Thursday, October 6, 2011

Imprecision Of Language

A friend of mine recently pointed out her frustration with the rampant overuse of hyperbole in contemporary speech: "Man, that's awesome!" and the like. Really? Does the iPhone 4S really inspire awe? Maybe it does.

Hyperbole is a legitimate rhetorical and literary device used to draw attention to the way one perceives something as opposed to the way it really is. Of course, hyperbole is never meant to be taken literally, and, as such, critiques like the one above are a bit harsh. Thing is, when you use a device meant to draw special attention to something every other sentence, it stops being special and you undermine your whole purpose in using it.

This particular situation is, I think, symptomatic of a larger and more serious problem, namely, rampant carelessness with language. Consider this quote from The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson:
"It is often said that what most immediately sets English apart from other languages is the richness of its vocabulary. Webster's Third New International Dictionary lists 450,000 words, and the revised Oxford English Dictionary has 615,000, but that is only part of the total. Technical and scientific terms would add millions more. Altogether, about 200,000 English words are in common use, more than in German (184,000) and far more than in French (a mere 100,000). The richness of the English vocabulary, and the wealth of available synonyms, means that English speakers can often draw shades of distinction unavailable to non-English speakers. The French, for instance, cannot distinguish between house and home, between mind and brain, between man and gentleman, between 'I wrote' and 'I have written.' The Spanish cannot differentiate between a chairman and a president, and the Italians have no equivalent of wishful thinking. In Russia there are no native words for efficiency, challenge, engagement ring, have fun, or take care.... English, as Charlton Laird has noted, is the only language that has, or needs, books of synonyms like Roget's Thesaurus. 'Most speakers of other languages are not aware that such books exist,'" (13-14).
This is one of the reasons why I believe Shakespeare could only have happened in English. But, to whom much is given, much is required. As a native English speaker, one has no excuse for imprecision. If I'm having an interesting experience, in all likelihood the perfect word to describe it exists. It's nobody's fault but my own that I don't know it.

Words represent things. Nouns represent substances, all kinds: general, specific, proper, common, abstract, concrete, collective, and so on. Verbs represent actions like walking, driving, talking, and writing. Verbs also represent passions, or received actions like being talked to or being carried. Adjectives represent qualities; adverbs represent the manners in which actions can happen; and prepositions represent relationships.

All of this is to say that words have their foundation in the real world. Things exist in the world around us. We know these things through our senses. When we speak about them, we're relating this conceptual knowledge to other people, and we do so according to the conventions of our language and culture in order that we will be understood. The transitive property dictates, then, that when, via language, we communicate our conceptual knowledge of the world to others, we're also communicating the natures of the things in the world which gave rise to our own knowledge of them.

Some would make the argument that, in the end, what we say doesn't really matter that much as long as we communicate ourselves. While it's true that our language must abide by certain conventions in order for us to be understood, it is not only our impressions of the world that we are attempting to communicate. When we utter a word, we are transmitting knowledge of the forms in things.

Imprecision in and carelessness with language is, then, carelessness with our knowledge of things, and the things themselves. To deny the importance of choosing one's words carefully is to deny the real connection between our words, our mind, and the world. In other words, we should all mean what we say, and say what we mean.


  1. I think it's hard for a native speaker to appreciate the treasure of English.

    I'm reminded of a 1908 critique of the Polish-born multilingual author Joseph Conrad: "A writer who ceases to see the world coloured by his own language‑‑for language gives colour to thoughts and things in a way that few people understand‑‑is apt to lose the concentration and intensity of vision without which the greatest literature cannot be made."

    Yet Conrad said of himself: "...I have a strange and overpowering feeling that [English] had always been an inherent part of myself. English was for me neither a matter of choice nor adoption. The merest idea of choice had never entered my head. And as to adoption‑‑well, yes, there was adoption; but it was I who was adopted by the genius of the language..."

  2. Thanks for the wonderful comment. You're probably right. To a non-native English-speaker it probably just seems overly complicated and non-sensical.

    I'm wary of agreeing that language colors thought. That being said, Conrad is absolutely right that the most important task of an artist after having an artistic vision is to master his medium so that he is able successfully to recreate it in a work. In literature and poetry, this is just as much about the nuances of one's particular language as it is about different brush-strokes and colors in oil.

  3. I'm wary of agreeing that language colors thought.

    Try this example:

    How would a Roman express the idea of "philosopher," except to import the Greek word directly into his own Latin tongue? That is, if Latin would have done a good-enough job of conveying that idea, why bother to import the Greek?

  4. Well, I'm not sure this is an example of language coloring thought. So a native Latin speaker understood the idea of a philosopher (probably from knowing Greek and having read or heard the word and had it explained by means of circumlocution) and tried to devise a way of expressing that idea in Latin succinctly. When Latin fell short, he borrowed a foreign word.

    It seems to me all that's happened is a language was deficient in that in lacked a word to describe a particular idea and was forced to adopt one. In other words, the thought still preceded the language used to represent it. It is not as if a native Latin speaker, because of the deficiency of his language, would be incapable of conceiving of a philosopher, he simply lacks the ability to put it into (purely Latin) words.

  5. What I mean is that Latin was inadequate to confect its own word for the idea- and thus would be unlikely to have created the concept on its own. The way Greek goes together is more nimble than Latin, which I think in some ways limited the Roman imagination.


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