The Process of Defining

This is an essay I wrote in December, 1997. At the time, I was frustrated at people in general and their lack of ability to truly communicate. These are some musings I wrote but never publicized.


Lately, I have been pondering the meaning of words and their properties. I recently had a conversation with a friend over the phone where we discussed the difference between being in love and loving someone. We each had different definitions for both terms, but finally realized we were saying and believed the same way. Our only problem was identifying what the other person meant by a term. A small misunderstanding, nothing serious.

Then, with another friend, I recently confronted the mutability of words when we had a difference of opinions. We respected each other's points of view, but did not see eye to eye. Every effort we made to talk and set things right seemed to make the whole matter worse. We spoke the same language, but the meaning was getting lost in the process. I thought I was making myself clear, and she believed the same of herself, but we kept having troubles seeing eye to eye. Eventually, we made headway and came to an understanding, but it amazed me how we take so much for granted about language.

I have to ask "Why?" Why is language so fluid? What is language? What significance does it really have? *sigh* If I knew the answers to these and other similar questions, I could probably make a lot of money. Even though I don't really know the answers, I'm willing to offer my ideas for consideration. I may be wrong, but I will write assertively, as if I know what I'm saying.

I will start with the question of what language is, try to give a working definition. Language is our primary, but not the only means we have to communicate. We are social creatures and have a desire for interaction. Language facilitates communication about what some consider higher level thinking. Language and thinking are inextricately entwined together. Some say that language facilitates thinking. I choose to believe language is the group of symbols (both verbal and visual) that we use to express meaning to ourselves (thinking) and others (talking, writing, etc.). However, this broad definition includes body movement, nonverbal noises, sign language, and other forms of communications. We live and breathe symbolically. Everything we do is expressed in symbols.

When we're born, our minds do not necessarily think in language, because we do not know language. However, according to LDS theology, we are still intelligent, thinking beings. So, I must believe that thought is independent of language.

As a child grows up, he learns vast quantities of knowledge at incredible speeds. The new body is absorbent to stimulus, like a sponge, eager to pull in information. We see and feel and sense all sorts of things we do not know how to express in our new form (assuming, as I am, that we were in spirit form before and come with complete personalities and language already). Our vocal chords and mouths didn't know what to do, and we couldn't express the thoughts in any other way and be understood. As we learn and start identifying our new surroundings with the language of our parents or whoever else is raising us, we are internally changing. The concepts and ideas we used to call by a more pure language are now paired with mortal words. I don't know how many have thought about this before, but the language you think in makes a difference in who you are. I have many friends who have gone to other countries on their missions who end up thinking in the new language they learned, even when they return to the US. Their new language has caused them to think and behave differently. They changed.

To a large extent, language is regional. People in the South, for instance, speak very different than Midwesterners. The differences become even greater when one compares American English with Australian or British English, or compares regional dialects of Spanish or Chinese. Many of the differences in the named examples come from the differing attitudes of the collective peoples, their cultures and social needs. Extending this concept further, this variance can be found even within a regional/cultural boundary, from one group to another and one person to another. Every family has it's own special idioms. Each church, social or professional group has it's own particular vernacular, all according to their particular needs and orientations. Why not with individuals?

That's my entire point. Individuals have this same amount of variance, depending in large part on what larger social entities they belong to, but also depending on their individual paradigms. OK, I must define a paradigm, so that I may be understood. According to the Merriam/Webster online dictionary, a paradigm is "a philosophical and theoretical framework of a scientific school or discipline within which theories, laws, and generalizations and the experiments performed in support of them are formulated."

I use this term to also mean "the idiosyncratic philosophical, theoretical and practical framework that we each use to view the outside world (the inside world being the various aspects of ourselves), stemming from our own personality, experiences and circumstances."

"Wait a second, Matt. That definition is nowhere in any dictionary. You can't do that!" But I can. That is the beauty of words and language. We are able to use and abuse language in any way we want, hopefully with the ultimate goal of clearer understanding (although I understand that not everyone has that goal). If we do not, then ours becomes a dead language, non changing, like Latin. But ours is a living language. A man named Isaac Azimov, not too many years in our past, created a word we all have heard, "robot." Before that, they were called mechanical men or something like that. In recent times, new terms keep popping up. For example, in the ever changing computer industry, using the word "pentium" would have meant nothing a few years ago. Now, it means near the top of the line (unless they've already come out with something to surpass the pentium processors). You who reads this document also abuses and changes language. "I don't wanna." "Don't dis me." "That's cool." I could go on, but you hopefully get the idea.

Language is constantly corrupted, and we are the corrupters. But as long as everyone understands us, things are going well. "But what about that paradigm thing you mentioned?" Good question. To me, when I use the word paradigm, I know what I'm talking about, but you may not. So I have to explain in words you are more likely to share a common definition of to get the point across.

"But aren't you a writer?" If I weren't I wouldn't bother with this kind of stuff, would I? But the point is valid. How can I be a writer if I can't have any faith in the words I use? How can I be sure anyone will understand anything I write? How do I know you aren't reading this right now, thinking I'm some kind of freak? Well, there has to be a certain amount of faith, backed with a little knowledge. I know that when I say certain things, there appears to be a common understanding. I say "Look over there," and people actually look (or they think I'm just kidding them and don't, but that's another story). By describing the basic immediate experiences common to all humanity, I should be able to get by. But who wants to talk about that table, or this chair? Sometimes we want more. And isn't love and hatred and other basic emotions part of the immediate experience? Then how come they are misinterpreted so often? Because emotions are more subjective and fluid than words are.

The solution to the problem of describing that which isn't easily described (such as justice, home, security) is to use the common experience to metaphorically describe these transcendent experiences (transcendent because they are beyond just the physical). Poets have been doing this for ages.

This has been an exercise in deconstruction, or (loosely translated) tearing apart a concept by showing how it undercuts itself. To verbally deconstruct, you need words. Deconstructing language is like taking apart the the planks you stand on. Some could argue that everything I just wrote means nothing by virtue of what I said. My own language is so subjective that only I can understand. Why waste the time, then? What is gained? And why have we just spent the time reading this, if it is only meaningless drivel anyway? Good questions. Next!

No, seriously. If you are still reading, you have to know by now that there has to be a point. Words are the best we have, so let's use them anyway.
"That's it?" Well, yeah. I mean, what did you expect? We have no real alternative. Language is our way of interacting with other humans on anything besides a purely physical level. This is the way we reach out, lonely souls that we are, to touch another mind, in the hope we aren't the only one in the sea of flesh. If language is the way to interaction, is it not reasonable to say the aim of our words should be to better those interactions? What we should focus on is not jumping to snap judgements and making sure we understand the other person, as best we can. Language represents ideas. Everyone has ideas. Let us each try to listen to the ideas of others, in hopes that they truly listen to ours.

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