27 January 2022

Is our language adequate for today?


Is our language adequate for today?


Topic/essay by Lawrence



By “our language” I mean our natural language or languages we use every day in our life. And I say languages because many people grow up in a bi-lingual environment, although this has been happening since time immemorial.


However, my concern is not really about speaking or learning a second language, nor the need to teach languages at school. Although it is very useful to learn a second language there are more fundamental issues involving languages. Having said that, today we are more than ever exposed to translated language not to mention the easy access to translating applications. The aforesaid does not mean that second languages and translations do not feature in the debate but rather as causes to our problem rather than as solutions.


The key question is whether our language is evolving fast enough to describe our new experiences in a world that is now full of new technology and inventions. A function of a language is indeed to convey experiences: for example the language we use to describe our experience when flying. It shouldn’t be a surprise that “flying” language borrowed from seafaring. We still speak of Captain and first officer, although steward/stewardess is now being replaced by air hostess/host or flight attendant, a rough ride, a smooth flight, air pockets that remind us of potholes in the road. Of course, flight attendant does not reflect the professionalism and training these people have to undergo to qualify for their job. And there are holes in the sky.


As always there is always a discrepancy between those who have an experience and those who haven’t had such an experience. Language is supposed to bridge this gap between the person having the experience and describing the experience to others. When we have an experience, for example a holiday abroad, we don’t need to describe anything to ourselves, we already have the memory.


But is language adequate enough to convey the meaning of our experience? We can come close to conveying meaning if person A and person B both share a close or similar experience. In some situations, however, we do have expressions to convey the uniqueness of our experience: for example, “how would you know, you weren’t there,” or “I tell you, you should have been there,” or “wish you were here.” At the other extreme we have professional speak, for example medical doctors would use a language to explain their medical experience (eg the problems of a new patient) that for practical purposes cannot be conveyed to nonmedically trained people.


But still, doctors do manage to communicate their concerns with lay people including patients. But is this enough? We recently had to take our dog to the vet who was recovering from a routine operation but also at the same time the dog had an irritation in a hind paw. Although we were aware that the operation was more serious, we were more distressed with the discomfort the paw was causing the dog. The vet, of course, had the paw under observation, but his professional concern was the healing process of the operation wound.


What this shows is that a language on its own does not necessarily convey the full idea the other person is trying to convey to us. Sure most times we don’t have any problems; when we ask someone to turn on the lights there is nothing confusing or lost in the request. But this becomes serious in political or legal speak when language can fail but the consequences can be far reaching than just a misunderstanding.


An example is the new law in Spain that declares pets as sentient and family members. This law was even recently tested in court when an owner of a dog wanted his dog back from the dog carer after a four year absence. The courts returned the dog to its carer taking the interest of the dog into account rather than the property rights of the original owner. (Owner denied custody of dog in historical animal welfare ruling.. (Murcia Today) https://spanishnewstoday.com/owner-denied-custody-of-dog-in-historical-animal-welfare-ruling-in-spain_1721586-a.html )


And although it is still early time still, public transport companies still have different policies towards carrying pets on board especially on week days. For example in Madrid the Metro have three periods covering various stretches of the rush hour when dogs (pets) are not allowed on trains; there are similar restrictions on bus. I would argue that part of the problem is a language problem.


The legal terminology used in the regulations is “mascotas” (pets) but specifically dogs. The term dog/dogs has in effect no meaning given that a dog can be of any size. For example a Great Dane is one of the largest breed of dogs but the regulations only require a muzzle and a short leash to take it on board. The fact that this dog would hardly fit in a typical metro carriage is beside the point. On the other extreme dogs on buses can only be carried in dog carry bag during allowed periods, but when dogs cannot travel one can still take a suitcase full of frozen chicken carcases.


In terms of language the word “dog/dogs” does not convey reality. A small dog in a proper carry bag is no more a threat than someone taking a regulation size suitcase. My point is that regulation language does not necessarily reflect real life, including maybe legal language or sentiment. For the first time maybe, the law is ahead of social thinking and prejudice.


And this is a key problem for us. Today we are used to things happening immediately and even more important many things happen to our specifications and needs. This is not just a matter of choice, but also a matter of finding things that fit our needs, for example size, shape, etc.


Hence, it is not enough to say and use these generic terms for example a restaurant saying we offer salads. The language becomes inefficient since a salad can be anything, but not all salads are healthy or vegetarian. Fifty or seventy years ago a salad for some lettuce leaves, tomato, maybe some olives, onions and maybe some tuna. And this problem does not even take into account foreign foods or cultural practices.  


Although some might dismiss such issues as petty, the point is that people might have a different meaning for a term in different locations: pizza and paella come to mind. Furthermore, with a large proportion of the world population connected to the internet and subscribers to social media it is very easy for people to innocently learn terms and words that convey false information.


It is one thing to argue whether traditional Italian spaghetti carbonara has cream or not (it doesn’t) and another to falsely interpreting the meaning of “vaccine”. There is a short article about why the CDC changed the definition of “Vaccine” in the Miami Herald: Why did CDC change its definition for ‘vaccine’? Agency explains move as skeptics lurk By Katie Camero Updated September 27, 2021 9:39 AM (https://www.miamiherald.com/news/coronavirus/article254111268.html#storylink=cpy)


Irrespective of what the scientists say what “vaccine” means, the general population either innocently or mischievously assume that a vaccine offers 100% protection. But of course, no vaccine gives 100% protection. And this is where language has failed miserably today. We still have the idea that something like a vaccine gives 100% protection, in the same way that a pint of beer is a 100% a pint. Of course, this is because we are not generally educated at school about sciences in general and medical/biological science in particular. How many people died these past two years because they were not taught the meaning and function of vaccines?


Unfortunately, the lack of rigorous education in the sciences and relying on quick and easy translation applications in the information age makes language very unstable and probably misleading. I do not know now what a possible solution looks like for this problem, but I am sure that the answer involves more specific and detailed meaning of terms and words.



Best Lawrence




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