I’ve often tried to learn more about language, but have found myself either too confused or conversely unsatisfied. Other explanations seem to either spend too much time referring to words and terms only known to a select few, or are simply too simple. And they all leave important stuff out. So what this is then, is an attempt to concisely organize what seems to be the most relevant things I’ve learned…
Many of our confusions and disagreements are complex versions of this simplified example: Let’s pretend that I have a job sorting paper with colored swatches into two piles – blue and red. All papers must go into one pile or the other. This job is simple and mundane for awhile. Soon, though, I come across a color sample with a blend of red and blue, something like this:
Problems occur when we are incapable of creating new piles. If I must be confined to either of only two choices, when we come across new examples of something, it will be impossible to come to a consensus. I could ask hundreds or thousands of people if this color sample would be best in the blue or the red, but I will never get 100% agreement if I must keep the options to the two original ones.
If I ask a question such as, “Is there free will?” I am doing something similar. I am ignoring the possibility of creating new ways of describing that may be more accurate than the old. You can say, “Yes there is free will,” or you can say, “No there isn’t free will,” but you are ignoring that there are other ways of describing reality. This is critically important. Language is a tool that belongs to people. There are no words or concepts that themselves exist independently of people, and a frequent failure to realize this too often becomes a pause on the potential progress of human thought. These are more than just fallacies of false choice; they are linguistic shackles on human intellect.
Language is a frustratingly complex symbolic system, yet it is effectively used by small children. Language has been thoroughly explained by those with brilliant minds in disparate fields, yet a complete understanding of it remains frustratingly beyond our grasps. It always seems as though just as we reveal something new about language, just as we appear certain to construct some edifice of ultimate linguistic understanding, those damn counterexamples keep cropping up, as if in language as with nothing else, there is this holy grail of scientific system building, yet, almost schizophrenically, there can be nothing scientifically secure. Why is this?
There are several reasons. A big one is that words, or any unit of meaning, do not represent some eternal, scientifically measurable truth. Instead, they represent our beliefs regarding reality. Language is just a lot more subjective than we often realize. As a reflection of our beliefs rather than reality it is itself imprisoned by the subjective constraints of our minds. Thinking of our words and meanings as mere tools can help us avoid conflating them with the objects of the tools.
And then consider the extent to which what everything one person believes intertwines with the belief systems of every other person. Our belief networks are incredibly complicated, creatively elaborate, and elusively impossible to completely understand. Not one person seems to be in complete understanding of every one of his desires, memories, and beliefs. When one person tries to understand those of one other person, the task becomes exponentially more difficult, and then again when trying to understanding the beliefs of groups of others.
I’ve read a lot of language philosophy, much of which I’ve found fascinating. However, a larger part of it seems to muddy the layman’s waters. To me, much of language philosophy seems to be concerned with creating systems to describe how we use language, and then addressing the problems that other philosophers find with those systems. Explanation becomes layered upon other explanation, creating a complicated morass that is practically unrecognizable to people outside of the field. Heated debates then happen, using argued definitions of such things as reference and sense and scads of linguistic specific jargon to argue questions, such as: What is meaning? How do words work? How do words refer to objects? These are topic that often seem trivial to outsiders.
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, and I mean 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.
The constituents of language, then, can be considered a third reality. All language exists in the first reality as ink on a paper, or electrons on a screen, or sound waves created by vocal cords. Crucially, though, all language also must exist in the second reality. All language depends upon prior belief, which itself depends upon prior reality.
Conversely much of reality exists without belief, and much of belief exists without language, including all belief outside of people – i.e., animals.
One reason why describing language as a third reality can be helpful, is that it can reduce linguistic confusion. A lack of realization of belief’s influence on language frequently leads to confusion. Whenever you comprehend the words of another you are always doing so through the filter of their beliefs. You can never remove this filter, though you can take steps to remove the distortions of its influence.
A gap seems to exist between our understanding of language and our potential to understand language, particularly for large swathes of people isolated and intimidated by the manner in which language is currently explained. Additionally, a greater realization that language is a way of depicting our beliefs rather than reality itself seems to lend itself to a potential of resolution of conflicts more due to differing definitions and concepts than people currently realize. My choice in words is not affected by truth as much as I would like to believe, but rather by my belief in the words’ correspondence to reality.
Perhaps the lesser-haired man was wanting to climb the mountain, but after hearing of it’s description, he changed his mind. Some obvious means exist of clearing this confusion, such as the asking for more detail, and the seeking out of other sources. There are other ways too, but they all share the quality of first realizing the risk of equating words with reality rather than belief.
