Wednesday, September 28, 2022

What Does the Term "Language" Mean - On Word Use Disagreement and How to Effectively Handle Such Situations

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Today the following question was asked in one of my discussion forums...

"Can the complexity of human social organizations (as compared to the lower complexity of social organization in animals) be entirely explained by the fact that we have language?"

I've seen this question come up frequently in various professional and hobbyist communities over the years. It's a popular topic that's fascinated scientists and philosophers for centuries. That said, the point of today's post isn't to delve into that topic, interesting as it may be. What I instead want to highlight is the troublesome semantics involved. Yet again, I find myself identifying a word that is suffering from multiple competing and conflicting definitions. And it's another opportunity to look into how that feature of the term is making it harder to have productive conversation on topics like the interesting question posed above.  

The word under scrutiny today is the term "language". 

Jumping right into it, I've observed two popular opinions on where to draw the line for what the term "language" should mean. This is anecdotal, but is informed by asking dozens of individuals about their thoughts on the matter.

Definition 1 - "Language" Means Human Language

Some people would desire that the semantic term "language" apply solely to the concept of human languages, and then ask if animals are capable of human language, a.k.a. "language" under their semantic definition. They would say animals do communicate but don't use language.

Definition 2 - "Language" Refers To Most Any Structured System or Tool For Communication 

Some people would desire that the semantic term "language" apply to many kinds and forms and communication, and then ask if animals are capable of "human language", a.k.a. "human language" under their semantic definition. They would say animals communicate and use their own language called animal language. 


The underlying question here is clear. Animals certainly communicate. Humans certainly communicate. And those communication efforts have differences. The debate is ongoing on characteristics of each form, how they differ, and how they relate. Paraphrasing from wikipedia, some researchers argue that human communication and animal communication differ so much that the underlying principles are unrelated. Other researchers assert that an evolutionary continuum exists between the communication methods of animals and humans.

The question for us, in this article, then becomes how to we want to construct the concept of "language". Do we want a larger umbrella term for all systems of communication that have structured features? Do we want a shorthand term for the specific phenomena of structured human spoken communication? Do we want terms for both?

The term "language" is currently pulling double duty as a word used to describe both those concepts. That can and does cause confusion. It makes it harder to talk about the topic, because we constantly have to check whether a given individual is using Definition 1 or Definition 2 above. Without context, it makes a question like "do animals use language?" nonsensical because the answer is no under Definition 1 but yes under Definition 2. It can feel uncomfortable, or even enraging, when a discussion partner is using the definition you don't use. 

And to that last point, my stance is that, for me at least, I truly do not care which definition is adopted for a given conversation. I see two important concepts wanting to be discussed and it frustrates me to have only one term for them. Given my Semantic OCD, it becomes quite literally disabling for me and can trigger extreme emotional distress. People without Semantic OCD luckily are saved from that level of pain, but I still see them get frustrated at the confusion.

I do have some recommendations and thoughts on how to handle this situation in specific, and will end with some general tips for semantic disagreement, which should probably become a full article itself.

Recommendation on Which Definition of Language to Use

With the term language, we seem to have a fairly well accepted term for human systemic communication - "human language". That gives us a term for that specific phenomena while leaving "language" under it's broader Definition 2 meaning noted above.

If we use "language" for its narrower Definition 1 interpretation, there doesn't seem to be any term left for the phenomenon characterized in Definition 2. We would say, perhaps, something like "the animal system of communication". That seems a bit awkward. 

If you are a fan of Definition 1, I'd love to hear in the comments what your plan is for referring to the concept being pointed to in Definition 2. In the meantime, I'm probably sticking with the Definition 2 usage and now have this article to point people toward if confusion arises. 

I'm open to other ideas and the only idea I truly detest is the one that says "just figure out or assume what the other person is trying to say, get mad at them when it's "wrong" because it doesn't match your term, use your term all the time, demand that others comply with your use, and assume others will read your definition correctly". That is a recipe for communication disaster. 

Generalized Recommendations for Language Use Disagreement

Continuing from the stance taken in the paragraph above, a saying I coined is this...

"I don't need to be right, but I need to not be wrong"

That's the pithy short version of statement that more specifically is meant to note that on matters of open subjectivity or debate a stance starting with the other person saying "I'm right until proven otherwise" feels like (and flat out is) a conversational power imbalance.

I don't know about the rest of you, but those kinds of conversations exhaust me. I much prefer approaching topics with humility and willingness of self to be incorrect. Note in the above article that even though I expressed a preference for Definition 1, I'm not insisting on it. That's perhaps the main takeaway here.

What I ultimately care about is whether we're agreeing on the underlying concept trying to be pointed to. Maybe we disagree even there, but unpacking our language choice and explaining what we think words mean can go a long way toward getting us toward such discussions.

Perhaps it's my personality or neurotype ("brain wiring"), but I've never understood the attachment to ensuring that my semantic preference wins out.

It might be harder, at first, to use someone else's preferred semantic choices. Ultimately though my main desire is getting past the confusion so we can start having a smoother experience with the underlying main conversation itself.

On my work desk I have a sticky note that says...

 "When you you say ________, do you mean ______".

My final tip for you is to start asking that phrase more in conversations. Check for meaning a lot more than you likely currently are. You'd be amazed how often what you're assuming a person meant isn't what they meant at all. 

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This article brought to you by the currently unfunded Peer Voices Network. 

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