Mutter, Utter and Stutter: Demeaning of Words

Engraved portrait of Dorothy Pentreath, last native speaker of the Cornish language, of Paul near Mousehole, Cornwall (c. 1692-1777)
English, Spanish, French, Mandarin, Welsh, Swahili, Japanese and the like are called languages presumably because they satisfy unambiguous criteria. I say “presumably” because I don’t think there are any unambiguous criteria that apply to every thing we label as “language”.

I was going to ask whether we really and truly know what is a language and what is not. But then I realised that the real issue is that we just can’t agree on a definition that satisfies everyone. Another problem is that we use language to define language, which is circular reasoning, which inevitably leads to self-reflexivity and paradox. For example, I'm using language to explain why you shouldn't use language to explain language.

Most if not all people would agree that dialects, creoles and pidgins are languages. But what about “dead”/archaic languages such as Latin or Cornish?

What about sign language, music, morse code, mime, and mathematics? What about the barking of dogs, the songs of birds and whales and dolphins, the scent trails of ants, the dance of the bees? Computer programming languages? Computer machine code? Which is a language and which is not? Give reasons for your answers.

Language is a tool that helps language-users manage information. Language is a tool that helps language users create, locate, capture, transmit and receive information, as a first step on the road to truth or meaning. It’s the first step because articulating comes before validating; uttering precedes verifying. (And BTW there may not yet be computers that meet the conditions of “personhood”. But there absolutely are computers that are language-users. In fact, all computers are language-users.)

Language has no intrinsic, absolute meaning. People select words to speak or write on the basis of closest fit---not best or perfect fit---to the true and real meaning that exists outside of the approximation called language.

There is no way to measure the extent to which language truly and accurately reflects what is in the mind of the language user at those times when ze uses language. As with Arithmetic, language is a formal system to which Gödelian incompleteness applies. In other words, it doesn’t achieve anything to use language to define language. You have to “step outside” of language to achieve a meaningful and productive definition of language.

The same applies to words. You can’t use language to determine the absolute “truth of words”. What is “the truth of words”? The truth of a word is its meaning. You can’t conclusively prove the truth of the word “lion”, for instance, by means of other words because that would be a finite but unbounded journey through a thicket of synonyms and near-synonyms. To prove the truth of the word “lion” you must step outside of language. You could, for example, point to a picture of lion, and say the word “lion”, repeatedly if need be. Or you could represent the ontology of “lion” by means of the leonine genome. Or you could jump on the back of a lion shouting, “lion! lion! lion!” but the only thing that that would achieve would be your death.

John Tenniel's illustration of Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass (1872).John Tenniel's illustration of Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass (1872).

Take, for example, the following conversation between Humpty Dumpty and Alice in Lewis Carrol's “Through the Looking Glass”.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that's all.”

Every day, billions of people use language to create individual, idiosyncratically personalised, relative meanings. It’s simply not possible to create absolute meaning via language. (But is there such a thing as absolute meaning at all? Or is it our responsibility to create meaning as we go along? If a space alien from the ninth dimension were to ask me what my job is, my answer would be “meaning-maker”.)

People distinguish between “literal” and “figurative” meaning. When a person facing a difficult decision says, “I’m between a rock and a hard place” their words carry a figurative meaning. When a coalminer pinned down by a cave-in says “I’m between a rock and a hard place” the meaning is literal.

But on another level, there is no literal meaning to language at all. Language doesn’t create reality, language describes reality. Language is the map of the territory, not the territory itself. Language is an approximation: all meanings are figurative, to a greater or lesser degree. Language is a metaphor made up of sub-metaphors, sub-sub-metaphors, sub-sub-sub-metaphors, etc.

The good news is that the lack of absolute truth in language means there are no real, absolute, substantive disagreements or arguments between language-users; there are only insubstantial and relatively unimportant differences about the application of labels (words.) So let’s stop fighting each other and work towards building a better understanding of each other. The fact that difference is an illusion doesn’t mean that difference doesn’t exist; it means that difference is not what we think it is.

Language is the domain where meaning is created, captured, transmitted and received. Thought is another such domain. And as well as Language and Thought, there are other places where meaning resides. Thought without Language---without Words---is possible, though difficult to achieve.


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