How Much Language Fails to Measure Up the Richness and Complicacy of Communication

free essayKaren Joy Fowler is the author of the mega-bestseller We Are All Completely beside Ourselves. This novel combines witty character drama and a tragic story about science, ripping readers’ hearts and electrifying their brains. Language and communication appear to be the two interlaced opposing themes presented from numerous angles.

It is obvious that the ability to use language has long appeared to be a differentiating indicator of human peculiarity and originality. Nevertheless, Fowler’s novel actually challenges the reader to reconsider this presumably exceptional and unique human ability for language together with all other indexes of ownership regarding this ability. The story challenges this supposition, presenting two siblings of approximately similar age easily communicating with each other. The novel demonstrates these girls in such a manner that readers believe that they are typical sisters. The truth is revealed only on the 70th page, where readers understand that one of the girls, namely Fern, was chimpanzee. The other girl, Rosemary narrates the story of her life. Rosemary, particularly comments on human language, suggesting that utilization of human language in a form of human ownership and uniqueness incites human beings to overlook and neglect different capabilities and opportunities that animals actually have. Moreover, human beings, contrary to animals, might practically lack them. In addition, Rosemary supposed that while putting overstated and exaggerated value on the unique language ability, people underestimate how much language actually fails in measuring abundance and nuances of reality. Rosemary had a brother, Lowell, who once told her that: “money is the language humans speak. If you want to communicate with humans then you have to learn to speak it” (Fowler 305). Moreover, Rosemary vividly expressed skeptical hesitations regarding the exceptional and ‘disclosive’ character of human language, claiming that language leaded to the fact that human beings replaced instead of capturing the reality. This idea became obvious when Rosemary discussed and reflected on the entanglements of repulsing and narrating the story of her childhood, noting that “language does this to our memories—simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies. An oft-told story is like a photograph in a family album; eventually, it replaces the moment it was meant to capture” (Fowler 48). In addition, she provided analogous conclusions when attempting to connect the details of a particular event from her childhood, complaining that: “language is such an imprecise vehicle I sometimes wonder why we bother with it” (Fowler 85). On the other hand, Rosemary’s family appeared to believe profoundly in the exceptional role of language, abiding silently by the events relating to Fern’s removal and relocation, supposing that linguistic silence might help them together cope with emotions.

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Rosemary was actually brought up in a highly institutional and intellectual setting, which was overpowered by pursuit and search for anthropological discrepancies. Rosemary’s father was responsible for bringing Fern and Rosemary together. He adhered to a traditional anthropological and metaphysical idea, persisting that Fern as well as other animals were capable of merely communicating with each other, which did not presuppose that they had some specific individual language. In fact, her father conducted a cross-stimulating experiment within his family not to study whether Fern had her own language but merely to understand whether she was able to learn using a borrowed language, meaning, human language. It became obvious when Lowell asked their father why Fern had to learn human language and not vice versa. Father answered that Lowell was actually confusing language with communication, despite the fact that these two appeared as absolutely different things, as: “language is more than just words. Language is also the order of words and the way one word infects another” (Fowler 98). In fact, Rosemary observed her capability of learning and using a wide variety of words in a form of the only capability, which she had contrary to Fern: “the only thing I do better is talk, and it’s not clear to me that this is a good trade-off” (Fowler 82).

The novel vividly demonstrates that Rosemary’s imprudent garrulity results from the attention she obtains being an object of her father’s and his graduate students’ experiment and research, due to the fact that it allows her to gain admission from other people and reveals her difference from Fern.

As Rosemary was growing, her language development “not only contrasted with Fern’s but also introduced a perfectly predictable x-factor” undermining all comparisons between her and Fern (Fowler 99). The research and experiment attempted to reveal pre-linguistic methods of communication and connections that could appear between Fern and Rosemary. Nevertheless, they all were discharged and neglected by Rosemary’s father, who considered them as “unscientific and whimsical” (Fowler 98). In fact, Fern’s exceptional capabilities together with numerous alternative methods of connection and communication, which evolved between Fern and Rosemary, appear to be beyond the discourse of conceptual language.

