On Language I: Inherent Meaning
Yesterday's post ended on a heavy note, so I decided to lighten it up - it's friday after all. And what's lighter than interesting language differences?
In my native language of Portuguese, we do not have a proper way to thank people. "Thank you" simply states the fact that someone did something nice for you, and you acknowledge that. Spanish's "muchas gracias" goes a step further, as "many graces" implies you hope good things happen to that specific person.
Portuguese's "obrigado" means "obliged", and implies you now owe that person something - contradicting the "no strings attached" nature of a favor. I suspect that's rooted on Portuguese society's deep reliance on shady favor-for-favor political interactions. The closest thing we have to a proper "thank you" is the highly informal "valeu", which roughly translates to "that had worth".
On the other hand, both English and Portuguese have a problem with asking politely for something that isn't a favor. "Please" implies "if it pleases you" - but what if I'm asking for something I've paid you for? I certainly do not care if it pleases you or not. Portuguese and Spanish are even worse in that regard, as "por favor" means "as a favor". That seems to reflect a lack of assertiveness - probably the consequence of an altruistic society in which one has to strive to please others and hope to be pleased back, instead of trading value for value.
Again, Portuguese solved that problem by slang - a particularly good slang that I haven't seen in any other language yet. Instead of asking for a favor, you can ask for something "on morals" (na moral). To ask for something on morals is to acknowledge that what's being asked isn't a favor, but that you respect the person enough to kindly remind them of what the right thing to do is.
It baffles me to think that some people will read this and think "See? Language is not "pure". It has value judgements imbued in it, and since we think through language, society ultimately defines the way we think". An expression carries with it the mindset of the people who coined it - it doesn't trap us in that mindset. These very paragraphs illustrate our ability to break free from language barriers, either by contrasting different languages, or outright rejecting common expressions in our own language because of their implications, and replacing them with better ones.
- March 7th, 2020
On Language II: Objectivity
"Language can't be objective because it is essentially a social construct, collectively created so that people can communicate with one another. Because of that, the meaning of a word is whatever the majority of people decide it is".
This seems to be a pretty common way to think about language, and it is the equivalent of saying that a car can't be fast, because it's purpose is to play music on its speakers. Language enables communication, just like a car has a sound system - but those are not their primary functions. "Communication" refers to two minds, able to perceive the world, exchanging information they have identified. In order to communicate, one must first identify - and identification, at the conceptual level, requires language.
We create concepts by integrating multiple perceived entities, or previously formed concepts, into a single mental unit, and establishing a symbol for that unit - a word or image that brings that concept and its contents to mind. That association of symbol to meaning is what language is, and it can either be done objectively or whimsically.
If your symbols denote specific concepts, and can be grouped together into meaningful propositions, you are using language objectively, and it serves as a tool for both cognition and communication. If your symbols are interchangeable, and propositions can be ascribed any meaning, then it serves no purpose other than misdirection and domination.
To the extent that two people's symbols match each other, communication is possible, as one symbol will evoke the same meaning for both parties. The match doesn't need to be, and usually isn't, perfect - a child and a biologist have different things in mind when they say "dog", yet they can understand one another to a great degree. People with somewhat different associations, and even definitions, are still able to talk, to the extent that their words relate to the same existents. In other words, communication is possible to the extent that language is objective.
The fact that a scientist can talk to a child illustrates the fact that language isn't some sort of "collective agreement" on what specific words mean, but and individual tool of cognition, that enables a social activity. If all english speakers suddenly decide that the words "justice" and "equality" mean the same thing, language hasn't just "changed" - it has been corrupted.
The practical corollary of that is: when someone says you're too hung up on semantics, watch out - they will probably try to get you to share their particular delusion.
- March 10th, 2020