Say what…?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about speech/ language and the purpose of it. Mainly because i want to write a play and the emphasis is often more on dialogue.

Every time the thought pops up one film springs to mind, the documentary, Project Nim. Project Nim is about a chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky, taken from his monkey mum at birth and raised by humans as part of an experiment to see if monkeys could construct sentences. The monkey was taught sign language and observed by scientists for most of his life but in the end the lead scientist, Professor Herb Terrace, (whose moustache would stand him in goodstead this Movember) concluded that Nim was not constructing sentences, just using words to ‘get what he wanted‘ (mostly food, hugs and a kitten that he quite liked to hump!)

In spite of our supposed civilised nature there is something deeply inherent in humans that understands this chimps’s naked intent. From the bible:

If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to harness the whole body…Indeed we put bits in horses’ mouths that they may obey us, and we turn (or control) their whole body. James 3:2-3

Indeed i wonder, whether the role of language to influence others in giving us what we want has evolved alongside human civilisation, alongside human brain development, as we begin to take on board that we can’t just club someone over the head to get what we want.

But beyond this, language has a powerful influence over our state of mind. In terms of creating drama, I am interested in how language structures the perceptual boundaries that we inhabit. A few words can coax a person out of a dark hole or it can send them scurrying away from the light, never to be seen again. There is an illusion in all of it: a gap between what we say and what we do that creates drama, that breaks trust or makes it.

What does this say about the desire to write… and to speak… to master words… i wonder…? Bringing  Nim back into the picture, for a moment, what separated him from humans is that he didn’t mask what he wanted and sometimes got aggressive if he didn’t get it. It’s funny how Nim was dressed in clothes – perhaps to push his monkey nature from view – to foster an illusion that he was more human than ape.

Coming back to considering dialogue – what’s interesting about language is the many possibilities there are for structuring sentences and presumably therefore, creating drama.


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