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Friday, September 12, 2008

Separated by a Common Language

We in the English-speaking world are finding it ever harder to communicate. The English language is a living language and, as such, always evolving. The term, "boy", for instance, used to mean "a male" (as opposed to "girl") or "a young male" (as opposed to "man"). Later it became a rude reference to a male servant which evolved into ... a racial epithet. Now, wait ... how did we get from "my young son" to "a rude comment about people of another race"? English is so difficult.

So many words in English have so many definitions that they require context to define them. "Invalid" cannot be defined on its own. You have to know if it is a reference to person who is an invalid -- someone who is disabled in some way -- or an invalid idea -- an idea that that has no validity. Certainly an invalid has validity, so there isn't even some remote connection. English is so difficult. (Actually, there is a connection. The root for "valid" references "strength", and the prefix "in" negates it, so "invalid" originally referenced "weakness". In this case, an invalid would be someone with weakness and an invalid idea would be a weak idea. See? Evolving.)

Some words are harder to define than we realize. "Love", for instance, is in everyone's vocabulary, but what you mean by "love" and what I mean by "love" may not be the same thing. And we already know that. We don't love pizza in the same way we love our kids, and we don't love our kids in the same way we love our spouses. We know that. Then there is the biblical term which often refers to a choice, something not quite connected to the warm feeling of affection that most people use to define "love".

How about the word "play"? Surely we all know what that means. You would think so, but the first dictionary I looked at listed 62 definitions before it got to combinations like "play along" and "play around". It could mean a dramatic performance or some activity for amusement or a pun (a "play on words"). It could be a specific action ("fair play") or a brisk motion ("the light played on the water") or room in a mechanism to move ("Those cogs have too much play."). Then there is the elusive concept of what parents used to tell their kids: "Go out and play." Now, what did that mean? They knew it was some sort of amusement or recreation, but the real intent was "Don't sit here and watch TV" which was amusement on its own, so it was a special and yet undefined concept.

There are special words in special corners of the world with special meaning. Each branch of science, it seems, has its own language. Physics uses different words than physicians. Electronics engineers use different words than electricians. You can only imagine what it's like where I work when bioscience types try to interact with engineering types and software types. There is a real language barrier there. Then there are the words that are common ... but not. "Justification", for instance, would simply be the reasons offered that justify one's actions ... unless you're talking to a Christian ... especially a Reformed Christian. Now we're talking "the means by which God makes humans free from the penalty of sin and right in His eyes." Wow! That's a longer definition, but it is limited to that particular realm of Christianity.

One word that is common but confusing is "legalism". Oh, we all know what it means ... we just don't all mean the same thing by it. One person will use it to refer to any strict adherence to the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law. Another person will use it just because they felt you were being judgmental. A specific use will reference the concept of salvation by works. So when you hear, "Don't be so legalistic", you're left trying to figure out which one was meant ... or if it has evolved again and there is something else entirely in mind.

We often assume that we are speaking the same language. We are all, after all, speaking English. We ought to get in the practice of keeping in mind that English is a living, evolving language and not assuming that people are defining terms the same way we are. If you hear something that offends you, check to see if they intended it before you take the offense. If you could possibly be misunderstood, make sure you define your terms carefully, not succumbing to laziness. And I say all this largely toward myself. I have a clear idea of what I'm saying. So why is it that people often don't seem to understand me? Too often we are two people separated by a common language.


Anonymous said...

How very true! There is a vast difference between American English and British English for instance. I have in recent months offended, (briefly) a dear friend for playfully using a term that she took as derogatory, yet is a commmon and well known term here. Humour is one thing also, that is very different. If I call a woman friend, a silly mare, its more likely a term of affection than an insult. Yet it would be quite easy for folks unused to British English and colloquialisms and the way we use terms for humour, to take it as an insult.

Stan said...

Oh, my, so true. When you get into the difference between British and American English, it only magnifies the problem.

When I was in the Air Force, I met a young married couple. He was American; she was British. She told me about when they met. She was on the beach when this good looking young man came up to her and said, "Hi, I'm Randy." Well, of course, what he said and what she heard was something completely different.

I suppose it would be wise of each of us to take a moment and consider what the other person might have meant before leaping to conclusions, eh? Especially when it is a friend. I always think we should expect the best of the people we love.

Unknown said...

Good post, great title... altho not original. I have read it somewhere else, I can't remember where. Churchill??

Stan said...

I'm am, truth be told, woefully limited in actual, original thought. ;)

"England and America are two countries separated by a common language." - George Bernard Shaw