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Posted on 2010.07.06 at 14:13
Location: work (hehe)
Mood: contemplativecontemplative
Tags: ,

For the past couple of years, the concept of the imprecision of language has been a frequent visitor to my philosophical wanderings. I began by being simply frustrated at the impossibility of using such a blunt tool to communicate anything real, and in fact was truly distraught by this wall that seemed to ensure each of us remains an island. Gradually, though, as the idea meandered in and out of my thoughts, I have developed a beautiful sense - almost an image - of the interplay between language and communication, imprecision and precision, which largely overcomes this barrier.

Why is it so easy to explain a concept to one person, yet impossible to explain the same idea to another? To one, it is the simplest construction, while to the other it is impossible to place a foundation. Why is it, when you use the most exact language, people are the most confused and lost (think of really dense philosophical or scientific writing), while when you use vague half-sentences and hand gestures, people seem to understand so completely?

The answer begins with realizing that words do not have finite meaning. Their definitions are limited, but the connotations and associations they carry with them are theoretically boundless, and constitute a huge, but hugely variable, portion of the meanings of words. The difficulty and the beauty of communication arises from this single fact: those meanings are always different for different people, but almost always overlapping. Say I have an idea or image I am trying to communicate, whether it is the form of a flower I noticed or the fact of a goal scored by Ghanaian soccer players or the feeling of helplessness in the face of the economy. When I turn that idea into words, I am essentially comparing the meaning I can create with those words to the meaning I intend, and I choose the words the meanings of which most closely resemble my idea. Now, words don't stand on their own, either. They interact, modifying one another and often - when together in certain ways - adopting totally new meanings that are particular to that combination. Imagine, if you will, that the meaning of each word - rather, my meaning of each word - is like a particular wave packet (image of a wave packet). Already, it is a complex interaction of definitions, connotations, and associations (and it is theoretically infinite - but bounded, since only a certain range of meanings having a significant effect on the, as it were, shape of the wave). Now imagine that I am overlapping various of these waves, placing them next to each other in sentences. Some pieces will be amplified, others diminished, depending on which waves I choose to include and how they are placed. Now, I am not actually creating this wave directly – I am only picturing the wave I would create and matching it to the picture I wish to convey. For, my words’ meanings are so complex and interact in such complex ways that I can imagine them replicating almost any idea to at least a fair likeness, sometimes achieving startling clarity of resemblance.

This is only half the process, however. Now that I have chosen which words will best match my idea, I say them.

You hear them. As you hear my words, they excite waves in your mind. But they excite waves according to your understanding of the words’ meanings. Your waves are slightly different from mine. The image you receive is not exactly the one I sent. Sometimes, although I feel I have been exceedingly clear and straightforward, you either cannot make out a meaning at all or read a meaning tangential or even opposite to what I intended!

This (largely) answers my first question: why is it so easy to explain a concept to one person and so difficult to communicate it to another? Clearly, if two people ascribe very similar meanings to the words involved, then it is easier for one to communicate an idea to another. The image I envision creating with words will be very similar to the image I really do create, because I envision it using waves of nearly the same shape as the waves you will in fact use.

So far, of course, I have ignored our understanding of one another. You know already that different people understand things differently and what is more, you adjust the way you communicate to accommodate that knowledge. When shaping what you will say and the words you use, you take into account your knowledge and assumptions of how the other’s meanings differ. You use words (and, of course, gestures, facial expressions, and intonations) that you think will excite the most precise image, rather than the words you think most precisely describe it. As a crude example, if I know a friend of mine hates reading, and I am trying to convey the joy of an activity I love, I won’t say “It was like reading a good book late into the night,” even if that is, in my mind, the most apt of similes. Instead, I will search for an (emotive) experience we do share, and work from there, though it may be less direct (e.g., “It was like rafting down the Colorado on an overcast day, except without the fear of falling off the raft”). This provides more insight into the question, for if two people share more experiences and attitudes towards those experiences, they will share a more common language. Also, if two people have greater experience with each other, they will have a better understanding of their differences and similarities and will better be able to adjust their language to match (Side note: this adjustment takes place on both ends. You may know, for example, that when I say the word "agnostic" it means something different from what many others mean, and you will take that into account).

Here is one more very important point. If an idea or image already exists in a person’s mind, it is much easier to excite that idea – or one very similar to it. The idea can then be adjusted by adding or subtracting meanings by way of appending words with meanings that amplify or diminish what is already there. Moreover, in face to face interaction, we are constantly reading feedback as to how much we have been understood. Thus, we are able at times to see that we have already excited a full idea with only a few words, and so we skip over the words that would be necessary to precisely capture the idea’s meaning.

Thus, communication - even of a single idea from one person to the other - is, when done well, a bidirectional process. Thus it is that the best communication can be the most seemingly vague. For, if I am really paying attention to you and seeing how much you understand and reading what is unclear, I immediately change the direction of my words to alter, not the precise image I would make with words, but the precision of the image my words are evoking. I may leave a sentence unfinished if it is unnecessary, or include words that are hardly – on the surface – relevant, but which shape your thoughts towards my goal.

In conclusion, communication is essentially resonance. Easy communication comes from natural resonance. Good communication comes from reading another person well, understanding the differences in your resonances, and finding similarities to work from. Language is indeed a blunt tool, but it can be used to share intricately detailed ideas if its imprecision is used as an asset and not pushed away as an obstacle. And people are not exactly connected by language but - to the degree that connection is likeness - it can reveal those connections that naturally exist, and strengthen them.

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