September 10, 2022
Does a language create a reality or does a reality create a language?
The words, grammar, and metaphors we use result in our differing perceptions of experiences have long been a point of contention for linguists.
Language shapes perception. Reality is the reality despite our perception.
Our perception of the world seems to be a passive process. Light comes into our eyes, sound comes into our ears, and our brains sort it out to create a conscious experience that more or less mirrors reality. But our brain isn’t just a passive receiver of information.
Instead, our brains are constantly making predictions about what’s out there. Our perceptions are more about what the brain expects to encounter than what is truly there. In fact, the brain will blatantly disregard the information it receives from the senses, especially in situations where that sensory input doesn’t match up with years of experience.
Every language or form of human speech has a range of meanings and usage for its words. Language is dynamic. How people use the words available for the thoughts they have in mind or the events and objects they want to talk about varies with the individual and with each group or community of people.
Word meanings arise from how people traditionally use the words. The usages are informal to a large degree, but people who communicate among themselves all the time will use words similarly, so there is a common community understanding of the meaning which hides behind the saying.
Meanings change when an individual or community needs to talk about something new, a new event, a new problem, a drastic change in the environment, a social upheaval, and so forth. Or when the members of one community need to talk with members of another community. The words at hand may gain a new meaning, or even new words can appear.
Humans are very creative, so language is always changing. We are always using metaphors to talk about one thing or one event in terms of another, so virtually every word has multiple usages. And because humans are always looking for better ways to talk about things, searching for ways to talk about new events or technology or social needs, words get extended to new meanings. So the basis of meaning is current usages.
This accounts also for the variations we sometimes call dialects. Different communities have different priorities and share different significant experiences that determine how they understand the world and life and these perspectives determine how they use language.
Thus any form of English, Greek, Hebrew, Russian, Arabic, Swahili or Chinese will always have areas of uncertainty and confusion. Where there is uncertainty or unclarity, new usages develop to fill the gap.
New words develop in various ways. Speakers avoid or abandon certain words that have a negative connotation. As one segment of society uses a word in a certain way, or that word gets associated with an undesirable event, person, trend or experience, speakers will search for a different word for what they want to convey with the feeling they want to convey.
Other words may take over as people find suitable terms to express their ideas or emotions simultaneously at any place. Other changes may meet the same need in another time or place. The more the hearer and the speaker (or reader-writer) share the same set of experiences and worldview perspectives or beliefs, the more similar they will understand and use words.
The metaphor is the common way humans think and talk about life. So words for one object, event or experience are suitable as a reference for another or a description by analogy. “He’s a pig!” She is hot! He is so cool! See the metaphor? We talk this way all the time.
The old word receives a new meaning. It provides an image of what we are thinking. It evokes an experience or feeling about the reference. You get a new meaning for the old word. Words commonly get an extension of this way, multiple times.
All forms of human speech have various meaning for most words. Words are tools that individuals and communities use for their communication needs. Some words have narrow uses and may have only one “definition”.
Words have emotional meaning too, or “connotation.” So shading of meaning or attitude takes place, too. The words gain new connotations, and speakers can prefer certain words for their connotation, causing certain words to fall out of use or preference.
Most words have two, three or more meaning. Some have even up to 10 different meanings. It depends on current usage. It depends on too many factors. We have to listen, read and notice the language usage in each situation.
These are all examples of interpretation, clarification. There is always a meaning behind the meaning, you might say. What is the thought or intention behind the words a speaker chooses? This is what I mean by translation or interpretation. People always negotiate the meaning.
We negotiate over meaning and usage. It may be a conscious or unconscious process. Words have meaning only when we use them as we perceive them and as they convey meaning from one mind to the other.
(For fascinating insights into the conveyance of meaning from one mind to another, look into the recent science of “Memetics,” dealing with the concept of “meme,” or “mental idea,” and how an idea, belief, perception or concept gets transferred from one individual to another, spreads through a social group or general populace and how this involves cultural change.)
Every discussion on any technical, academic or legal matter begins with definitions, to identify what we are talking about and what particular important, repeated words mean in this context, in this document, in this topic or discussion.
People always negotiate the meaning. The more different the speech or cultural context of each individual or group, the more interpretation or translation people need. From two speakers of English with slightly different Englishes, all the way to a conversation between a speaker of English and a speaker of Inuit. It is only a matter of degree.
There is more to our language than strict grammar and spelling. There is a real power to it; magic even. Our language dances with our imaginations. It creates an incredible range of emotions and feelings, which often make the difference between someone loving their life and sabotaging it.
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