How is it that these days so many people seem confused about the purpose of language?

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What are words for? You’d think it would be a simple question.

Words are the units we use to convey mental constructs. When I say or write cat the recipient of my output can visualize a generic animal of the Felidae family. When I say or write the cat licked its paw the recipient of my output can imagine that generic domestic feline performing the stated action.

The image formed in the other person’s head may not be exactly what I had in my own mind when I created the sentence but it’s close enough for everyday purposes.

When we need to be more precise, we use more precise vocabulary. That’s one of the reasons why craft guilds of various kinds create their own specialized vocabulary, usually by repurposing more general words. Thus doctors talk about patients “presenting” with symptoms and engineers use the word “vacuum” to mean any environment in which there is an atmospheric pressure differential. Doctors also acquire a much larger vocabulary with regards to parts of the body than the typical person, and engineers likewise have recourse to a greater lexicon of relevant words.

Even in everyday life, a larger vocabulary is generally more helpful than a restricted one. Imagine if we had a single word for color. It would be very difficult to express the hue we desired for our walls, for example. “Please paint them color,” wouldn’t tell the decorator very much. So we have specific words, and the wider our lexicon the more precise we can be. “I like red shirts” isn’t really as expressive as “I like scarlet shirts” or “the ocean is like topaz this afternoon.”

Writers often cultivate an extensive vocabulary in order to express precisely what they mean, and use the sound and rhythm of words to create subliminal effects that reinforce the message they want to convey to the reader. The sentence, “The old house had fallen into desuetude” conveys a different pattern of thoughts and stirs different emotions in the reader compared to, “The old house was a wreck.”

Unfortunately, it’s become fashionable to believe that language is not primarily a means of communicating information but rather it is primarily a means of enforcing social hierarchy. According to proponents of this view of language, everything is arbitrary and therefore nothing is “better” or “worse” than anything else. When some people attempt to enforce norms it’s supposedly not because they’re concerned to ensure an adequate signal-to-noise ratio in the communication but rather because they want to enforce social dominance.

While it’s true that ultimately, pace Saussure, for the most part the link between signifier and signified is indeed a matter of historical chance (the exception being for those proto-Indo-European words that are onomatopoeic) that doesn’t mean that language is therefore arbitrary and that words can mean whatever we want them to mean.

Nor does it mean that incorrect usage of words, or mistakes in grammar, are “just as good as” established norms.

This is because language is a kind of shared agreement and without this agreement regarding lexicon and grammar, communication becomes difficult or impossible.

It’s absolutely my right to decide that when I want to convey the idea of a domestic feline I can use the word tree instead. But it would be unwise for me to expect others to understand me. Equally I can decide that “I wroted two aks too thim too mee giv gud stuf” is a perfectly valid sentence, but again I can’t expect to be understood easily by others and it’s highly unlikely that I would be offered a job in (for example) a literary agency or a law firm.

From these quick examples it’s pretty obvious that language is a shared endeavor and unless we agree to a general set of rules, communication becomes difficult or impossible.

Unfortunately, language is also associated with culture and culture is often associated with economic status. Hence it is possible to become confused about the purpose of language and focus on mainly on the secondary roles played by language. This is when the claim that X is “just as good as” Y comes into play, because of an assumption that “fairness” demands that everything must be just as good as everything else.

If we accept that the primary role of language is to facilitate communication of concepts, we can understand that the word “good” when applied to language largely means “fit for purpose.” This means we can assess a person’s linguistic efforts on the basis of whether or not they can be readily understood when attempting to communicate with others around them.

And this is where things become a little tricky. When we say, “others around them,” who do we mean? It’s perfectly possible for twins to create their own twin language that no one else in the world understands. They can use it to communicate with each other and therefore it’s fit for purpose within this context. But the twins will have to acquire the language of their larger environment if they wish to partake of the fruits of that environment.

In just the same way, any sub-group can create its own dialect and be comprehensible to one another within the sub-group, but it’s unrealistic (and indeed rather presumptuous) to expect people outside the sub-group to understand the dialect, especially if it is significantly at variance to the language spoken by everyone else in that region.

To illustrate the issue, let’s consider French and German. It’s apparent to anyone listening to these two languages that they are significantly different. It would be unrealistic of a French tourist in Germany to expect all Germans to understand French, and conversely it would be equally unrealistic of a German visitor to France to expect all French people to understand German. We learn foreign languages precisely because of this mutual incomprehensibility. But a sub-group is unlikely to be of sufficient economic or socio-cultural importance for a great many other people to go to the trouble of learning their dialect.

It doesn’t matter whether or not we think this is “fair” or “right.” Everyone in the world has limited time and many demands on them. Who’s going to invest the necessary time to learn a sub-group’s dialect when it’s not necessary for them in their daily lives? It would be naïve to insist that it’s necessarily incumbent on the majority to make linguistic accommodation for a minority, especially when there are a great many minorities and thus people would have to learn a great many sub-group dialects and then keep current with them all as they inevitably change over time.

Just imagine how difficult life would become if there were 2,500 “equally good” but all rather different versions of French. How would any outsider begin to acquire any aptitude in a sufficient number of versions to have a chance of being understood as they traveled around the country? Indeed, how would France itself even function under such circumstances?

We depend on an agreed set of rules. Everyone’s free to ignore the rules (or fail to learn them in the first place). But no one has the right to expect everyone else to bend over backward in order to accommodate non-compliance with those agreed rules. That is no different from me deciding to drive on the other side of the road and expecting everyone else suddenly to adjust to my capricious behavior.

Ultimately, personal limitations with regards to language can be seen as a self-imposed deficit. Many sub-groups enforce their norms on members, discouraging individuals from extending their vocabulary and using standard grammar. Thus self-limiting becomes a group norm detrimental to the interests of many of the group members. It can’t reasonably be argued that the majority must expend effort on behalf of those who choose to self-limit. And if this is the case, then sub-group dialects cannot be “as good as” the standard dialect employed by the majority.

We humans are a social primate species and like nearly every social animal we function within explicit and implicit hierarchies. We have hundreds of ways of signaling where individuals are within a given hierarchy, and language is merely one of these ways. If we fixate unduly on notions of “fairness” because we focus primarily on language as an indicator of status, we’re making a bit of a conceptual error.

Removing accent or vocabulary will do little to alter the degree to which others assign categories to a person or group, because other signals will be present to serve the same end. By pretending we can create “fairness” through claiming that sub-group norms should be treated as equivalent to majority norms, we’re simply collaborating in the sub-group’s self-inflicted social deficit. This is not dissimilar from “helping” small children by telling them that 4+3 =19 is a perfectly valid sum.

In the end, much of our politically correct confusion about language and its corollaries can be removed if we remember that language is primarily about communication and only secondarily about anything else. Proposals that ultimately sacrifice the primary function of language in order to attempt some form of social engineering are not only misguided but doomed to fail, because we will always need to communicate but we won’t always feel the need to genuflect to transient notions expounded by well-meaning but somewhat confused social commentators.

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