An aspect so often ignored with language is that what works is much more important than how it works. If you have a dinner guest who asks where the silverware is located, you may truthfully reply, ˝In the drawer.˝ This may be technically true, but if there are three drawers, and your guest checks the closest drawer when you meant the farthest drawer, your answer was not as useful as it could have been. Simply put, correspondence to reality is a better goal for language than truth.
This point becomes really pivotal then: anytime someone asks, “What does________ mean?” an answer that includes what people believe will always be closer to reality than an answer that excludes people. For example:
- What is truth? Truth is a word that people use to describe when almost all people agree on something.
- What is freedom? Freedom is a word that people use to describe the extent of multiplicity of options an organism generally has.
- What is genius? Genius is a word that people use to describe when a person creates ideas or things that most people later agree to be valuable.
It’s certainly more concise and better sounding to leave out the part regarding people’s beliefs, which causes people then to go ahead and leave it out. But just realize then that if you do omit the part having to do with people, your definition will be at least a bit farther from reality than the more inclusive definition.
So, on one level language is not very complicated as exemplified by the fact that young children use it very effectively. But, because language can describe anything we want it to, it’s description can become dizzyingly complex. Just consider this example of a “short” list of concepts that are words used only to describe various aspects of language:
All of these different ways of describing language become extremely problematic when someone attempts to learn about language. It seems overwhelming, to say the least. There are so many people, such as teachers, and lawyers, and philosophers, and salespeople, and on and on, who sense a need to learn about language, but then start coming across these terms, and give up, thinking the task obviously too difficult. A person can learn more about language by learning about all of these areas, but that person doesn’t have to.