Definitions

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been having a recurring thought. Do we not have a common understanding of language? Are we using words in the best ways? I’ve never been very good at using vocabulary, especially when speaking out loud. Sometimes when I’m explaining something, I just can’t seem to get my meaning across. My words fall short of my thinking. When I’m writing, sometimes I can take the time to find a better word or phrase, re-think,to and re-write, but when I’m speaking it just comes out badly. My sons are the first to draw my attention to it. They are much better at getting to the bottom of things, really finding the meaning.

A while back, while I was driving I had this same thought. Are we all using the same driving rules? We all talk about how bad other drivers are, how unsafe and illogical they are. There is no one I’ve talked to that thinks other drivers are doing fine. Then I wonder, am I driving the way I think I am? By the way, here I am, not getting my point across very well at all. I’ll try again.

When I say “people drive like they can’t see more than ten feet in front of them”, do I go out and drive in a similar way not realizing that I’m doing it and the people around me are thinking the same thing I was thinking? When I say people are driving “unsafely”, do we all agree on the meaning of “unsafe”?

I was thinking the same thing when talking to some people about “responsibility”. When I say “people aren’t acting in responsible ways”, “no one takes care of their own responsibilities, they always want someone else to pay for their lives”, do we all have the same definition? I’m starting to think we don’t. I’m starting to think that we need to write out definitions when we are trying to get our point across. We could exchange dictionaries before we have a conversation, or have a glossary of terms for everything we write! Sounds a bit tedious.

Here’s the interesting part though. This week on my Great Books reading list was Locke’s “Concerning Human Understanding”. I’m not reading the whole book, just certain chapters. I found this quote today.

“The chief end of language in communication being to be understood, words serve not well for that end, neither in civil nor philosophical discourse, when any word does not excite in the hearer the same idea which it stands for in the mind of the speaker.” Chapter 9, #4

Well, there you have it! Even if we are both speaking American English, we may not understand each other. We all have different experiences that make up how we feel and how we see the world. When I say “responsible” it may not mean anything like what you see as the meaning I’m trying to convey. It is especially bad for one or two line posts on social media. I could say “Responsible parenting is what we need in this country to bring us closer together.” That could mean anything to anyone! All those words could have completely different connotations to each individual reading them.

I’m also reading an awesome book I’d never heard of but I found it in a pile of used books a friend was giving away. I just saw “Orson Scott Card” and picked it up. I loved “Ender’s Game”, this should be interesting. Little did I know it would amaze me so much! I’m in love with it before the end of the first hundred pages. Today I came across this gem.

“There was no way he could even begin to discuss such concepts with Katerina. Even if he had enough Old Church Slavonic to speak these thoughts, he doubted she’d have the philosophical background to understand them.” Enchantment, page 78

Earlier he had said to her “Look.” when he wanted her to listen to what he had to say about the situation he had found himself in. Something as simple as that can get twisted around and become unclear to someone you are trying to communicate with.

I guess what I’m coming to find out is that it isn’t that everyone around me has lost their minds or that we are all so stupid or self-centered that we can’t listen to each other. I’m finding that we, our own country and more widely, the whole world, has moved more toward misunderstanding than away from it. Yes, we have the internet to disseminate information and more people are literate in the world than every before, but we aren’t understanding each other. And worse yet, we think we are. Most of us don’t even realize that we are speaking a different language, that we don’t agree on the terms and definitions.

Whoa. Hold on. Remember the story of Babel? Did we begin to build a tower and say in our hearts, “We will be more powerful than God!”? Did advances in communication and science begin to replace our faith in something greater than we could ever know? Has our language been confused and our people scattered?

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