Language, reliable as experience.

Now that I am learning the subtle differences of English words I am aware on how clear is the statement that in some languages, multiple options can be represented by the same word. This point generates some reflections on a problem regarding the reliability of language and how – sometimes – the process of communication, related to a foreign language, is not that easy as it should be to let us recognize how a given set of words is associated with a specific meaning.

For example, lets suppose that I am at the park walking with Ryan (my dog) and my attention is easily catch-up by the discourse of two guys, arguing with passion. Now, I can tell you that the only thing I’m hearing clearly is: “This is really a strange bark, you should be interested at it!” automatically my first reaction will be: first having a look around me, and secondly make a rapid turn to see if around us there are other animals similar to dogs and only then check if my Ryan is silent and biddable as usual. What I might not do immediately, cause I am not an English native speaker, will be give a further glance to the guys, trying to recognize some key-words related to dogs attitudes  and think again on the meaning of the words related to “bark”, check on my online dictionary if I’m missing something crucial and check if maybe they are close or pointing to an old three discussing on why its bark hasn’t a smooth texture as the others in the surrounding…

A clear example that shows how multiple options can be represented by the same world.

So, how do we recognize tiny differences referred to (in this case) English daily language? Studying a lot, asking native speakers if we understood fast and clear and have a clear attention on the context we experience any time, and being aware on its specific environmental features can probably help us on the long term.

This is a very common problem for people that are trying to learn a new language, controlling to avoid mistakes and misunderstandings keeping their eyes open. Completely normal if you think on the tautology that at the beginning, in every new complex system able to communicate something, we are not able to associate some words with their singular meaning. We need to memorize them, trying to have first a “contact” with them, recognizing some phonetic aspects, some particular features of their shape, their main use in the context, and so on and so forth. Here, if we want to succeed and go further in the process of learning, we are required to do is to develop the experience of what these words should mean when they refer to a particular scene or an entire situation.

Perhaps some of you might say that there is also another problem connected to this path.

If your English friend, Clara for the record, helping you with phonetics during a tandem, said to you for the first time the word ‘bark’ it could mean almost nothing more to you than the usual “bark” associated with an interesting or pesky sound coming out from a dog’s mouth. Just because it does not means something more specific to you maybe another friend will immediately associate it with the three structure and particular shape. The word become representative for a particular thing or significance when we start to recognize it more and better as it refer to our particular experience.

park animated GIF

If I’m saying the Hebrew word ‘Yoter’ to an English speaking audience, maybe they would think I am referring to a novelist, or to a specific surname of a well-known author founded in the articles I am reading for my studies. Perhaps they will suppose something related to that, but they won’t guess that its real meaning is ‘more’. This example means that words and language aren’t as clean cut as we might originally wish for them to be.

If you delve into the communication theory, you’ll notice that communication is more than language .  It is the tentative to transfer, in the clearest and efficient way, a specific sort of information from one source to another. Communication is not a human being prerogative cause if you ask if dogs or other animals communicate, well the answer is “yes, of course they do!”

But if I’m asking myself if they use words, well, the answer is no. At least, not in the terms we might define and use them. Language is a set of words put in a code that we are costumed to, but sometimes it is not more efficient than non-verbal communication and the kinesics of body-language. In that particular aspect animals are more costumed to recognize particular aspects, even humans can be sensitive to them but they should have studied some psychology or being professionals in communication.

Language can also be framed as a technology (there is some official debate on this particular theory) that process and enrich day-by-day as it is not an inherent system that we have coded in the brain. This means that we should pass from some specific topics to cover and experience, situating then ourselves in the necessary learning process able to enrich our vocabulary, reinforce and allow a meaningful exchange of information. People and cultures have the need to communicate more efficiently in order to save time and resources. To do that they agree on certain sounds and images meaning certain things that are daily claimed and shared between individuals, as they can represent (and allow easily to memorize) some forms and shapes to be commonly transferred afterwards.

We can accept even the claim that words evolve because they have no inherent meaning, but they are the product of the context where (from a repeated experience of the specific surroundings that is shaped by the members of a particular society) they become symbols able to allow and secure the deduction of a particular intent. This is the way words have the opportunity to “shot” a concept and be (particularly) framed in what will be afterwards the official language they refer to.

This evolution is slowly and guarantee that symbols won’t be re-interpreted all the time by the people involved in the communication process. Even the dictionary I have in front of me now, that underline the specific meaning of words of Italian and English, is representing the long and “common agreement” that what I am looking to is a standard set of definition ingrained in the common interpretation of linguistics.

Meaning exist when it is shared.

This concept go far beyond linguistics, as it represent our view of society and our contribution to it, to our daily occupation tasks and to the diverse perspectives, relations and objectives we might search or have during our lifetime.

Theoretically, what I said until now is true. Practically, my usual communication style is unable to fully align with the one of Clara, as I said my friend and English native speaker. Even when we are together in the same park, enjoying our free time and exercise or curiosity on which type of bark the guys are discussing on so loudly, we would give a diverse weight to the word depending on our history, passion for threes and animals, attitude to observe the surroundings, and their colors, noises and textures. The initial meaning of bark will always be a little bit different unless you can get inside my head, and check if the pieces that define my communication style are symmetrical to yours.

Each particular perspective adds value.

Each language that exists expresses a different take on existence, symbolizing the messiness and the selective attention that human history were able to fit and associate with words in the process of communication.

Just to add some background to the topic, regarding the risk to have a reductive view of language, Ferdinand de Saussure proposed to extend the reflections on two different directions. The first one is the idea that define “language as a system” built by a strange “relativity” of signs. They signify something only insofar they’re discernible from others in the same system.  Within a framework we can explain the surprising fact that even “no-sign”can be significant. The other is the insight into the “dual” nature of any sign, belonging to two realms of linguistics: any element able to represent a meaning share a place within the linear framework of a linguistic system, and can signify something unambiguously detailed in line with the realm of our experience.

Only very simple and reliable elements allow the construction of complex systems as a language. It can be humans, animals or a computer one. Definite elements, selected and combined in a network create a reliable information.

Communicating managing a language is a result of the basic learning process, by which human children learn to cope with the overwhelming mass of information and experience. Language is the tool that allow to organize experience, building up a viable world in which a human being orient him or herself. Whereas the experience itself has to be a result of each child’s own effort, language can be saw also as a wonderful and efficient instrument for coping that is culturally learned. As children learn to speak, there is normally no discussion between them and parents regarding the meaning of what is intended with the spoken language.

Is worthy to close these reflections quoting Emmanuel Lévinas, when he said that “an earth inhabited by speaking humans gradually populates itself with stable things”.

Not only the individual mind, but also the world becomes progressively  “populated” by stable institutions as the necessary support and recourse for all human efforts to express themselves through a language that should represent and report by an enriched narrative the diverse experiences of what might appear as a “same” reality.

And regarding the fact that theoretically we can always speak about somewhat or somehow is not part of our personal experience, creating and writing about fictive objects, events and stories, we could not be able to evoke in ourselves (and therefore in our readers) the same feelings that only true and metabolized experiences fully allowed.

 

LH

 

 

2 comments

  1. I am no longer positive the place you are getting your info, however great topic. I must spend some time learning much more or figuring out more. Thank you for wonderful info I was searching for this info for my mission.

    Like

    • Hey Alex! Thank you for the feedback. For the record I am a philosopher of science and my current studies are oriented to explore the interdisciplinary boundaries of experience, language, learming psychology and physics. In my blog, as you already saw, part of the posts derived from personal reflections driven by scientific knowldge. The rest is referred to my academic work. See you on my next topics 😉

      Like

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