Wag the dog… on thought and language

 

The Thinking Man sculpture at Musée Rodin in Paris

 

It seems pretty obvious that the way we think influences our language. What is less obvious is that our language also influences the way we think.

 

I remember having an argument once with my mother over whether it is possible to think without using words. She said it wasn’t, and I thought it was. Looking back, I think the real basis of our disagreement may have been a difference in what we each meant by the word “think.” To my mother, it just wasn’t really thinking if it didn’t involve words. It was something else, something more nebulous, like feeling, perhaps, or something more primitive, like reacting. On the other hand, I’m darn sure I can think without words. I’m reminded of the fact every time I get stuck because I can’t think of the right word for whatever I’m trying to say. I know I’m looking for a word that means just exactly… well, that… and it seems that there must be one, or at least there ought to be one…

 

Does that ever happen to you?  (Let’s see a show of hands…)

 

I’m getting off the subject, but the point is that our language and our thought processes are very intimately connected.  So much so that we often make the mistake of thinking that a thing must exist simply because we have a word for it – or that a thing must be possible just because we can say that it is. We fall into the error of believing that words or phrases define the world, rather than merely being imperfect tools used to describe it.

Examples:

Safe.”  I once read an entire book on the subject of “acceptable risk,” the whole point of which was that nothing is absolutely safe – totally without risk of any kind. Yet people who ask, “is it safe?” routinely expect to be given a yes or no answer. When the doctor, scientist, or government official comes back with, “the levels are too low to pose a significant health hazard,” people aren’t satisfied. The think that’s weasel-wording, or government-speak for, “we want you to think it’s safe, even though it really isn’t.” In fact, the poor guy is just doing his best not to lie to you.

Other words like “clean” and “pure” – or any word that implies some absolute condition – have similar limitations. Did you know there is a maximum number of insect parts allowed per standard volume of ketchup? Yuck! Why doesn’t the government insist that there not be any insect parts in there? Because there is no possible way in any real universe for the manufacturer to insure that there won’t be any. The best you can do is to establish a level that is as low as possible while still being reasonably achievable.

Freedom.” Increasingly cavalier use of this word as a thing that is always desirable and good is saddling it with so much emotional baggage that it’s in danger of becoming an empty shibboleth – a catch-word thrown about to make you feel good, hook your emotions, or convince people that someone is on the “right” side. We’re starting to believe that freedom is always good, and so anything that limits anyone’s freedom must automatically be bad.  In fact “freedom” really just means the absence of coercion or constraint in any choice or action. In short, it means being able to do what you want. This is fine as long as it’s you getting to do what you want, but what if it’s someone else and what he wants to do is to hurt you? It’s perfectly legitimate linguistically to talk about freedom to rob, freedom to rape, freedom to kill, etc. We’ve begun to think that “freedom” is a treasured value of our democracy when in fact it is specific freedoms, such as freedom of speech, that are our treasured values.

There are two questions you always should ask when you hear the word “freedom” being bandied about: Whose freedom are we talking about? And, freedom to do what, exactly?

I heard a sound bite in which a member of the U. S. Congress said something like, “government should protect our freedom, not tell us what to do.”  I’m sorry; a government that doesn’t tell us what to do creates a society with no rules. And who is likely to benefit in the absence of rules? The strong, the rich, and the clever will benefit for starters – also the irresponsible, the unprincipled, and the ruthless. Government can’t protect any freedoms for the weak, the poor, and the well-meaning but perhaps a bit naive nice guys, except by curtailing some of the freedoms of those who would otherwise take advantage of people less able to defend their own freedoms.

Making money.” Let’s face it, the only people, apart from counter-fitters, who actually make money are the people who work in a mint. The rest of us don’t make money, we acquire it from other people – hopefully in exchange for having done an appropriate amount of useful work, or having provided the other person with a product of appropriate value. Why make this point? Because the word “make” implies something is being produced or created, and it’s hard to see any possible moral issue with that kind of activity. Once you realize that all the money you’ve accumulated came ultimately from other people – directly or indirectly – it puts things in a different light.

We can all be rich.” While it’s possible to say this, it isn’t actually true, because the word “rich,” in monetary terms, is defined as one end of a scale. “Rich” has no meaning in the absence of “poor.”  Simply put, “rich” implies having significantly more money than a significant number of other people. We could potentially all be prosperous, since “prosperous” implies having enough to meet one’s needs, with some to spare. I think we could all achieve that, especially if we helped each other. Yet I heard that half of the 2012 college graduates in a recent poll expressed a desire to become rich. I don’t blame them; I blame us older folks who are giving them the wrong message. We use “rich” in a non-monetary sense to mean all kinds of good things, from “a rich cream sauce,” to “a rich cultural heritage.” We’ve lost track of the negative moral implications of becoming rich monetarily. (There was something about camels fitting through narrow openings…)

With that, I think I’ve probably gotten myself into quite enough trouble.

 

Clarity First – on understanding one another

What is difficult? [ about A Cognitive Substra...