One of the major ideas, which the author attempts to express through Rosemary, stands for the fact that communication does not always presuppose a verbal constituent. All characters of the novel, who did not participate in the Rosemary-Fern experiment, did not understand that Rosemary was capable of noticing nonverbal signs. The girl noticed that one of her father’s students once argued that Rosemary and Fern appeared to have: “idioglossia, a secret language of grunts and gestures” (Fowler 100). It meant that Fern was capable of communicating with the family, particularly with Rose. Moreover, Rose numerous times mentioned that she constantly comprehended everything what Fern was communicating to her and was used to perform a role of a translator, as she:” developed the habit of speaking for [Fern]” (Fowler 100). Thus, instead of analyzing and researching how well Fern could communicate it was more appropriate to study how well she could communicate specifically with Rosemary. In fact, Rosemary’s acquisition of ‘idioglossia’ helped the girl to constantly read people on the basis of their nonverbal signals. Due to the fact that the girl was brought up together with chimpanzee, she appeared to behave in a similar way. This was the main reason why she was taught to imitate other people’s nonverbal language in order to enhance her social standing. Rosemary’s father explained that people unconsciously liked when their movements were mirrored by the other person they communicated with. Therefore, when someone leaned to talk with Rosemary, she used to likewise lean in, she crossed her legs if other people did that, smiled in return to their smile, etc. (Fowler 112). This nonverbal technique appeared to be apparent when Rosemary was discussing her final test failure. Therefore, when her professor, Dr. Sosa, leaned forward, forcing the girl into a friendly eye contact she did absolutely the same, mirroring his posture and holding his gaze (Fowler 233). Rosemary’s father once suggested performing an experiment, nodding each time when the professor looked in her direction. This helped her to understand that the professor typically started looking at her way more and more often, making her an exceptional students out of one hundred of others. This was the manner in which she communicated with Dr. Sosa, who was carefully conditioned, and Rosemary looked precisely at him and nodded to all his expressions. Rosemary and Dr. Sosa had a “silent rapport” (Fowler 147). Moreover, Rosemary utilized this nonverbal way of communication with other characters, including Reg, Harlow’s boyfriend. They were talking in a noisy beer-and-hamburger place, where Rosemary could hardly hear him, but nodded in an attempt to make an “agreeable gesture” (Fowler 162). The girl understood how to read other children’s faces at the time when she got to the kindergarten. It helped her to understand and become proficient in nonverbal communication as children faces appeared to be less guarded than adult’s but not as expressive as chimpanzees’ (Fowler 102). Rosemary became so proficient in nonverbal communication that the author provides the main character with a possibility of explaining them in a very peculiar linguistic manner: “this-hurts-me-more-than-it-hurts-you” facial expression (Fowler 40), “foot-stamping-middle-finger-thrusting” behavior (Fowler 226), “picture-in-the-post-office” appearance (Fowler 236), etc.

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Nevertheless, Rosemary’s way of understanding the proper usage of nonverbal communication was complicated and intricate. Her kindergarten classmates were capable of understanding that the girl was different from them and perceived her as a fake imitation of a human being, being cruel to everything different and bulling her, calling Rosemary a “monkey girl”. Due to the fact that the girl did not actually understand this type of cruelness, the only thing she did in her defense was talkativeness. Rosemary corrected children regarding their usage of monkey/ape appellation, explaining that monkeys and apes were different and humans also belonged to ape species. Nevertheless, they: “refused to believe they were apes themselves. Their parents assured them they weren’t. I was told that a whole Sunday school class had been devoted to rebutting me” (Fowler 102). Rosemary was a highly talkative child. Her babysitter, Melissa, could not stand the fact that Rosemary talked so much, so she invented a trick to make her quiet for an hour, namely, in a form of teaching her a new word from dictionary. Rosemary’s grandmother Fredericka constantly stopped the girl’s talks by a phrase: “Can you hush up for just one minute so I can hear myself think?” (Fowler 38). Nevertheless, Rosemary talkativeness disappeared together with her sister-chimpanzee, Fern, because no one was interested in her creative grammar, compound lexemes, and gymnastic conjugations (Fowler 108). As Rosemary grew older, she started to talk less, believing that: “a spoken word converts individual knowledge into mutual [one]” (Fowler 126). The main character believed that silence was the best course of action. Moreover, despite the fact that her father studied Fern’s capacity of learning human language, he rarely talked with his children and wife. Rosemary’s parent typically talked rarely in the evening, discussing his professional standing together with the problems arising from the upbringing of their children. Regardless of the fact that Rosemary’s parent attempted to pretend that they were: “a god heart-to-heart family, a family who turned to each other in times of trial”, the girl was absolutely sure that they had never been that family type (Fowler 17). Therefore, the girl did not learn to communicate properly as communication was not common in her family. In addition, her family accustomed her together with her brother Lowell to incorrect communicative intercourses through presenting the lie regarding Fern’s disappearance, demonstrating that concealment of the truth removed the problem. Rosemary understood that avoiding talking on intimate topics was not the best way out, but sometimes it was better not to discuss some themes (Fowler 37). Moreover, the family had a rule of non-discussing missing family members, which also formed invalid communicative frameworks.

