Can we trust language?

We have the urge to simultaneously anchor language to reality and to release it to unfettered creativity. With even the most serious efforts to anchor language to reality, how close can it approximate?

Language’s basic unit is the word. If we diced language until we could no more, the atomization of language, we would reach the word. Word may be spoken, written, signed, or thought. The interesting question I want to ask is, what is the relationship between language and reality? Consider for example, the relationship between a rock and the word rock. The relationship is simply that the word, rock, signifies the actual object. Fair enough, what does it mean to signify? I’m no semiotician, merely a naïve thinker, but my first impression is that signification is a terminal concept, simply what is naturally inserted between the word and the object. If this is the case, then ironically we’ve hit bedrock.

Maybe we can drill through this bedrock. If language is built out of words, then what are words built from? What are the quarks of words? Although it could be thought of as phonetics or letters, these in themselves are meaningless until they are pieced together. Out of the chaos of alphabetic shapes comes the order of words. Words are composed of experience that is both distinct and has an assigned meaning. If it is not distinct, then it cannot positively contain information, it is part of the static and fuzz of the background. This granted, who or what assigns meaning to the word? These are the major options I can think of: the speaker, the hearer, or the object itself. In some way these are all contributors. The speaker has an intended meaning by using words, the hearer interprets the word, but if the object did not exist, either in external reality or as a conception of the mind, then there could be no meaning about it. In this way language presupposes both other minds with sufficient similarity to communicate and an existing external reality, a medium by which these minds interact. Language also presupposes the ability to accurately relay meaning from the sender to the receiver. If you assent to this, then you must at least believe that language can truthfully relate to reality by connecting other minds.

This does not detract from the difficulties faced with communication, especially with language. One problem is the fluidity of language. It depends upon what is adopted by the individual and the culture. Another problem is the vagueness demonstrated by words with multiple definitions and pronunciations. Another problem is specialization. Science is often difficult to communicate because of the specialized language that generates specialized concepts to explain the natural world. The greatest of these problems I think is failure to appreciate context, whether by apathy or unintentionally or sheer inability. Context is the key to unlocking meaning. If you could get inside another mind, you would have perfect context. Seeing that this is impossible, immersing oneself in the situation as best as possible is all we can hope to do. Even if this is done artificially as a thought experiment. I cannot understand what someone means unless I have some imaginative context. The act of interpretation requires equivalent effort and creativity as act of saying.

So, the word signifies the object or the subject, but signification is only an active construction of the human mind, a natural and terminal concept. It may or may not connect language with reality. However, if you are reading this thinking it was written by another mind and that information can relay accurately, then you already believe that language is connected to reality, the reality of other minds.

Given its pliability and vagueness and the difficulties of communication, I still pose the question:

Can we trust language?