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Language and a Failure to Communicate

Communication only occurs if people agree on language; French and Germans can’t talk unless they agree on common language. But problems occur even if both speak the same language like English; language is only possible because we agree on the meanings of words. There’s no reason “table” could not be called “squid”, except for the reason we all agree on which is which. Yet in discussion (especially in politics and religion) not everyone uses words with the same definition – some people use different meanings (not commonly held) of words which prohibit communication and cause confusion.

Here’s a few examples of a common phenomenon. These are hardly the only ones, but they illustrate the problem.

Presidential candidate Romney said he “saw” his father march with MLK. But that wasn’t true. When asked, he said he “saw” in a figurative sense, not literal. Of course, 95% of people would say “saw” means with your eyes, not your dreams. Yet Romney told the truth using his definition – the problem arises when few others agree with his definition. To paraphrase, what does “is” really mean anyway?

The difference results in a failure to communicate.

If you’ve seen the debates between Clinton and Obama, you’ve seen them argue over health-care. But not over differences in plans, they’re arguing over what “covering everyone” means. Obama’s plan offers coverage but it’s not required; Clinton’s plan is forced on everyone. So which plan covers everyone? Do both? That’s hardly the big point to discuss about their separate plans, but it’s the ones the debate focused on, because each used their own definition.

The difference results in a failure to communicate.

In a recent discussion on another board surrounding the constitutionally of a graduating person mentioning God in their speech the discussion quickly centered on if the government was forcing people to a religious event. During the discussion, the following was said:

We libertarians use the word force in a particular way, and we shouldn’t expect others to understand it or to agree with it.

Why would Libertarians use a different definition? Again, different uses of a word stifled communication. The Libertarian party compose about 4% or so of the population; using non-standard definitions is a sure-fire way to miscommunicate with the other 95% of the population. Why take the chance?

The difference results in a failure to communicate.

This also occurs in basic English usage. We’ve had discussions about the difference between “a” and “the” as someone attempted to assign the same meaning to them; common definitions reveal a large and significant difference between the definite article “the” and the indefinite article “a”. (“The” is specific, “a” is one of possibly many – it’s indeterminate. If they were the same we’d only require one term for both of them). Making them the same defies definitions.

The difference results in a failure to communicate.

Religious terms also prove troublesome. The flap between Romney and Huckabee centered around what each believed about Jesus. But anyone who studies religion knows the Christian Jesus is quite different from the Mormon Jesus, which differs from the Jehovah Witness’ Jesus. They may all use the same words, but with completely different meanings.

The difference results in a failure to communicate.

We’ve seen different definitions recently of force, a, the, socialism, saw, significant, covering everyone, and Jesus, among others. This problem isn’t restricted to a certain area, although it seems to affect politics and religion the most.

The problem of semantics has always played an important part in human affairs, for by its use or abuse, whichever the case may be, entire churches, thrones, and even governments, for that matter, have been erected, sustained, or overthrown. The late George Orwell’s stirring novel 1984, in which he points out that the redefinition of common political terms can lead to slavery when it is allowed to pass unchallenged by a lethargic populace, is a classic illustration of the dangers of perverted semantics. It should be of no particular surprise to any student of world history that trick terminology is a powerful propaganda weapon. (Walter Martin, “The Kingdom of the Cults” page 28-29)

Without common definitions, communication is impossible. That’s why we have dictionaries, encyclopedias and other references, so everyone knows the meaning of words; communication fails when one party uses a word different from common understanding. For this reason we frequently define exactly what a word means from the dictionary (dictionary.com) or other reliable and commonly understood source (wiki’s can be a mixed bag) so everyone understands the meaning.

We attempt to use words in their commonly understood meanings, but not everyone does (after some back and forth, when we finally get the definition a person uses communication can continue). If we ever do use a term which could be misunderstood, we define it. That’s why you’ll find the “about” page which defines Constitutional Conservatism; it’s a term lacking a common understanding (at least for most people) and we didn’t want any ambiguity.

