable

By Aaron PacePublished 8 months ago 3 min read

Here’s a challenge:

  • Without using the word “salty”, describe what salt tastes like.
  • Now, describe the sound of a bell in as much detail as you can to someone born profoundly deaf.
  • Then, describe the color red to a person born completely blind.

It’s likely you’ve been presented with this challenge before. Salty is the flavor of many salts, though there are other salts that are bitter and still others that are sweet. (But what are bitter and sweet?)

A gifted writer can provide beautiful imagery using all kinds of red shades to describe things that are red. Still, she won’t have words to describe red to a blind person who has no frame of reference for color.

It’s the same when trying to describe the sound of a bell to someone born profoundly deaf. There aren’t words to convey the actual sound to someone can hear much less someone who has no frame of reference for sound.

Our ability to make sense of the world around us relies heavily on our own senses and experiences. Only when one has tasted something salty can they understand what salty is. Similarly, they must see the color red and hear the sound of a bell to understand on some level what those are.

Our ability to explain the world around us relies not only on our own senses and experiences but on those senses and experiences of the student. A parent, for example, doesn’t sit a child down and use a cornucopia of words to describe salty to a child. The parent eats something that is, for them, too salty and exclaims, “That’s too salty!” Then, the child learns by tasting.

Through their own experience, that same child may progressively redefine what “too salty” means for them. Even if they became the foremost expert in the world on salty things and became an expert linguist, words would still not be adequate to describe salty.

In the case of saltiness, there is a biological limit that describes what too salty is when we ingest enough that it becomes fatal. Otherwise, a person’s experience is, by definition, subjective. For the person on a low sodium diet, more than a pinch of salt may taste too salty. For the lover of french fries, their tolerance will be much higher.

  • Have you ever studied a complex problem for a long time and had a solution present itself in a kind of explosion in the mind. One moment the solution isn’t there. The next: a fully-formed idea — not one of words; those come as the idea is unpacked. And, if you don’t have adequate words to explain it, the explanation is less grand than the idea.
  • When someone grieves the death of a loved one, there are no words that can (or should) remove that grief. Some words may provide comfort or peace, but words cannot fill the void left when someone dies.
  • When a world-class athlete comes from the “underdog” position to win a major event, they don’t have the words to describe how they feel at winning.
  • When you fall in love.

Why are words inadequate?

It’s a difficult question, one that philosophers and linguistic experts have been grappling with for nearly two hundred years.

Words denote something by standing for it. New words are constantly being invented to either describe new things or describe existing things in new ways. It may be that we grapple with describing the sound of a bell with words because there is no lexicon — yet — sufficient to convey the sound without actually hearing the sound. The use of word and phrases like “Ding Dong” and “Ting-a-ling” approximate the sound, but don’t describe it.

It’s both frustrating and humbling to realize that spoken (or written) language is insufficient to convey certain things. There is so much in life that has to be experienced and internalized without words.

It’s a great reminder not to take any of my senses for granted.

One final thought from Shrek: The Musical:

If words fail, she’ll just take my hand. She sees me like no one else has. If words fail, she’ll understand.

Thanks for reading!


About the Creator

Aaron Pace

Married to my best friend. Father to five exuberant children. Fledgling entrepreneur. Writer. Software developer. Inventory management expert.

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