“One of the chief obstacles to intelligent communication is the nature of language itself. Discuss”
Language, it can safely be said, is one of the most important tools, as well as one of the most powerful ones, that human beings use everyday. In, fact it has been said that “language inflicts (wounds) upon the thought of man” (Anshen 341), a feat that no other thing seems able to replicate and which can make language a dangerous tool indeed. If language can be so destructive if misused, even in ignorance, is it not reasonable for us all to strive to master this tool, so that we can wield it safely in an intelligent manner, to communicate and not to cause injury? However, this may not be possible, as the very nature of language itself hinders full mastery of its power, and as a result, hinders intelligent and responsible communication, through which these wounds can be caused. It is the task of this essay to objectively explore the hindrances that are deeply woven into the fabric of our language. The ones that will be so treated are the multiple meanings of words, the multitude of words representing one meaning and the ambiguity that seems ever present and which leads, often times, to misunderstanding and to inadvertent wounding of human thought. Let us begin.
First of all, there is the matter of the multiple meanings that some words seem to possess, or, in other words “many masquerading as one” (Emmet 39).
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It may seem unreasonable to many that different ideas or objects can posses the same symbol used to describe it, but this can be attributed to mainly one reason. “Creation is, literally, immense; still, the names of created objects for but one small use to which language is appropriated. Every feeling, every desire, every action can be recorded by language. No event is so eccentric, no imagination so wild, no situation so peculiar, but language can publish it.” (Johnson 113).
Despite this onslaught of things to describe, there are but some 40000 words in the English language to use. It is therefore necessary for more than one meaning to share a single word. Due to this, however, it is sometimes difficult to interpret a sentence in the proper fashion if a word that has multiple meanings is used. A rather harmless example could be “I like him because he is a good soccer player”. This could be interpreted several different ways due to the different meanings that “good” possesses. It could either mean, for example, that he is a proficient or skillful soccer player or that he is a morally sound soccer player. In order to combat this fallacy, one must be careful to select specific words that describe something specifically, and not one with different meanings whenever possible.
Now that the first section is out of the way, the next order of business will be examining the fact that many words have the same or similar meaning, or, once again, in other words, “one masquerading as many” (Emmet 41).
As an example, here are some of the many words that can be used to describe the state of being afraid: fearful, terrified, frightened, tremulous, and cowardly or the many words to express the state of being surprised: astonished, astounded, and amazed. It is surprising, or perhaps astonishing, to see how many different words can be used to express generally the same meaning. This is perhaps the least misleading of all three fallacies in this essay as usually it doesn’t cause that much confusion. However, in some cases, like in a news paper in which the writer is not encouraged to repeat himself, confusion could arise as many descriptions of one thing could be taken as descriptions of one thing instead of just the one. To prevent this kind of confusion, “it is often useful to ask ourselves in our thinking and our reading whether two words or phrases are different ways of saying the same thing or ways of describing different things” (Emmet 41).
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The last and final pitfall to be examined in this essay, while certainly not the actual last fallacy, as there are many in embedded into the nature of language, it is still one that is rather commonly in play. This particular hindrance would be the one of ambiguity and vagueness, which is a trap we often fall into when we use a word or sentence. Perhaps you may be wondering as to why people fall into the trap of being ambiguous or vague. First of all, many times we can “simplify the confusion of experience by overlooking obvious differences and grouping large masses of clearly dissimilar things together under one name.” (Anshen 112).
This simply means that we cannot hope to learn all of the words used to determine specific things apart, and therefore to those with less experience in a certain field, common practice is to amass a multitude of different things in that field together under one term. A good example is someone calling four distinctly different insects “bugs”, even though they all have specific and different names. A zoologist certainly wouldn’t call them all “bugs”, however we do not have his experience and thus talk in a more general manner. Another reason is the fact that sentences themselves can have multiple meanings, an event that “(stems) from the construction of the sentence”(Kenne 27) itself. These sentences vary in meaning due to the over simplification of their construction. For example, the sentence: “Only spend your holiday at the lake.” could mean one of two things. Either, only spend a holiday at the beach and not any other time, or that the beach is the sole place which you should go to for a holiday. The danger of this form of ambiguity is that the multiple meanings may not be apparent to the one who needs to interpret the sentence, which can lead to misinterpretation and worse.
In conclusion, despite the apparent deeply embedded fallacies inherent in our languages, it is still an immensely useful tool. In fact, “without words to objectify and categorize our sensations and place them in relation to one another, we cannot evolve a tradition of what is real in the world.” (MsBook, Ruth Hubbard U.S. biologist. “Have Only Men Evolved?”).
... essay The Meaning of a Word, “Gloria Naylor” discusses the essence of a word and how it can mean different things to different people ... his strength, intelligence, or drive.” (Naylor 63) That sentence shows that the word referring to another black man used by a black ... way to humiliate me.” (Naylor 64) Looking at that sentence, the word “could” jumps out at us as if implying that you ...
Language, in fact, may be one of humanity’s greatest achievements, however we must also be cautious when using it. It does have its traps and pitfalls which can make what we intend to say be interpreted in an entirely different manner. We must, therefore, be constantly on guard for these bewitching sinkholes in our everyday language. We must ever look out for multiple meanings, as well as multiple words with the same meaning and, of course, ambiguity. When found, these cantankerous errors must be rooted out and destroyed, therefore enabling, or at least increasing, the possibility of intelligent communication.
– Anshen, Ruth Nanda. Language: An Inquiry Into Its Meaning and Function
– Emmet, E.R. Learning to Philosophize
– The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language
– Kenne, G.B. Language and Reasoning
– Johnson, Alexander Bryan. A Treatise on Language
– Microsoft Bookshelf, Quick Quote