Language never gets easy.

I just survived a Philosophy Intensive, which means that in the last 30 hours, 12 of them were spent in a class covering Analytic Philosophy.

Huh, and when you put it like that it doesn’t look too bad. Suddenly I feel less hardcore than I did before I started this post.

Anyhow, one of the things were were covering in class was the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, specifically his work on language. (I wrote my paper on his Mysticism. And that’s the last you’re ever going to to hear of that paper, because for complete lack of excellence it ranks right up there with the stories where I mistook architecture for plot and finished conversations by people jumping down holes in the ground.) In addition to really kicking off Ordinary Language Philosophy, one of the things Wittgenstein worked on was the theory of private language vs. public language.

This is where it gets interesting, I promise.

Okay, so one of the things that has been thought about extensively over the last couple millennia has been how we acquire language. The general consensus was that language was something that arose internally. When we were children someone pointed to a cookie and said “cookie,” and so when we wanted that thing we went to the pictures in our minds, found that it was called “cookie,” and asked for it. Language is primarily internal, arising from private experiences and sensations we learn to put names to.

And then Wittgenstein came along with a bag full of wrenches and threw them at everything. He said that language arrises from shared experiences, experiences that we’ve decided on a name for. It is essentially public, and essentially experiential. Even in the example of the child pointing at the cookie, the important part is not that the child wanted to name the thing a cookie. The child wanted a cookie. (Speaking of shared experiences, pretty sure that one’s common…) We don’t walk around with a catalogue of names of things in our head, we walk around with a collection of actions in our heads.

From this it follows that language is essentially culturally constructed. (And if you add the fact that experience is filtered through “language,” experience is culturally constructed, and so is reality, but that’s a head trip I’ve barely even started synthesizing yet, much less decided if I agree.)

Speaking of experiences that make sense within culture…

So that’s interesting.

I had never gone into the issue as deeply as we did this weekend before, but I had thought of language as a cultural construction before. It’s one of the things that comes up if you move a lot. (Just trying referring to the boot of a car in California and see how far that gets you.) And it’s also something that comes up if you’re writing or studying writing. It’s why you often need to know where or when someone comes from before you interpret their work, or you’re left thinking as all those poets talking about courtly love as creepers who can’t even talk to women. Where if you know that the genders were entirely segregated at the time of the writing, you know that the poet isn’t a creeper for not talking to his lady love. (He’s a creeper for other reasons. :D)

One of the things I was wondering this summer was whether a common language is actually an impediment to communication in our world. We have so many people who speak English, and because of our shared media and art we all talk fairly similarly. There are, or course, exceptions– Singlish being one which comes to mind– but generally most people who talk English are fairly comprehensible to each other. However, we don’t all come from the same culture. Yes, we come from similar cultures, but our experiences range from subtly to very different. And yet, we all have the same words for things. So we assume we’re talking about the same things, when sometimes we really aren’t.

I beg your pardon?

I thought of this again when #Occupy protests started spreading around the globe. Because yes, in the USA when you say “Bank,” you’re talking about an institution which has some serious institutional flaws. More Regulation Needed, Please. However, that isn’t necessarily the same everywhere. In Canada while the USA financial system ours was the most stable in the world. So when people hear on the news that “the financial system is corrupt and flawed and needs to be changed,” and then they go out and protest it, they’re protesting an issue that might not even exist in their country. If it does exist, it’s certainly not going to be fixed with the same solutions here! But because the words are the same, we assume the experiences and references are the same.

tl;dr version: Define your terms.

One thought on “Language never gets easy.

  1. Bahnree

    private lang vs. public lang: FALSE DICHOTOMY. Oh wait that would mess with our cultural obsession with the individual. All right, then.

    “In Canada while the USA financial system ours was the most stable in the world.”
    What is this sentence saying? :/

    Good post, Gretel.

    Reply

Tell me what you think! Please.