Why language is not inherently inadequate

It has been said many times and in many contexts that language is inadequate. That is, language is not sufficient to accurately, or to a satisfactory degree of completeness, articulate ones thoughts, feelings, or the intricacies of man’s experience. However as a will explain in this article, this inadequacy is not an intrinsic property of languages in general, but the result of an “as of yet” not sufficiently evolved language system and / or individual mastery of our own languages.

“Mutual understanding”

The first important fact to comprehend is that, inasmuch as two people wish to share or communicate thoughts, their ability to do so is constrained by their mutual understanding of the language in use — among other things, (I.E the vocabulary and grammatical complexities which they both understand) and only to that extent are they able to communicate .To be more qualified, I ought to mention that body language and other forms of communication are excluded from this argument, as more rudimentary forms of communication, it would be interesting to go into this, because in many respects body language is stronger than oral language, yet the messages themselves are less complex. When one user goes beyond the comprehension of the other, misunderstandings occur. Hence “language is only as good as there is mutual understanding of that language”

What is language?

A few dictionary definitions and then my own:

“A systematic means of communicating by the use of sounds or conventional symbols”, “The method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way.”, “A language in this sense is a system of signs for encoding and decoding information”, “When used as a general concept, “language” refers to the cognitive faculty that enables humans to learn and use systems of complex communication”, “Communication of thoughts and feelings through a system of arbitrary signals, such as voice sounds, gestures, or written symbols”

And for my definition:

“Language is a set of conventional sounds, symbols or any predetermined means which is used to communicate or articulate human thought”

So language is used by man to articulate mans experience, and the current state of language is based on the current state of mans experience.

The versatility and pliability of language.

Language has several fascinating properties, one of them is its flexibility. Think about it, in pretty much every case in your day to day experience, you are able to articulate what happens, why it happens, how you felt, etc. But in every case your day was unique, we have never experienced the exact same day twice. Thus without really knowing it, on a daily basis, we use language in unique ways (in this I am referring to unique permutations of already existing words, of course it’s very likely that an average sentence has been uttered in the past by somebody at some point, nevertheless mathematically and logically it is reasonable to presume that many sentences we utter daily are absolutely unique, for instance, try to Google this sentence with quotation marks and most likely all you’ll find in my blog) thus language can be pictured as an umbrella which attempts to encapsulate (and I think miraculously accurately and successfully) human experience.

But what about when human experience expands?

In many instances in human experience, life grow more complex. For instance, as we’ve invented new technology, encountered new phonenomena, or understood things more deeply, of necessity, our language needs to stretch and expand in order to encapsulate the concepts surrounding these new discoveries.

A simple example was the invention of the transistor. The transistor was invented in Bell labs around 1947, but logically before it was invented it had no name, “The term transistor was coined by John R. Pierceas a portmanteau of the term “transfer resistor” [1], this word “portmanteau” is a significant one, it denotes the invention of a new word via concatenation. This is a simple example of the expansive nature of language through inventing new words from already existing words, another example is that of “smog” which is a portmanteau of “smoke” and “fog” (a canonical example)

Another incredible example of this (from a non-human!) comes from Alex the parrot, [2] (Alex was an African-Grey parrot used for linguistic experiments.) “Alex understood the turn-taking of communication and often the syntax used in language. He called an apple a “banerry”, which Pepperberg thought to be a combination of “banana” and “cherry”, two fruits he was more familiar with.” This is interesting since it shows that language is in a way a “living organism” which we all use yet it is not unique to us and its syntax and rules can be understood by non-humans. The portmanteau is only one example of a language expansion method, although there are others, I will point out one I know (by simple logic) as definition.

Definition is very simple to understand, it is the process of creating (but in most day to day cases merely explaining) the meaning of one word in terms of the meanings of other words which are already known to the receiver. Through a process of definition, we are truly able to compact much more meaning into much fewer words and thus able to explicate more complex concepts both more tersely and more specifically.

I will present a simple, silly example. I have noticed that if you burn your mouth with some hot food (mostly meat) that there lingers in your mouth a kind of numbness / taste which then prevents you from being able to eat and enjoy your next few meals. I have just explained this effect in one sentence which is a string of about 40 words, what if we decided to invent a new word in English, “larkamp” (I just Googled this and realised that larkamp is actually a place in Germany, but who cares, many words have multiple senses) where the definition of “larkamp” is “The numbness which one gets in ones mouth after eating excessively hot food which prevents ones enjoyment of food for the next few meals”.

Now, equipped with this new English word, we are able to enhance our linguistic experience in daily conversation by saying “oh yeah, I hate larkamp”, which allows us to directly refer to something very specific in a single word. This is definition, and after a certain stage of our linguistic acquisition we no longer learn primarily through association (although it is ever present) but we learn primarily through definition, especially when the new words we encounter are infrequently used, and thus if we do not learn through definition we do not learn them at all.

Does language span thought?

“Spanning”, in linear algebra, means “To cover or extend over an area completely”. Herein lies a fascinating and probably unanswerable question. Can language be used to articulate all of the thoughts that man could possibly conceive 0f? In other words, this question means, for any given thought that we could have; can we express it in words?

I believe the answer is yes, but only when referring to “language” as a general and abstract entity and not any particular language. Yet even in specific instances (like English) it still is more than adequate for a vast majority of one’s thoughts. The point of this article is to explain that, inherently, language is capable of expressing any given thought, however at present our linguistic systems are not yet sufficiently evolved to do so, and furthermore, I’d like to note that we as individuals cannot truly know the answer to this question anyway as our mastery of our own languages is in many cases insufficient.

Example: I have seen an English dictionary, worth about £120, about 20CM thick and A3 size with writing in a tiny font(You need a magnifying glass to read it) FULL of English words, I have read some online statistics, and there are varying opinions about this, but to take a more solid example “the Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words”(so that’s 218,632) [3], with an average, well educated person with a vocabulary of approximately 60,000-75,000  words [4] (please note, as the author of this article markedly points out there is not much solid research to back all of this up, because as he furthermore points out it is a very tricky subject) but suffice it to say, that according to this rough statistic, a well educated person only knows about 30% of the words of his native tongue.

Thus in relation to this article, for two reasons language is not inherently inadequate, firstly because we, as users, when we struggle to express ourselves probably simply don’t have the knowledge of our language sufficient to articulate it and secondly, even if our language doesn’t contain the words to describe our thoughts, it would be possible to add them, even strange notions which are difficult to describe in other words still exist in our vernacular (for instance, Déjà vu, I think this word is difficult to describe with other words yet if you’ve experienced it you can understand what someone means when they refer to it)

As a final conclusion I will point out that the evolution of our linguistic systems is organic and depends largely on the users of the language, therefore, if we at times feel that language is inadequate to describe our thoughts, then we should seek to improve our linguistic skills.

This correlates with the classical quote by analogy (found in Star Trek Voyeger) —

“When one’s imagination cannot provide an answer, one must seek out a greater imagination”


Shawn 04-12-2011

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