Words, Languages, and Disagreements

“We do not, in general, use language according to strict rules – we commonly don’t think of rules of usage while talking, and we usually cannot produce any rules if we are asked to quote them.”

“But what we are destroying are only houses of cards, and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stood.”

Both quotes are from Ludwig Wittgenstein.

I guess one cannot talk about Language and its uses without being reminded of Wittgenstein and without giving credit back to him.

Whenever I am about to start a serious conversation with somebody on a particular subject, such as the existence of God, whether there is such a thing as Fate, which country is more democratic than the other, or whether I am more right-wing or left-wing, I often start the conversation by asking my counterparty what she or he means by God, by Fate, by more democratic, or by right- and left-wing. I do so not because I am a fan of rhetoric or as a way of tricking my counterparty in the discussion; I rather do it to simply avoid useless and protracted discussions that lead nowhere because each is holding a different definition of the same word as a starting point, while not admitting the possibility or existence of another definition that might be used by a different person. People often jump into such discussions, argue for hours, then ‘agree to disagree’ in the best-case scenarios; while in reality, they would be talking most of the time about slightly or largely different things using the same words, and hence their discussion has been futile all along. It is therefore important to know a bit about the genesis and the various uses of Language – this great enabler of our cognition.

Languages, as we commonly attribute them to human beings, evolved organically and in an unorganised manner, as much as human beings themselves. They started by taking rudimentary forms and then evolved with our general cultural, intellectual and technological evolution. No one person or one group sat and defined any natural (or ‘nomological’) language as we know it today. Languages contain definitions of words and verbs and rules of grammar; but there can be many definitions of one word or one verb, which themselves rely on other definitions of words and verbs, not minding the circularity of definitions, and there are almost always exceptions to the rules of grammar. As such, there seems always to be some degree of vagueness in the meaning of words, verbs, and sentences when we probe into them. Unlike logical languages, natural languages are as much living and evolving as our cultures and are an integral aspect of them. Words can point to objects, to phenomena we observe around, to emotions, to concrete ideas, or to very abstract ideas and musings. Words can have their source in observation, in feeling, in thinking, in intuition, or in pragmatic needs. We can employ words for very definite, basic uses and objects. And we can employ words to try to relate to confused and undefined things, not knowing ourselves what we are exactly looking to express by the words, or simply to fill a temporary hole or weakness in our current understanding of the world. Words can be borrowed from other languages and cultures, used according to their original use in the language from which they were taken, or used in a different manner, sometimes quite strange to the origins of the word. And all of this evolves as we evolve with time and in different geographies in a way that a same word can mean very different things in one place and one time in comparison with another. Even in the same place and time, there can be confusion, inexactness, and differences of meaning, not only in common social life but also in academic circles, which are supposedly more rigorous. God, Fate, Democracy, Right-wing, Left-wing, all are examples of such that we have given above.

Many instances of disagreements and misconceptions stem from the fact that we do not think through the words we use as much as we should or that we think that what we associate with a certain word is exactly what others associate with that same word. Worse, we sometimes divide into parties based on a certain position vis-à-vis a word; one would think at first that it is a division vis-à-vis what the word represents, but, in reality, when we ask for more details about the representation of the word, we find quickly so many differences in such a representation that the only matter of substance that is left is a blind division vis-à-vis the word itself. Take Capitalism or Free Will; these are notable examples of words that have divided us into two camps for long periods of time, while actually the meanings of these words evolving all the same. It seems that sometimes we like to oppose each other more so than understand what is that concerning which we are opposed, and words are another tool in this game.



One comment on “Words, Languages, and Disagreements

  1. Reblogged this on John H.T. Francis and commented:

    It seems that humans are not the only ones who use same words for different meanings and intentions; chimpanzees do also use same gestures for several different purposes and senses, as recent research highlights.
    Being more basic, such intentional animal gestures (forming a proper language) may not be open to the same kind of ambiguity as in the human linguistic world. Nonetheless, we should not rush into excluding all room for possible ambiguity.

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