Limitations of Language
It is said “words are the voice of the mind”, that is to say whatever thinking and emotions one may have will finally be reflected in his or her language. However, in many cases, language is limited and may not be as powerful as one may expect.
Concerning the issue, there is no shortage of descriptions of this kind in Chinese classical literatures. For examples, Liu Yuxi (772–842) wrote: “How lamentable it is that words are so powerless to express one’s deep feelings; there is no match between the two” (“Shidao huange”); Huang Tingjian (1045–1105) had a poem: “While my mouth may not be unable to utter what I am feeling, my heart is really content with what I have appreciated” (“Pinling”). Also, a Buddha in the Lotus Sutra: “Stop, stop! There is no need to utter anymore since my dharma is so marvelous and it is impossible to convey it to anyone” (Miaofa lianhuajing, “Fangbian”). Meanwhile, expressions of this kind are: “my feelings can hardly be described in any language”, “it is hard to find someone who can really appreciate what I have meant”, “my language fails to express my idea” so on and so forth.
More typically, Tao Yuanming (365–427) said in his “Poems after Drinking Wine”: “There are certain things that move me deeply, which I would like to tell but at the very moment I lose the words”. The critic Lu Ji (261–303) had a comment in his Rhapsody on Literature: “My constant concern is that my ideas may not have reflected the objects accurately, and my writing may be deficient of my abundant ideas”, revealing a constant struggle between an author and his language.
As the well-known scholar Qian Zhongshu points out, “Discussing literatures or arts often causes the same frustration. When listening to music, viewing a painting, or enjoying fabulous scenery, your heart and soul are merged with the things that have been perceived. Yet it is almost impossible for you to describe and convey what you have been moved by at the spot; if you do that, you may end up resembling the roc in Jia Yi’s poem where he could not put his thoughts into words properly. Or, if you imaginatively construct a delicate framework of analogies where abundant metaphors and figures of speech are presented, as Sikong Tu did in his Modes of Poetry, you may have drawn or caved a replica vividly, but still only fashioned a resemblance which never affects others to have the same aesthetic experience as you had. That is the reason why it has been widely agreed that literary criticism, for instance, should basically never be expressed in words; it can only be circled around in the field” (Limited Views).
The contemporary writer Zhang Yihe has a heartbreaking writing: “By writing this book, my desire was to relieve my dying heart and to gain some strength and purpose for my survival. However, I was dead wrong! The moment I picked up the pen, I realized how powerless and useless the words, the language!…I doubt they can ever convey a person’s true love, joy, pain or hatred” (The Past Events Have not Vanished like Smoke). This has proved literary critic Liu Xie’s (465–522) point in his Dragon Carvings on the Literary Mind. “The delicate nuances of language lie at the boundaries of thought and the subtle meanings of a sense of feeling beyond any written words: this is where a speech is held back from its further pursuit and a pen halts without a clear realization”.
Meanwhile, once a saying is formed it becomes independent and multifaceted. As Mozi said that “Utterance has many meanings”, “As the language is being conveyed its meanings may vary gradually; as it changes its course, it may damage someone. When it is carried far away, it will be lost somewhere; when it is set adrift it will deviate from its original route” (Mozi, “Xiaoqu”). Also, the historian Lü Buwei pointed out in his The Spring and Autumn Annals of Lü: “Words cannot go without being scrutinized”, “More often than not words appear to be one thing but turn up to be another”. These comments have illustrated the “unreliability” of a language from another prospective.
In short, by realizing its limitations, we may in fact gain certain insights in mastering a language.