22 February 2019

The power of words

The power of words

There are two things we can say about "words". The word “words” is a heterological word, meaning a word that does not apply to itself; compare this with the word “word” which is autological. The other sure thing we can say about words is that words do not travel well.

I am interested in the second issue, although I shall argue that by words in the topic question we mean language. Interpreting "words" in the literal meaning of words, that is the singular syntax structures of a language, then this is of little consequence because words in and of themselves have no meaning. Even more, it is well accepted that this expression and other similar expressions in English are taken to mean: language, arguments and so on. Another minor issue is that the topic before us is in the context of a natural language and not necessarily language in a philosophical sense. For example, in a programming code in Information Technology syntax is all important; in Hexadecimal (#RRGGBB) programming code #000000 always means or rather has the effect of showing Black on the screen. In a natural language this is not always the case.

The first meaning of the idea that words, meaning here syntax structures, do not travel well is that words (or a word) used in a location do not necessarily retain their full meaning over long geographical distances. A "cold day" in Madrid might be a "nice day" in Oslo (I’ll come to translations later). Thus for Madrid a day in winter of 3 degrees at mid day is a cold day: a 3 degree day in winter in Oslo is probably a heat wave and maybe even a serious problem for the infrastructure of the city. In the same way that global warming is creating havoc in Siberia with the melting of the permafrost.

The meaning of words does not even travel well amongst cultures. A “Chinese lunch” in Madrid is not the same as a “Chinese lunch” in Taiwan (I do not know mainland China); pasta and pizza are even worse compared with Italy. But even with cities in the same country words do not necessary imply the same idea: “Taking a bus” in the centre of Madrid implies a regular service, all things being equal, and a relatively efficient service with a viable metro option. In Gijon “taking a bus” in the city centre implies, to a Madrileño at least, a relatively long wait to the extent that maybe it is much quicker to just walk to where you want to go to in the centre. But then again, to a Madrileño a real option is to “take a taxi” given that distances are so short in the city centre and cheap.

Words do not travel well in time. A “flight” from Madrid to Munich today is a matter of being in Munich for lunch and it’s not a take away meal at the airport. A “flight” from Madrid to Munich in 1960 might have taken longer, notwithstanding the customs checks.

And then words do not travel very well amongst languages; it is bad enough that words mean different things in different cultures, for example, appointment, evening, morning, agreement, good weather, menu del dia, and so on. The adoption of foreign words in a language is even more complex to the point that it might even be dangerous. But we do not need to go so far just consider the philosophical works written in different languages and then translated into English or vise versa.

Therefore, as already argued, for our purposes the question does not actually mean the literal meaning of “words”, i.e. these small groups of letters that may or may not have a meaning; sometimes we might think of words as the building blocks of a language. But due to the bad habits of the educational system, today we do think of meaning in terms of words of a single structure. Meaning is a different creature from the physical representation of the meaning in a written or spoken form.

You might wonder why go on about words do not travel well, and we certainly know that the question is about language and not literally singular words. Yes of course, but my excursion is to demonstrate that words cannot have any meaning whatsoever outside a context because these building blocks have no meaning in themselves any more than a brick can have the property of “castleness”.

Meaning, therefore, is very context driven and very much subject to extensive knowledge of the language and maybe even the culture of the language. The same words or word might easily have different cultural functions in say US English and British English (I assume this is the case for other natural languages) which explains why local humour is very difficult to teach to second language learners.

But there are other aspects of meaning that is not easily transmitted by the physical structure of the word; remember the autological/heterological distinction above? There is nothing in the words themselves to identify this property in words; this is something philosophers have invented. Knowing a language well also means identifying: innuendos, formality, intensity, annoyance, surprise, positive or negative implications and so on. But in real life we do not use language like a film script with instructions to actors: when to laugh, when to cry, when to look offended, when to feel romantic etc, etc. In real life we either get the message or we don’t!

In effect we should be discussing the Power of meaning rather than the "power of words" except that in our language this title is precisely what it means, but maybe society is not ready to discuss meaning. Thus "words" here include, phrasal verbs, noun groups (compound words), idiomatic expressions, sayings and proverbs and current language use (Brexiters, Brexit, global warming, the Magnificent Seven, etc) amongst many.

The power of words must, therefore, come from the use of our language at the right time and in the right context. What a live bullet is to a physical body, a well said language utterance is hundred times more powerful to our brain and intellectual understanding. A bullet can only kill us once; an offence or an insult will hurt us and stresses us every time we remember the incident. Of course, as I indicated above, words can have a positive or negative meaning: a kind word said at a moment in need can also serve a life time of comfort.

But is meaning in a context enough for a word/linguistic utterance to be a powerful instrument? Before we can answer this question we have to be clear about: what is the function of language? The answer to this question must surely be the biological meaning of communication: to get someone  to do something for us (Richard Dawkins). Language is what we use to influence others in a non contact manner: language, and therefore, the “words” of our topic, is something we use to influence the brain and mind of other people. This also explains why a thorough knowledge of the language we are using is so important: hearing doctors or lawyers talking in the context of their profession is good evidence of this claim.

To conclude, what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for language (words) to be a powerful instrument? Meaning is one condition and meaning makes us better informed. But to have power over us meaning must emotionally agitate and captivate the recipient of our linguistic message. Intellect makes us free, but it is the power of emotions that make us slaves or lovers.

 Best Lawrence

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