Concepts could be thought of as being utilitarian by nature. They are also subject to a sort of natural selection. These concepts exist, and ultimately persist or fade, based upon how well they serve us. Democracy, as one example, is nothing more than an idea, melded together of other ideas, such as, that leaders should be chosen based upon the will of the people those leaders serve. This one concept, though, draws upon, and lends characteristics to a multitude of other beliefs and concepts. That people vote is only one of a vast number of these potential characteristics. As is how they vote, and who exactly gets to do so – and what is an election, and a campaign, and how does campaign finance reform play into this? And what are the characteristics of a dual party system versus a multi-party system? You could list examples of good democracies, and you could even list examples of bad monarchies which led to revolutions, which led to the good democracies. Why doesn’t everybody automatically advocate democracy? What is the role of the media? What is a hanging chad?
Every person has his own idea of democracy, just as every person has his own idea of apples, and chairs, and a “good economy.” And when I speak of any of these things, I must be aware of these differences. Otherwise, I risk assuming that mine and someone else’s concepts are more similar than they really are. Though difficult to quantify, concepts such as democracy are comprised of more concepts than concepts such of chair, allowing for more opportunity for one person’s ideas to diverge from another’s.
All of these concepts are based physically in our brain. And as with belief, their shared purpose is to help us navigate our future world. Understanding the complexity and the potential differences can help us to take care not to assign one-to-one correspondence between them.
We Control Language
Another critical reason for this trichotomy is is that it gives us control over language, rather than the other way around. Instead of thinking that we have basically reached our maximum potential at around four years of age (as was thought and taught for decades, even recently), we can do better at looking at how we actually use language compared to how it can be used, with the points being not only to more accurately convey our thoughts, but to better harness the power of this human-language combination.
We control language completely and utterly. We’ve all been born into a world in which language has already existed, and this fact along with the sometimes misguided efforts of prescriptive oriented educators has caused us to see this system of symbols as something more mysterious and eternal than it actually is. Too often it intimidates. Too often fear and apathy content us to restrict our syntax and vocabulary to the lowest common syntaxes and vocabularies of those around this.
There are many ways of improving our language use, many of which do involve isolating parts of language after understanding their specific functions, and practicing those parts found to be individually deficient. In this manner, language is much like other complex systems, such as learning to play the piano, or baseball, or origami. More detail of this will follow later, but it is important now to note that there are large differences between the language of an average four year old, and even an average eight year old. There also could be equally huge differences between your average twenty year old and your average forty year old. Sometimes there are. But often, people prematurely believe that there is some language ceiling, usually that they’ve hit themselves.
Every word is man-made. This entails creativity and flexibility, but also an inherent degree of separation from a language independent reality. Because language conveys representation of belief, which itself only portrays representation of reality, our words can’t themselves possibly be true (or false). They can only succeed (or fail) at putting our beliefs concerning reality into the minds of others. Although we seem to be engaged in an eternal search for truth, precisely because of our reliance on language, we are doomed to come up short. This doesn’t mean that “truth” doesn’t exist. It just means that are words can not be equivalent to it.
An acceptance of this, though, frees us. It allows to do what people have done for so long in taking the reigns of this powerful tool that allowed us to get the upper hand over the rest of the animal kingdom, and gain so much control over our world. Thus, we can create any concept we want, and any word we want, just as we have with all words and concepts that now exist. And when words and concepts lose their usefulness, we are free to discard them. The only thing necessary for any of this is consensus, and that’s not even always required.
Understanding Language’s Limitations – Another Reason for This Distinction
A third key reason for making the distinctions that I do is that it allows us to understand language’s limitations. There are many problems that we can’t solve simply by hammering away at them with words. Words can so often serve as only crude and much less effective replacements for actions.
Also, all words are accompanied and filtered by belief. All belief is subject to bias. Belief is inherently selfish. The evolutionary purpose of belief is, in fact, to do that which best serves it’s creator. All words have a (selfish) purpose beyond the words themselves. Every utterance could be rephrased with some form of, “I believe that…,” or “I think that…,” or “I want…”, or “We think that…”. All of my words then are nothing but a reflection of my beliefs. This means that not only are they subject to my desires, but they are also under my control.
Every concept is affected by multiple beliefs, some of which are difficult for us to perceive. More complex concepts are influenced by a very large number of beliefs which all then branch out to other influential beliefs. Thinking that something is good draws upon beliefs both of what is good, and divergent beliefs of whatever that something is.
This bias affects creations in multiple areas, from our biological creations to the paintings of painters, to the theories of theorists. Ideas that we think are our own seem inherently superior to similar ideas thought up by others. Although we attribute truth conditions to what we say or write, in fact each sentence, each utterance, is more akin to a work of art. Each one is a creation. Consequently every word to this point has been a creation of mine, and thus, subject to creation bias. Too often we hear or read something, immediately believe it to be “good,” or “true,” and the words themselves then take on identities of their own. It is extremely easy to do this of our creations, or even in the words of others that we’ve decided to believe as if they were our own. There is good news here, though, which is that once one truly understands this, that person begins to more critically examine his words, and becomes better at discarding ideas – even his own – that do a poorer job of comporting to, or conveying reality rather than his belief.