I use words every day for more than just the basic communication of needs that passes as conversation these days. I try and express an idea or an opinion somewhat comprehensibly in writing. To say I’ve been thinking of language recently may have a Coals To Newcastle sort of ring to it. But than again, who is more apt to think of language and how things can be so easily misconstrued than someone who writes for public consumption on a regular basis?
I’ve had people leave angry comments about things I’ve written because they’ve missed the tiny word “not” in a sentence. Sometimes, and I’m not saying this is the situation in all cases, people are so keen to get their own point across that they don’t really read (listen) what has been stated by an author and assume they need to go on the offensive in order for their point to be understood. In those cases it doesn’t matter what the original opinion was because it is only serving as an excuse for the other person to sound off.
In either case, willful and accidental misunderstanding, where the disagreement exists or the failure to communicate occurs, is on a simple intellectual or philosophical level. The gulf is no more or less than a difference of opinion, where there is a common body of awareness and comprehension to draw upon. Even if my views on a subject are diametrically opposed to someone else’s, we have a similar frame of reference for our ideas.
As long as the person comes from the same philosophical tradition, in my case Western European Judeo-Christian, it doesn’t even matter what their native language is, our ways of thinking have been trained in similar manners. There are certain concepts simply accepted without question and taken for granted when we enter into a discussion or conversation.
Where things become difficult are the occasions we attempt to bridge the gulf between our way of thinking/being and that of another group whose core philosophy comes from a different way of thinking. They live according to concepts our minds can’t define because they don’t exist for us. Our language doesn’t have the capability to define the concept without years of study. Even if a word is translated to mean the same thing, our comprehension doesn’t encompass the same comprehension as theirs.
Over the past year and a half I’ve been offering up reviews of Ashok Banker’s modern adaptation of the 3,000 year old Indian epic tale The Ramayana. The central character, Prince Rama, is defined by his adherence to the principle of dharma. While we can roughly translate the word to equate to our word “duty,” in actuality there is far more to it than that.
It has taken me countless discussions with an online group (Epic India) over the last year or so to begin to understand the full implications of the word. The problem is the way my mind has been conditioned to think. I lack the means to formulate a definition. My language, hence my brain, doesn’t automatically go along those paths and I’m forced to try and adapt them so I can think in a different way.
Those differences have caused me to ponder the question of culture in terms of what could be called the human chicken and egg question. Which came first, the language that we use to define our way of being, our way of being followed by the language needed to define it, or did they evolve in tandem. Language does not necessarily mean English, French, or German. It is the means we have of defining the concepts and terminology that in turn define us.
In the eyes of some people, the Western concept of being given dominion over the natural world to exploit as we see fit is perverse. Inevitably, this philosophy leads to wars for control of more and more territory so as to increase the amount of land you have to exploit for your own gain. It really comes down to a belief system based more on what’s good for me, not what’s good for us.
That’s oversimplified, but if you were to think about it, how else would you define a way of life where actions are guided by “Will I receive the final reward of salvation?” If even the most apparently selfless is act is guided by that principle, doesn’t that imply self-service?
I don’t mean for that to sound to judgmental, and I apologise if I’ve insulted anyone, but I deliberately wanted to state it baldly so I could show how our thought patterns are different from those of other people. It’s not my intent to analysis the Judea/Christian mind right now and discuss its merits and faults. I’m only trying to point out how all that we do is a result of, or affected by, our way of thinking.
Everything is filtered through that philosophical approach to the world, from our interpersonal relationships to our governmental decisions affecting foreign policy. The whole structure of our society and our culture took its roots from that base and was nurtured into full flower and bore the fruit we now see.
I’ve often wondered if a person who is denied access to language (born deaf) has to learn how to think and conceptualize as they learn language skills. Until then, what tools do they have at their disposal to formulate anything? When I see a person with a newborn infant in a shopping mall I’ve often thought they should be arrested for criminal negligence because of the sensory overflow they are inflicting upon that child.
Until we learn language, we can’t identify anything except in terms of raw emotion. Is it any wonder that small children when awake are continually in tears when they are brought into areas like shopping malls or any other public location? They are terrified because they have no way of defining what they are hearing, seeing and smelling.
It’s only as we develop a vocabulary that we are able to begin to understand and define the world around us. The more we refine our vocabulary, the more we understand and the less threatened we feel by others. But like the deaf child, there are vocabularies that we are born without access to, those of other people’s cultures and ways of being.
Like infant children who encounter the babble of the shopping mall before they have the ability to define what it is they are dealing with, we are scared and react emotionally to that which we don’t understand. Until we allow our vocabularies to widen to include other definitions, we shall continue along this path and not be able to communicate with over half the world’s population.
Communication has to be a two-way street, else we end up sitting alone with no one to talk to. That doesn’t sound like a very pleasant future to me.