Although Susanne Langer did a study on humans and animals to show signs vs. symbols in understanding language, Helen Keller and Malcolm X took different paths on discovering the power of language. Langer brings up how there is a difference between symbols and signs, which most people consider them one in the same. For Keller she was deaf and blind from the age of 19 months, where she had difficulty learning how to communicate and understand language. In Malcolm X’s case, he was a street hustler who didn’t get proper education and was frustrated when he couldn’t get his point across through his letters he wrote.
In “Language and thought” it was said, “A sign is anything that announces the existence or the imminence of some event, the presence of a thing or a person, or a change in the state of affairs” (Langer, Pg. 28). Where both humans and animals use signs all the time. For both of us sounds, smells, and motions could be signs of food, danger, the presence of others around us, or of a storm approaching. For animals they use signs for defense, to call out for others, signs of feelings or intentions to be reckoned with or just to let them in.
Humans use signs way more than animals in their everyday life. We answer calls, read other peoples expressions, watch the sky or animals for coming storms, cross streets when there’s a walk man, or wait when it says, stop at red lights and go at green. “In every case a sign is closely bound up with something to be noted or expected in experience” (Langer, Pg. 28). “A symbol differs from a sign in that it does not announce the presence of the object, the being, condition, or whatnot, which is its meaning, but merely brings this thing to mind.
” (Langer, Pg. 28). The difference between sign and symbol is that a sign generates us “to think or act in the face of the thing signified”, and a symbol is people’s concept of the thing symbolized. There are many things that are considered symbols, including words, pictures and memories. For example a heart is a symbol of love and a picture of a smiley face is a symbol of happiness. There are symbols everywhere with great significance or little value. But, according to Langer “The essence of language is symbolic, not signific.
” (Langer, Pg. 31) Since Helen Keller was deaf and blind from a very young age, she didn’t know how to communicate her wants, needs and connect with the people around her. So finally at the age of seven her parents reached out to a teacher familiar with teaching the blind and deaf. Her teachers name was Miss Sullivan who taught her how to communicate by writing the words in Helens hand and letting her feel or touch the object to grasp exactly what it was. It started of with small inanimate objects like doll, hat and cup.
Each time they would progress to more difficult words like sit, stand, walk and water. They went from words to sentences to trying to figure out how to explain the word love. Once she understood miss Sullivan’s definition of love, Keller “felt that there were invisible lines stretched between her spirit and the spirits of others” (Keller Pg. 68) She came to the realization that the deaf and blind have a more difficult time acquiring the amenities of conversation, which she accepts and understands.
Malcolm X grew up in the hustler kind of environment, where he never had a good education and didn’t have to really communicate properly. Soon after Malcolm got arrested for burglary and was in jail, he became obsessed with the written word and books. He would send letters to people he had known in the hustling world, the mayor of Boston, the Governor of Massachusetts and harry S. Truman. Not one of them would write back, which made Malcolm more and more frustrated.
He started off trying to read books to gain knowledge but it was useless because Malcolm didn’t understand most of the words in the books. So he decided the best thing was for him to read a dictionary, to study and learn more adequate words to add to his vocabulary. It started by copying and handwriting every word into his tablet, with every punctuation mark. After he wrote the words he would read them over and over, aloud and wake up thinking about those words. This continued until Malcolm copied the whole dictionary and knew almost every word he could.
When he was done he picked up a book and could now understand what it was about. Malcolm said “I never had been so truly free in my life” (Malcolm Pg. 64). From signs and symbols having different meanings in life to finding enlightenment through a dictionary. All three of these authors have come a long way on their paths of discovering and understanding the power of language and communication. With curiosity, research, self-determination, persistence and keeping an open mind, the world of language can be explored to great measures into understanding its meaning and value.