Saturday, August 17, 2013

Language as a Social Activity, Or Literally, it's not about meaning

CNN has an article on how the definition of "literally" in many dictionaries has been extended to include the idea that the word is used for emphasis (as in "the phones are literally ringing off the walls"--probably not true but, yet, you get what the speaker means). This has led to an enormous number of comments (1300, as I write) between people horrified at the change and others pointing out that this kind of change is typical of what languages do (side note: there are so many words that mean both one thing and its opposite that someone took the time to coin a term for them: autoantonyms). I've been engaged in a series of comments on this with an especially stupid person (screen name "English Language" who claims to be an affiliated with the MLA, the Chicago Manual of Style, the AP style guide, and Strunk & White; I'm in the comment section as "PeterHunterVogel").

But that's not what I want to talk about.

One of things that keeps coming up in this discussion is that the purpose of English (and, I assume, any language) is to convey meaning and to do so as clearly as possible ("English Language" keeps using the word "precise"). Obviously, if that's true then English is doing a terrible job of achieving that goal which is why you keep having people like "English Language" whining about it.

As a technical writer, I really hate to disagree with the position that language exists to communicate meaning precisely. But I've come to believe that "conveying information precisely" is not the reason that language exists. I've come to think that language exists as a way of allowing people to work and live together--as way of building relationships. Part of that is certainly conveying meaning (or just information) between people. But I think that's just part of the job that language performs.

For instance, off the top of my head, other uses of the language include: to flirt, to endear, to make jokes, to perform rituals (e.g. marriage), to be social/diplomatic (please, thank you), to console, to challenge, to enrage, to encourage, to trick, to confuse, to obfuscate. We use language when, plainly, it's impossible to convey information (unless we're crazy): when talking to ourselves, babies, animals, plants, and so on. With babies, animals, and plants I suspect that we're counting on our tone of voice to do something (with babies: console, probably) but we don't just utter meaningless sounds--we use language. In, fact with babies, we often use a specific form of English (generally referred to as "baby talk") that, among other things, omits articles. Even if you want to suggest that we're using language here to communicate, by example, information to the baby about how language works I doubt anyone believes that's happening with children under, say, six months of age.

I'd be willing to bet that if we added up all of the words spoken and written, most those words aren't being used to "convey information" at all but are being used to do something else entirely. I wouldn't be willing to bet a lot of money but I'd be willing to be some (and, by the way, I'd also bet that many times when information is conveyed that isn't really our point, hence the phrase "just making conversation").

I suspect that many poets, essayists, and fiction writers wouldn't put "conveying information precisely" high on their list of "important things about the language." They might, instead, talk about the language's ability to "evoke" and be "expressive." Many poems rest, in fact, on a word's ambiguity. John Berryman's "The Dream Songs" are a fabulous work but I'd be hard pressed, for some of those poems, to re-state what they mean: those poems hardly be said to convey information at all let alone to do it "precisely." Yet those same poems resonate with me because their goal is to evoke a feeling or an emotion--what information is being conveyed is just a tool in achieving that goal. And,by the way, when we talk about these kinds of works, we're talking about things that are often considered to be the greatest achievements in the language. These works are conveying meaning only if you redefine "meaning" to include--at the very least--"emotion" (what is, for instance, the "meaning" of a series of anapests?). Even works focused on conveying information often are really trying to do something else: get us to change our allegiance and adopt a new position on a topic.

I think we get focused on the "information/meaning processing" side of language because the people writing about language tend to be academics, scientists, and the like. Much of their professional life is, of course, wrapped up in discovering new things and communicating that to others--often, their jobs depend on it. Not surprisingly, therefore, that affects how those people see language. If anthropologists/sociologists were more interested in the history/uses of language we might have a different view of language.

For instance, an enormous part of many languages is devoted to distinguishing between people of different social relationships (class, family, life and work partners) and specifying how you talk to those people. Specific parts of the language exist to support the distinction. We do this when we speak one way to our friends and a different way to our boss or parents. You could claim these changes convey information ("I'm a higher/lower rank than you", "You are/aren't part of my inner circle" or even "I'm acknowledging that you are of a higher/lower status than me") but I'd say you're stretching what's happening here in order to hang on to your point. Both parties are perfectly aware of their relationship and don't need to be told. We use the language that way because that's the way you're supposed to talk in this kind of relationship.

One of the big breakthroughs in the study of business management occurred when Henry Mintzberg stopped assuming that the purpose of a business manager was "to make decisions" and stopped focusing on how managers did (or should) make good decisions. Instead, Mintzberg had his graduate students follow successful managers around to see what those managers actually did. Mintzberg then assumed that those managers were successful because of all the things they did (not just the decision making part) and looked at all of those activities. Of course, managers do make decisions but, it turns out, that was only part of their job. The same should be done with language.

I can't be the first person to think of this approach so I suspect that lots of people, somewhere are doing that kind of analysis; I (and "English Language") are just ignorant of their work.

I mean: If it's true that English is supposed to exist to convey meaning precisely then why do we have people in every age complaining about how the latest change undermines that goal? If that was the goal of the language you'd think that, by now, we'd have achieved it. The usual objection is that stupid people keep introducing changes that screw the language up (that's the gist of many of the complaints to the changes to the definition of "literally"). But if language doesn't exist primarily to convey meaning precisely, it wouldn't be surprising if changes to the language don't always support "conveying information precisely" and, in practice, frequently undermine it. And, by golly, that's what happens.

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