How language limits us

Part of the problem with discussing anything metaphysical in English is that it’s a relatively impoverished language when it comes to abstract concepts.

Rather than having a precise word for what you want to say, you have to rely heavily on connotation, because denotation alone cannot give the full spectrum of meaning; our language is based on black/white, yes/no certainties.

Medieval English was a language of the soil and plow and best suited for discussing the lives of feudal farmers; the profusion of Christianity brought some Latin loan words, but these were useful mainly for discussing matters of the Catholic church; then came the Renaissance and Enlightenment, where there were introduced terms which were only useful for taxonomy and mechanics, from the belief of the era that all things were sorted into neat categories and that we had only to figure out what cubbyhole they belonged in.

As a result, we have many concepts, conditions, and nuances for which there simply are no words, by connotation or denotation. When attempting to even describe some metaphysical constructs, we typically end up either using a long string of complex Latinate words that still remain vague because none of them are specialized to convey the idea, or we must resort to words of an Anglo-Saxon origin that are almost as poor at conveying the thought and risk the appearance of infantilism or a lack of sophistication (a legacy of Norman classism that still pervades the culture and language to this day).

Because the words most often chosen to describe the metaphysical are often simplistic and infantile, it has a two-pronged effect.  First, it leads to the gross misappropriation of ideas from other cultures into a poorly-defined soup of new-age spirituality that embraces ideas without understanding them properly; second, it makes anyone talking about these ideas seem childish or out-of-touch with reality, and one who talks about any concept that society lumps into “new age” thinking is instantly dismissed as a starry-eyed flower child who never grew out of make-believe.  This is by far the most difficult obstacle to overcome when discussing reincarnation!

The effect this has had on the debate on all thought and practice of the metaphysical is profound. A good example of this came up in a discussion we had in my philosophy class today; the idea of self-deception and religion came up, and someone chimed in that even though they weren’t Wiccan, they could see value in the experience of a Wiccan ritual that they attended.  Someone then replied that they could just as easily derive value from doing a keg stand at a party.

Now, one whose mind isn’t completely trammeled by semantics can easily understand that there is a difference between a Wiccan ritual and a keg stand; what is not so easy is to gather a coherent case for why these things are different without choosing words that seem either vague and circumstantial, or infantile. When a third person objected to the comparison of these two things, she seemed to have a difficult time holding their own in the argument, not because their position had no merit, but because the language to hold that position is very meager.

There are only three choices for someone who wants to explain a nuanced concept in English, and none are particularly helpful. The first choice is to co-opt a word from another language that is more suitable; the problem with this is to make others aware of the meaning of this word, you have to frame your definition in words that they already understand and when you do that, something will always be lost. For instance, the word “karma” is one that is very poorly understood, and generally taken to be either “punishment” or “inevitable results,” neither of which is entirely true to the word’s original meaning.

The second choice is to coin a neologism. This is risky because the creation of neologisms is an uphill struggle of introducing the word to usage and making it understood, and more importantly making it accepted. Creating neologisms is often relegated to the realm of business or political jargon because in our culture, neologisms are more often a tool for re-stating an old idea in a way that seems novel than for stating an idea that is genuinely new to the current discourse;  thus people who coin neologisms are not trusted because it is a trait associated with deception.

The third choice is to rely heavily on connotation, which is problematic because a statement that relies on connotations is easily derailed by a semantic deconstruction that relies on denotation.

These problems are not unique to the English language, nor is English the most impoverished language conceptually; I am only singling out our own language because it is the common framework from which we are working. One might easily say that there are similar troubles in explaining rational concepts in a language that is largely circumstantial or geared toward explaining the world in metaphysical terms, or that a philosopher who deals in a language largely devoid of abstracts would have a difficult time not looking like a complete buffoon.

In the end, language is the great bane of understanding because no language is so precise as to convey every concept necessary to truly give a nuanced review to all of our questions, or to ask all the right questions in the first place. The only real way to mitigate this problem is to refrain from semantic deconstructions when responding to an argument and instead to put all emphasis on understanding the opposing positions in dialogue if we are to understand anything meaningful.

What I would really like to figure out is something better than simply having to define every term in the context of a discussion and weighing arguments down with verbose minutia, however. It won’t solve the problem entirely; the limitations of language are elastic and those who are mindful of those limits can stretch them, but ultimately they stand and will always keep us from precision in the conclusions we seek. If there is a way for understanding without language, it would be the royal road to the understanding of all things.


2 thoughts on “How language limits us

  1. Oh, crap no wonder!
    I know there are better words. Four letter ones are less frustrating right now.
    No freaken wonder. Look what our words come from. No wonder there are spell languages, and powerful words in mythology.
    Shoddy words. Shoddy reality.

  2. Pingback: “Are you Retarded?”: The Use of Clinical Jargon as Slang | Inside Out

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