About language, how it works and how it often doesn’t work and we misunderstand one another

Some people say the main thing that separates humans from animals is language. Or rather using language creatively. Animal languages are very limited whereas we humans can use language to speculate, describe, express our feelings, talk about things that are not there or don’t exist…

Language can appear so miraculous that we can easily overestimate its power. Assume people understand our words when actually they are interpreting us quite differently to what we intend. Misunderstand what other people say to us.

In my book ‘Understanding Misunderstanding: Locke Holds the Key’ is a very helpful and intriguing image for talking about the relationship between words and meaning. The image, which is on the front cover of the book, is of a word as a knot tying together a bundle of strands making up the meaning. The different strands would be Ideas representing different aspects of the meaning. So the word ‘chair’ might have strands to do with ‘furniture’, ‘sitting down’, ‘different types of chair’…but might also include ‘person running a meeting’.

The big catch for successful communication is that we each, individually, knot together our own set of strands privately as we learn language and live with others. So though our bundles might well be similar they are never identical to those of other people as we all have our own individual experience of the world. We each have our own ‘chair’ bundle.

And this matters. Take the words ‘immigration’ and ‘immigrant’. Both these words played a huge role in the Brexit campaign and vote. And yet people didn’t try to unravel the strands of meaning they associated with these words, didn’t try to make sure they were talking about the same thing. For some, the strands included ‘threat’, ‘taking our jobs’, ‘Muslim’ even ‘ISIS’. Whereas for others the focus of their strands was on ‘people seeking asylum from repression’ or ‘displaced people who need our help.’

On both a public and private level we are often talking at cross-purposes. And that’s because of the way language works. In my book I explore these vital questions in conversation with the 17th century philosopher, John Locke (yes, in conversation – we discuss his radical ideas on language in 21st century style). Our conversations (as well as this blog) explain Locke’s take on why misunderstanding cannot help but happen and what we can do about it.

And in one Conversation we do talk about the key differences between humans and animals.

Till next time.

Terence Moore