Every everyday language results from choices made by humans—some deliberate, some accidental, some arbitrary. No language can be considered inherent, or inerrant. Language constitutes one critical aspect of human behavior, perhaps the defining feature for humans.
Our languages ought to adapt to reflect the latest state of what we know about ourselves in our world.
Although we often hear that “words have power,” words in and of themselves are nothing more than abstract ideas or symbols. What we think of as “power” resides in the individuals who speak, write, hear and read the words, then act.Words do not contain meaning. The “meanings” of words are specific to each individual who engages in a communicative exchange.A common source for misunderstanding is when a listener interprets the words of a speaker as if the listener were doing the speaking. If the listener cannot interpret what is said within that specific context, he risks not understanding what the speaker intends.There is a difference between knowing a word, vs. knowing something about what the word refers to.
We often mistake inferences for facts, and then act upon these inferences as if they were facts. This invariably leads to confusion, misunderstanding, and in some cases, tragedy. We should apply a high standard to what we consider as a fact.
We are much more prone to see similarities than differences. This often results in our thinking in terms of categories, labels, and classifications rather than the specific or individual item we’re concerned with. This tendency to generalize, and difficulty in recognizing differences, leads to stereotyping, biases, and prejudices.
With language we can …
- speak, write, read, and listen
- think and express our feelings
- analyze and solve problems
- establish rules, regulations, laws, policies, procedures, ordinances, and standards
- reach compromises, agreements, settlements, resolutions and contracts
- understand, to be understood, and to pass on our understandings to others
- dream, imagine, contemplate, cogitate, deliberate, create, innovate and ponder
and, language also enables us to …
- mislead, misinform, and misunderstand
- deny, suppress, inhibit, prohibit and limit what others do and say
- rule, dictate, terrorize, intimidate, indoctrinate and alienate
- generalize, categorize, stereotype, pigeonhole and profile
- lie, cheat, steal, quibble, libel, slander, sue and defraud
- perpetuate myths, superstitions, prejudices, feuds, and atavistic traditions
- create and exacerbate fear, anxiety, regret, guilt, jealousy, paranoia, suspicion, and hate.
We should remember what Francis Crick observed in Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul: The single most characteristic human ability is that we can handle a complex language fluently. We can use words to denote not only objects and events in the outside world but also more abstract concepts. This ability leads to another strikingly human characteristic, one that is seldom mentioned: our almost limitless capacity for self-deception.
- The ability to differentiate, or see fine differences, is the mark of the expert, the teacher, the trainer, the coach.
- “We discriminate against people to the degree we fail to distinguish between them.”
- It’s possible for groups and individuals to take offense to something when no offense was intended.
- Words can be used to disguise and misrepresent intentions and realities.
- We need to be careful to not get wrapped up with categories, classifications, and labels. Sometimes we forget that categories, classifications, and labels are symbols for other symbols. They are arbitrary, man-made, and like other words, have no inherent meaning.
- If we are not exceedingly careful, we are susceptible to manipulation and persuasion by politicians, advertisers, public relations practitioners, and others. We should understand their techniques and approaches in order to learn how to detect and resist their appeals.
What is “appropriate” language behavior?
We ought to properly integrate what happens outside of our skin with the we way we internally process, interpret and think about those happenings within our nervous systems. Similarly, it makes sense that we strive to properly integrate, or structure, our verbal language to appropriately represent the non-verbal events and happenings which are NOT words.
The map IS NOT the territory
Just as a well-drawn map depicts, represents, illustrates, symbolizes, etc., an actual geographic area, so should our language properly reflect that which it refers to — that which is NOT language. However, we often confuse the words we use with those ‘things’ the words refer to. We confuse the word with the thing; we mistake the map as the territory.
We do well to remember:
- The structure of our language (the ‘map’) should be similar to the structure we find in the non-verbal world of not words (the ‘territory’).
- Language is an aspect of human behavior; language does not exist outside of the individual humans who use words, sentences, statements, questions, etc.
- When we forget, or ignore, these simple facts, we inevitably create problems, stress, and misunderstandings; with others, and with ourselves.
(Some) Common language traps
The subject/predicate grammar form misrepresents what we know goes on in the non-verbal world:
Roses are red.
We have learned to think of “red” as an attribute, or quality, in the rose itself. However, given our current understanding of how our nervous systems work, it’s more appropriate to think of “red” as a product of our own individual eyes, brain and nervous system:
Roses appear red to me.
We tend to think in terms of opposites, or two-valued differences: right/wrong … black/white … good/bad … for/against …
In the non-verbal world around us, however, we seldom encounter such clear-cut differences. Instead, we actually experience things, events, happenings, etc., along a spectrum, or a continuum, with lots of ‘grey area’ between the ends:
<– more right ———— more wrong –>
<– more white ———— more black –>
<– more good ————– more bad –>
<– more for ————- more against–>
We often confuse statements which sound like facts, as facts. Rather than maintain a sense of tentativeness and uncertainty, we’re quick to accept statements, comments, judgments, opinions, beliefs, etc., as facts or truth. This lack of discrimination, this disregarding of key differences, results in our acting and behaving as if we’re responding to facts, when we’re really responding based on assumptions, inferences, beliefs, etc.
