Information, clarity, and understanding; these are valuable things if you want to make your way in our world. If you want to make good decisions and actually achieve something they are absolutely vital.
Unfortunately the things we need to know and understand can be lost or confounded by the manipulation and changing of language. If you want to disrupt or even cripple someone, one of the best ways to do so is to cut off their supply of information. One of the best ways to do that is to attack the meaning of words and language.
And yes dear reader there are those trying to do it to you!
It’s an old problem
One of the oldest stories/examples I know of is the story of the tower of Babel in the bible.
Basically the people got prideful and started doing things they shouldn’t have and as a result their language was corrupted. While the story of the tower of Babel is considered a story at this point (we don’t have sufficient facts to discuss any real details of what happened or even if the event actually happened) the story does serve as an example of how far back such concerns go.
If you want more ‘real world’ examples get a group of “English” speakers together for a conversation. For completeness sake please include speakers of ‘The queen’s English’, American English, Canadian English and Australian English. To really see the extent of the problem try including a back woods Florida alligator hunter, a Silicon Valley software engineer, a lawyer, a psychologist, and a politician (lawyer or no lawyer subtype it really doesn’t matter…).
What you will find is that there is a certain level of Jargon in specialties and areas of interest. There is also a level of ‘drift’ in meaning as groups grow farther apart. And yes dear reader these factors do work in concert, creating situations where you might need a translator even though everyone involved is speaking ‘English’.
The same issue happens with other languages. French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian all have Latin roots. And yet translating between them can be tricky. Further north in Europe you have German, Dutch, Swedish, Finnish, and Norwegian to cope with.
And if you manage to parse all of that out we still have a couple of other continents to deal with. Care to examine the origins Afrikaans? If you get that one worked out why not try finding the origins of modern ‘Chinese’ (as much respect as I have for my Chinese friends I am not trying to explain the challenges of that particular language without a large bottle of Ibuprophen…).
And it still goes on…
Language drifts and changes naturally. That’s why languages like English, Spanish, German, Japanese and Arabic are classified as living languages. The language shifts and changes as time goes on. It becomes difficult to understand the words of former days. It is somewhat natural to find that things like the U.S. Constitution are a bit harder to interpret than they were two hundred years ago.
But that sort of lingual drift isn’t the hardest part. That kind of lingual drift can be countered by study and education. There is a greater danger to our knowledge and understanding in the form of those who actively seek to change the meaning of language to fit their particular ends.
(Note that as we continue I am not taking sides on any of the particular terms mentioned in this post… Today we are talking about language and people changing language. If we want to talk about particular issues where this is occurring… That is a topic for another day.)
Have you heard the contention and disagreement around terms such as “assault rifle”, “gender”, “marriage”, “climate change”, or “the American dream”? There is a whole lot of venom and conflict there, and we haven’t even gotten to the deep philosophical ones like “truth” or “morality” yet. We also haven’t even scratched the surface of recently invented terms like “fake news”, or the never ending alphabet soup of acronyms (I personally know three meanings for PSI and that’s to say nothing of TLA, ETLA, EETLA, LGBT, LGBTQ, RSVP, LOL, ROTFLOL, BYB, BYOB, or BYOBS).
There are those out there who actively try to redefine words to suit their own ends. There are even more people out there willing to adopt a meaning of a word that they like or come from sources that sound credible. Often this is what leads to the sort of linguistic drift that makes talking to my wife’s teacher friends and my family’s military friends at the same time such a challenge.
If we blindly follow what others are saying and if we foolishly allow ourselves to assume everyone is using the same word for the same thing we can end up in real trouble. It is our own responsibility to navigate this mess of meanings and understand what’s going on around us. This is a responsibility we cannot hand off to anyone.
So how do we do that?
That’s a big topic, bigger than we can entirely cover in one blog post, but here are a couple of points. We will probably revisit this subject with more information as time goes on.
The biggest key is learning. Don’t just take someone’s word for it on what words mean. Do some study and find out for yourself.
The second key is awareness. Be aware that others might be using a different definition and how that may affect meaning (it might also be a good idea to figure out why the person is using the meaning he or she is…)
One of the best things you can do is strive to use a shared meaning. This means communicating about communicating and both parties need to have a genuine desire to communicate instead of just yelling at someone while trying to advocate for a position.
Language is a vital tool for thought and understanding. We as individuals need to learn and make sure we understand the language being used. It is a challenge, but it is one of the most important things to do if you want to succeed in communication and in life.
That’s it for this one dear reader. Until next time: Say what you mean, mean what you say, and I’ll see you next week.