Opinions, Column

The Truth Within Language

I’m the stereotypical English major in the sense that I actually worry about words. I don’t like when they fail to communicate my intended meaning. I want my words to reflect my perspective and for other people to understand my words as I mean them. And I worry that that just isn’t possible.

Conversations naturally center around two areas of our lives, broadly categorized as 1) necessity and 2) desire. Necessity, true to its name, involves practical aspects of life and focuses on facts. It’s composed of the basics that fill most of our time and energy. Conversations centered on desire are more subjective and philosophical and often prove inconclusive. Conversations of necessity occur naturally, and often involve more efficient, simplistic language, because the concepts expressed therein are generally more goal-oriented and focused. Conversations of desire occur because we wish to communicate them, relating as they do to the objects of our desire. They demand increased vocabularies to accommodate the expansion of the mind that occurs when faced with these transcendental concepts. The conversations interact because of conflicting desires and tendencies. As a result, some elevated words—“love” and “courage,” for example—lose their meanings when they devolve into conversations of necessity. We inadvertently mix the appropriate expressions and concepts in our joining of these two worlds.

Another factor that makes language so hard to understand and communicate precisely is context and connotation—which appear simple enough until we consider their extent. Language isn’t just about stratified settings and tones of voice. It’s about the constantly changing people who use it. Even if two people speak in the same tone and setting, with the same words, their identities and those of whoever hears them will affect the words’ effects. Language is malleable and changes just as easily and surreptitiously as the people who wield it—leading me to question whether there’s a way to make language objective.

How do I know that the person speaking to me is expressing what I’m hearing? That he or she is telling the truth? That one or both of us isn’t falling prey to bias?

I don’t think we can know—objectively, at least. With so many variables that we can’t measure, rational thought can only take us so far. Any communication, with words or with actions, has endless potential to be misunderstood. There’s no telling how much of what we say is understood by those around us. In fact, I think that in general we just catch the gist, the overall idea. The odds of clicking in conversation or understanding with another person are much lower than what we think. And usually I don’t think we have to understand each other exactly—but we all have those days when we realize how close and yet how separate we all are. It’s the blessing and the curse of being an individual: no one has the same experience as us.

For as long as I can remember being able to wish it, I’ve wanted to know someone who understands the way that I view the world. It didn’t have to be perfectly aligned—but a perspective close enough to mine that I could speak and feel that they were hearing the words as I meant them. It’s not only willingness, but also a unique set of variables that results in a certain perspective of the world. I thought the chances were one-in-a-million—until a few months ago, when I was talking to one of my brothers in the living room over Thanksgiving Break. I was talking about my life and he was talking about his—and somewhere along the way, we realized that there was a parallel of perspectives. They weren’t the same, by any means, but they were close enough that the words meant what I wanted them to. The expressions and imagery that had failed me before suddenly worked, and I found comfort in the realization that I could speak and be understood.

Language is as complicated as the people who express it, and as a result it can be maddening in its subjectivity and complexity. But with this complexity comes potential. We can’t be reduced to objective outcomes. We cannot be programmed to be predictable. Instead, we follow our own courses, pushing through the waters to find our own destinations—and in the moments when we see land, our joy is complete for being so hard-earned.

Featured Image by Francisco Ruela / Heights Staff

March 2, 2016