Professor Irving J. Lee (1909-1955) of Northwestern University, proposed a high standard for considering something as a fact, vs. an inference:
|Can be made only after an observation, experiences, etc.||Can be made anytime, including the present and future.|
|Stays with what can be observed, does not speculate or presume.||Goes beyond what is observed, speculates as to intent, motivation, meaning, etc.|
|As close to certainty as humanly possible – would you bet your life on it?||Expressed in degrees of probability, potentiality, etc.|
Try a simple test to see how well you distinguish facts from inferences.
Although we would immediately deny it, most of us react to word magic. We believe that if there’s a name for something, or a word for something, then that something must be ‘real’. Otherwise … why would somebody have gone to the trouble to make up the word?
This unrecognized, perhaps unconscious, belief in “word magic” has facilitated the continuation of myths, superstitions, hexes, curses, jinxes, etc. We talk about something as if it exists, and describe it in great detail with other words, and draw pictures of it, and then begin to act as if it exists.
For example, you no doubt would say that unicorns are not real. And yet, you know what one looks like, you’d clearly recognize one if you saw one. In fact, would you even be surprised if you saw one in a zoo?
We also practice word magic when we respond to labels — especially those with political, religious, racial, ethnic or sexual implications — without regard for the context or intended meaning. Some people will immediately react with discomfort upon hearing, or reading, certain words: liberal, right-winger, pro-choice, nigger, spick, kike, Bible-thumper, faggot, dyke, mick, wop, bitch …
We even respond physiologically to words. Have you ever eaten something unfamiliar, then had a negative reaction when you learned what it was?
Integrating and Summarizing Language Traps
- Language enables time-binding, allowing humans to build on the knowledge or prior generations.
- However, we need to be aware that languages are not perfect, but very imperfectly-developed human tools.
- The subject/predicate grammar form, in many cases, misrepresents what we know about the world around us.
- We tend to use either-or, two-valued terms describing polar opposites, instead of more appropriate relative terms.
- We often confuse inferences (assumptions, opinions, etc.) with facts, and create troubles when we act on inferences as if they were facts.
- Language allows us make up fantasies, yet talk about them as if they existed; we continue to pass along, and believe, superstitions, jinxes, myths, etc.
- We mistake the word as the thing, and react to the word as if it were the thing.
- We think of words themselves as having meaning, when it’s the speaker who attempts to convey meaning, and the listener who interprets and derives meaning.
The 3-hour, six-part “Talking Sense” video recordings by Irving J. Lee in 1952 are available for purchase from the Institute of General Semantics. Some of the key points that Lee makes about language:
- We should remember that every word, every symbol, every sign or logo, was created by humans, is used by humans, and its meaning is determined by humans each and every time it is used.
- There is no such thing as inherent meaning of terms or symbols.
- We should differentiate between definitions of words (the history of how they’ve been used) vs. the meaning of a word used in a specific context at a particular time by individual(s) speakers and listeners.
- Word usages change over time. Words that are currently considered profane, obscene, or indecent change from year to year, generation to generation.
- Words and symbols (including gestures) cannot be evaluated or judged in and of themselves, without considering their usage in the context of a specific usage.
Indecent, Obscene, Profane Language Behaviors
Sometimes we can learn a lot about our attitudes toward language generally by closely examining the extremes of language, such as language generally considered to be ‘profane’ or ‘obscene’. These first four clips relate to two of the most volatile, incendiary terms in the English language. What can be learned about our everyday words and terms from understanding a little more about these two extreme words? And why is it that we seem to be so immune to understanding the role of context in the meanings we generate? The fifth clip questions what makes something “offensive”; in this case, the significance of the middle finger.
*** Some viewers may find the material in some of these clips objectionable. ***
The Power of Words (?) (6:09)
Cool Hand Luke, V for Vendetta, Life of Brian (2006)
Word and Meaning (6:43)
from Talking Sense, Irving J. Lee (1952)
Knowing Words vs. Knowing (1:00)
from The Best Mind Since Einstein, Richard Feynman ()
Facts vs. Inferences (:48)
from Talking Sense, Irving J. Lee (1952)
on Similarities (2:19)
from Talking Sense, Irving J. Lee (1952)
on Differences (4:59)
from Talking Sense, Irving J. Lee (1952)
Unintentional Offense (2:40)
Independent Lens: The Paper (2008)
Torture vs. Enhanced Interrogation (4:02)
from The Daily Show, Jon Stewart and John Oliver (2006)
Tyranny of Categories (5:34)
The Weather Channel coverage of Hurricane Ike (2008)
The Word is Not the Thing (4:52)
The Colbert Report on “Pink Slime” (2012)
Political Words Matter (12:43)
A Compilation of Instructive Examples (2008)
Etymology of the F Word (1:38)
from F*CK: The Documentary (2005)
Etymology of the N Word (3:39)
from The N Word: United We Stand (1958)
on Context, George Carlin (2:03)
from Doin’ It Again: George Carlin (1990)
on Context, Chris Rock (5:09)
from Chris Rock: Kill the Messenger (2008)
Flipping the Bird: 4 Views (7:59)
A Compilation of Perspectives