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Touch, non-humans and the 7%

I make kissy noises and high pitched coo’s at my grandparents dogs and I know they know what I’m getting at.

At any chance I get, I hold their tiny heads in my hands and stroke their ears back, circling my thumbs against their cheeks, nuzzling my face against their necks and I’m surprised they even let me. They seem to be having a good time. All day, as I go between the living room and the bathroom, from the kitchen to my room, I will never not stop to give them a little pat if I pass them. It would almost seem rude. Something like a hello. I would never pass a family member without acknowledging their presence. As I write this my grandma passes through the room I’m sat in, giving the resting dog a little pet on the back.

Our language with animals is one of touch. When we don’t share a vocabulary of words, touch is more universal. The dogs know that there is not threat in my touch, only one of affection and care. That much our language encompasses.

My brother sits on the sofa now making faces at them. Opening his mouth wide and scrunching his face back up. The younger of the dogs cocks her head at him and then pounces to lick his face. My brother puts his palm around her mouth and she tries to bite his hand playfully, but he gets her under his armpit in a pretend stranglehold and she pounces excitedly across his lap. Touch is the way the two communicate their trust in each other.

It made me reflect on what languages we employ to communicate with non-human peoples. Through touch we communicate and build relationships with animals. How far does this extend to, for example, a tree? What if you greeted every tree you passed just as you do with people on the street?

But I think we overestimate the efficacy of words anyway. While watching this talk with Camille Barton, they pull up a pie chart graphic explaining that based on the research fo Dr Albert Mehrabian, only 7% of what we communicate is through spoken word! The rest is said with our bodes and tone. Does that mean the language we share with non-humans is only 7% less effective than with humans?

I have recently been rereading The Argonauts and in it Maggie Nelson discusses the efficacy of language, are words good enough?!, quoting twice Wittgenstein’s idea that the “inexpressible is – inexpressibly! – contained in the expressed”. What this says to me is that in the very act of continually attempting to express ourselves, despite the inherent fallibility built into language, is what encapsulates more meaning than the words themselves.

Nothing brings us to the limits of our spoken language as much as attempts to express love. All that can be formulated here are understatements. Falling through worn out cliches, lovers land with a thud at the conclusion that theirs cannot possibly be the language of words. But still they claw at whatever language is at their disposition, and it is precisely this ceaseless attempt, pouring into letters, poems, song lyrics that is the true labour of love. These expressions will always belong to the realm of excess. Somewhere is there is world where all these words go to indulge in an orgi of superfluousness. In this land there are rolling hills of overflow, forested with thick woods of wasted words, where surplus sentences collect in rivers. They dance around the point in long-winded loops, gorgeously ornamental, outrageously inefficient, because it is the only way they know how. So desperately and clumsy we attempt to stitch together the crumbs of language we have hoping they might one day coagulate into something that comes even close to the way we feel.


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