What is difficult? [ about A Cognitive Substrate for Natural Language Understanding ] (Photo credit: brewbooks)

 

I think I’ve already said that clarity is the first priority in communication (especially written communication, which potentially could transcend the ages). I’ll probably say it again. What I won’t say, though, is that there’s no excuse for not being clear. There are lots of excuses.

Here are some of the things that limit clear communication:

 

  1. Language is an imperfect tool under the best of circumstances. It was invented by a bunch of rank amateurs, using a process of trial and error, and is constantly being reshaped by its users, most of whom are also amateurs. It’s a complex system of sounds/visual code associated with meaning, and while we sometimes make the mistake of thinking that our language necessarily must be able to express anything, this is in fact boloney.
  2. People (the users of language) are imperfect. They may be tired, rushed, or in the throws of some strong emotion. They also can vary widely in their natural language ability or acquired level of skill.
  3. Any language, and especially English, is not a uniform beast. Not only does it change over time, but it also contains variants at any given time (regional dialects, cultural idioms, jargon).  In order to understand each other, we have to agree on what the words mean, as well as on the basic grammatical structure – and we don’t always do either one.
  4. The interpretation of language is terribly context-dependent. Basically, we’re not all coming from the same place, and where we’re coming from varies with who we are, where we are, and what we’re doing on a moment-to-moment basis.

All things considered, it’s amazing we actually manage to understand each other fairly well most of the time.

So I’ll always forgive you for not being clear. It’s a little harder to forgive people for not at least trying to be clear, but even then I know there are times when communication isn’t really a person’s top priority. And whenever I realize that I’ve just been misunderstood, the first thing I do (well usually) is reexamine what I actually said to see if I can identify the problem. Did I just say it badly? Or is there some possible alternate context that I failed to take into account? Of course, if I’ve got the other person face-to-face, I can also explore their insights into the issue – or just try again with a slightly different approach.

One thing I learned from being on the teacher side of the education fence is that, no matter how carefully you word the question, someone will manage to misinterpret it. My reaction when this happened was always to feel bad. Not because I assumed the misunderstanding was my fault – because of course it wasn’t necessarily – but because it meant my attempt to find out what the person had learned about the subject of the question had failed. (That’s failure of the assessment tool, rather than failure of the student.) The student may or may have known the answer – and I’ll never know which it was. (I always hated to mark those questions wrong, and tended to be very generous with any partial credit I felt I could assign.)

Now, I have encountered teachers – and, of course, others – whose reaction to being misunderstood went something like, “well I know what I was trying to say, so if you didn’t understand me it must be your fault.”

That is a position I find pretty unforgivable.

 

 

 

 

 

You can’t get away from grammar

Grammar police

Lest anyone conclude that I have a general contempt for grammar or grammarians, let me clarify.

Every language has grammar and every speaker/writer uses it.  All the time.  You can’t get away from it.

Grammar is just the structure of a language, as opposed to the words.  It’s a set of patterns you learned before you knew you were learning them, a set of patterns you unconsciously recognize and use. And without them, you would not be able to encode or decode any but the most rudimentary of utterances.

Grammar is all about pattern recognition.  Knowledge of the grammatical patterns of English leads both you and your listener/reader to have certain expectations about where your words are going, and if you violate those expectations too seriously you won’t be understood.  The “rules” of grammar are just an effort on the part of some well-meaning people to save us all from incoherence.

(Actually, I believe that pattern recognition makes up a large part of what we call intelligence.)

Grammar tells us what role a word is playing.  It tells us how the different bits of a sentence are related to each other.  There are two main ways I’m aware of for a language to “do” grammar.  They are:

1) word order

2) word modification

Word order is pretty obvious.  Word modification is all the various forms that are based on a single word-root (such as, write, writes, writer, writing, written, wrote, and so on.)  Most languages, like English, use both approaches.  Latin, I am told, relies so nearly completely on word modification that it virtually doesn’t matter how you order the words.  (Try to wrap your mind around that concept!)

Anyway, I really don’t have a serious quarrel with grammarians in general.  I just get a bit annoyed when I encounter someone who is so fixated on the rules that he or she loses sight of the purpose.

Grammar should be your servant, not your master.

(Grammar Police, photocredit: the_munificent_sasquatch)

My attitude on grammar (and language change)

Not being an expert on English means that I’m not an expert on the official “rules” of, say, grammar – which means that I don’t necessarily always adhere to them. In my view, clarity is what counts and the rules are only useful to the extent that they contribute to clarity. In short, being clear is more important than being correct.

The primary purpose of any language is, after all, communication.

There are times when you have to be as “correct” as possible because you are writing for an audience that expects or demands it, but even then I try not to completely lose sight of the reason for what I am doing.

There’s an important rationale behind my somewhat cavalier attitude. Language changes. The rules therefore also potentially change from time to time, so it doesn’t pay to get too attached to them. A living language – one that has native speakers – is rather like a living organism. No one designed it; it evolved. And English, being very much alive, is continuing to evolve even as we speak. (Literally, as we speak.) English, you see, belongs to its speakers, not to the grammarians. The rule-makers can try to constrain it, to impede the process of language change, but they will ultimately fail.

Language preceded grammarians – by several million years – and it was doing just fine without them.