It is very important to mention that the prologue together with each of the six parts of the novel is opened with a quotation from Franz Kafka’s Report to an Academy, which provides a number of apparently tedious speculations on the process of becoming a human being. In fact, these citations may appear challenging for the novel’s readers to reconsider the restrictions of human language. Therefore, Fowler’s novels might be regarded as a feasible and conditional replication of the above-mentioned Kafka’s challenge. Thus, similarly to Kafka’s Report to an Academy, this novel provides a number of considerations on the process of becoming a human being. Contrary to Kafka’s work, this novel demonstrates a protagonist who is nurtured together with a chimpanzee and has to become a human being, while experiencing troublesome outcomes of obstacles and communication problems. Both works reveal that dominant human languages and institutions fail to pay tribute to the richness of various forms of communication, including animals’ one, as if complete insertion in human culture induces one to extract oneself from other-than-human language and communication forms by force.

Generally speaking, communication stands for the process of exchanging information, while language is believed to be a static system of linguistic units’ structure. Sometimes, Fowler purposefully contradistinguishes language and communication. For example, in the situation where Rosemary met her brother Lowell, the author deliberately utilizes the word ‘communicate’, as the situation required characters’ intercourse without language usage. Rosemary had to understand what her brother told her friend Harlow about their family, while Lowell simultaneously had to comprehend what Rosemary apprised to her. This was the situation in which both characters were supposed to estimate what the other did not want to reveal and this: “had to be communicated quickly in full view of Harlow, but without her knowing” (Fowler 189).


This type of communication incorporates the notion of levels of embedded imputations. The majority of children reaching the age of six or seven develop a theory of mind that incorporates embedded mental states. The first layer of this mind theory can be illustrated as: “mommy thinks I’ve gone to bed” (Fowler 188). An additional layer is an ability to handle, exploit, and analyze the first layer: “daddy doesn’t know that mommy thinks I’ve gone to bed” (Fowler 188). The author demonstrates that social interactions require a great deal of awareness of embedded states, while the majority of adults are capable of doing this effortlessly and unconsciously. Therefore, communication being more complicated than language requires a modeling language in a form of constituent for an embedded system formulation.

In fact, communication incorporates any conduct that can be perceived and interpreted, including sending nonverbal messages (voice tone, facial expressions, gestures, and behavior). This is the main reason why communication involves a complicated, multilayered, dynamic operation allowing exchanges of meaning and message. Hence, the book is highly important for the study of human-animal communication problems. Despite the fact that humans and animals can communicate, human language is the only way in which animals, especially chimps, differ from human beings. Animals, particularly chimps, appear to be doomed to fail in this opposition only because they are physiologically incapable of speaking orally (Fowler 287). As Rosemary’s father experimented with teaching Fern talking, his own son, being a member of Animal Liberation Front, refused to talk, remaining silent since his arrest. Even though this silence was puzzling for everyone, the reason was obvious to Rosemary, who believed that Lowell decided to be treated as an animal, a nonhuman being (Fowler 305). This was his manner of communicating revolt. Therefore, the novel suggests that the uniqueness of human language can be viewed as an excuse for exploitative human-animal relationships, based on human domination due to the language ability.

Fowler’s novel We Are All Completely beside Ourselves is a highly interesting narration revealing contradicting connections between language and communication. The books vividly demonstrates that language cannot be considered as the main form of communication, as characters, both humans and animals, constantly socialize, using nonverbal signals, gestures, and body language. Nevertheless, language is the main unique feature of human beings, which distinguishes humans among any other living creatures. The protagonist of the novel is nurtured together with a chimp, meaning that the communicative frameworks she obtains since early childhood are close to chimp’s ones. Due to the fact that language is the main thing that differentiates Rosemary from Fern, the girl develops constant chatting, accompanied by creative grammar, compound lexemes, and gymnastic conjugations. Nevertheless, when Fern disappears from Rosemary’s life, the girl encounters the importance of developing human communicative patterns not to be bullied as a different person or a fake imitation of a human being. Nevertheless, the experimental nurturing allowed the girl to evolve acute understanding of nonverbal communication, which sometimes appears to be more important than language itself. The book raises extremely significant issues of the human-animal communication problem. It actually suggests that the uniqueness of human language can be viewed as an excuse for exploitative human-animal relationships, based on human domination due to the language ability. The novel also demonstrates that while putting overstated and exaggerated value on the unique language ability, people underestimate how much language actually fails in measuring the abundance and complexity of communication.