And that’s what language is all about – communication.

There’s no question this phenomenon exists, the issues are why does it happen, how often, and the reasons (if you don’t like our examples, we’re sure you can come up with many of your own). The issue isn’t these specific issues, it’s the failure to communicate caused by different definitions of common words. In some of these situations, as soon as the different use of words is known, communication can continue. Of course, this can only occur if two people can speak or otherwise have a two-way conversation. If the problem occurs in written prose where a person can’t directly inquire the author, communication is impossible.

Many times this issue comes up in politics and religion, and perhaps it’s not a coincidence those are two of the most heated discussions people engage in. Many times people aren’t really communicating as they’re really speaking two different languages. Just try and have a Christian, Mormon and Jehovah Witness discuss Jesus – they all use the same word but with quite different meanings – and then what we have is a failure to communicate.

As to why this happens we’ll dismiss the obvious reason of a person deliberately attempting to mislead, while that does happen (in politics for sure), it’s not very interesting, and little can be done about it other than to point out deception when it occurs.

We’ll advance one theory.

Our background is in math, science and computers. In other words, concrete, specific and well-defined areas – words have precise meaning. If you’re writing a computer program, the C compiler doesn’t compile your program if it isn’t exact. It doesn’t think “gee, in this ‘while’ loop you really mean ‘do-while'” – it throws an error and aborts. Programming (at least syntax) is an exact science. Simply miss punctuation and it won’t compile. No ambiguity exists (or can). And you certainly don’t want an engineer saying he’s using a different version of how strong a material is; your house might fall down if they changed meanings.

People trained in exact fields like math, science and engineering use exactly defined terms everyone agrees to – it forms the basis for science, engineering, math and computer science – you can’t say your value for 2 differs from someone else’s; that’s not accepted in sciences (of course, concepts and theories are hotly debated, but rarely the definitions of words themselves).

But others trained in liberal arts (English, philosophy, etc) are trained to allegorize, inferring conclusions in a non-concrete way and “reading between the lines”. It’s these types who may be more likely to use words in a non-standard way, after all it’s their educational training – they likely do it without even thinking. If they’ve been taught such techniques, why would it not be acceptable? In those fields little is absolute, and definitions are pliable.

There’s one corollary to this as well. Younger people recently educated have been in schools where “value relativism” and “situational ethics” is the standard; the idea your truth is as good as mine, a situation where everyone does what is right in their own eyes. In short, a denial of absolutes. In that environment we find people much more likely to shift definitions as that’s the way they’ve been educated – truth isn’t absolute (in my calculus class a loooong time ago if you were integrating and you missed a minus sign in your answer, you got no credit. No partial credit – it’s either right or incorrect). The problem arises when people change definitions, communication becomes impossible.

And thus the gulf between people who use commonly understood definitions, and those that don’t. But since language depends on agreed upon definitions, we wonder why this situation exists. If you don’t like the definition of a word, use another, or create a new word. At the least, inform people when (and why) you’re not using commonly accepted meanings. Why confuse discussion with little-known or uncommon definitions for words? The goal is communication, not confusion. We all have to understand language, and that starts with agreed definitions for words.

I’m a rational empiricist and a devotee of inductive logic. Whenever I hear people make statements I very much like to know what they mean by the words because if they can’t define the words in context they don’t mean anything. (Walter Martin)

So we come to a few questions.

  1. Do you agree with the premise that language should be concrete and exact, with well-understood definitions? Why or why not?
  2. Have you ever had someone use different definitions for words? Did it result in communication failure?
  3. Do you use un-common definitions for words, definitions out of the mainstream? If so, why?
  4. What about science verses liberal arts education?
  5. Or “value relativism” and “situational ethics”?

NOTE: For people responding to this post, please don’t engage in discussion of the political or religious issues on this page. We’ve commented on them before, and if you’re interested we’ve got other pages devoted to those issues where it would be entirely appropriate to discuss. This page is about language and the use or non-use of normal definitions for words – we’d like to stay on-topic.


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