The language barrier

1 May

Lately I’ve been realizing just how much of a problem the language barrier is when it comes to just about everything. We use language all the time to communicate. Verbal language, written language, body language, computer language, etc. So many of the difficulties we have are caused by the language barrier.

In order for a language to work, everyone communicating must use the same definition. If I say “boat” and you think of what I would call a “horse”, then the language doesn’t work. The whole point is to communicate an idea by evoking in you the same mental image/concept I’m picturing. (Denotation)

But perhaps the most complex and problem causing aspect of language is connotation. Denotation refers to the literal object/concept, but connotation deals with how people interpret/feel about that object/concept. Everyone has their own personal experiences, preferences, and biases. Whenever I write, one of the most difficult tasks is trying to choose words that will convey the same emotions and flavor for a concept that I feel, but to my audience.

So we have two aspects of language that affect how we communicate ideas: denotation and connotation. In order for us to communicate effectively, both must line up. Lately I feel like this is an almost impossible task.

Take politics and religion. Two extremely important topics that impact the lives of billions of people everyday. They are also two of the most emotionally charged topics given how they are fundamental to how many people think about themselves, their identity, the world, their place in it, and how things ought to be. Given the extreme personal nature of these topics, any given concept’s connotation might vary widely from person to person. Same can be said of denotations.

For example, it is almost impossible to have a discussion about religion. In order to have good communication and a rational discussion, both parties must agree on the definition of terms. What is religion? What qualifies as a “religion”, what doesn’t? What is a god? What are the qualities associated with this concept? What is a Christian? What qualities/beliefs are associated with that concept? The answers to all of these will vary from person to person. (This is why I get some much crap when I generalize because what might apply to someone else might not apply to you, and vice versa.) You could spend hours debating these concepts alone before you even got to actually discussing what you wanted to discuss.

Instead, most people skip this phase and go straight into firing off their memorized lines at the other person. Nothing gets conveyed, nobody’s mind gets changed, they might as well be speaking in foreign languages; in fact, they pretty much are.

While I’ve noticed denotation problems seem to populate the realm of religious discussion, problems of connotation are particularly rampant when it comes to political discussion. A perfect example is the term “liberal.” Conservatives are masters of language manipulation. They can take a word, shift its connotation, and thus frame and entire issue in their favor. For decades they did (and still do) this with the word “liberal.” By repeating the word with an ugly connotation, as if it was an epithet, they shifted the flavor and emotions surrounding that concept to something ugly. “Liberal” became something disgusting, something to hide from, something un-American. Today’s hot button word is “socialism.” Conservatives are pushing to shift the connotation of that word to something akin to communism.

So how is a rational discussion of ideas and concepts possible when, at the word “liberal”, you think “un-American, big government, communist, elitist”, and at the word “conservative”, I think “fascist, bigoted, greedy theocratic American Taliban”? Short answer: it isn’t.

The sad fact of life is that rational discussion of the issues is no longer possible. The idea of having a “debate” is a complete farce. In order to actually have these discussions we would need to first agree on the denotations and then connotations, otherwise we’re speaking different languages. Quite simply, we don’t have the attention span for that. Instead, all of our issues are decided by who has more babies, which demographic is dying out, and who gets their voters to the polls. That’s it. Reality be damned.

One Response to “The language barrier”

  1. thesecretatheist May 23, 2011 at 11:39 pm #

    I think it is still possible to have a rational debate, it is just increasingly unlikely, and it depends, largely, on with whom the debate or conversation is being conducted. As for public discourse, it is pretty damn hard, but in private or just smaller venues it is still possible.

    But yes, it does make it very difficult. I find myself taking up just as much space in my blog making sure that I explain what I have said as I do actually saying it.

    I once felt that liberal was a dirty word, and was very hesitant to ever call myself one. I now do so quite readily, but even on Facebook I still list myself as a moderate because I know that the majority of my friends there wouldn’t understand my meaning. I even almost got in trouble with one very good friend when I was trying to compliment them in calling them liberal-minded and they almost took it for an insult. 🙂

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