The Artifice of Words.

It has been said that language is the very essence of what makes us human. If we are to fully understand what it means to be human, then, we must understand what language is, how it works, how we use it, or misuse it.

Linguistics, often defined as 'the scientific study of language', is a broad term covering a wide range of different disciplines. The traditional 'core' areas of the subject deal with the structure of human languages in terms of how speech sounds combine to form syllables and words (phonetics and phonology), how words combine into meaningful utterances such as sentences and phrases (morphology and syntax), and how we extract meaning from utterances we read or hear used by other people (semantics and pragmatics). But beyond this, linguists are also interested in matters such as how languages evolve and change over time, how they are learned by children and by adults, how languages are used in social settings, the historical and contemporary relationships between languages, the roles of language in nation-building and identity marking, the development of writing systems, how the brain processes speech and language, how communication is possible when speech and language are impaired, etc. Linguistics therefore has close links to many other fields of enquiry in the social, physical and medical sciences, philosophy, and the arts and humanities. Our understanding of language origins, structure and use changes constantly with new discoveries in neuroscience, animal behaviour, archaeology and palaeontology, sociology, and psychology, etc.

A closer examination of words, language, and meaning reveals that all words are abstractions, only the degree of their abstraction defers.

Throughout my writing, I often mention language and the artifice of words. Now the term 'artifice of words' may sound strange to some people, especially those who have no familiarity with the philosophy of language, linguistics, or aesthetics. While we are bombarded with hundreds of thousands of words a day, whether oral, written, or broadcast, very few of us have actually taken the time to consider the symbolic abstraction that underlies the meanings of the words we use and the rapid mental associations we make to interpret such generic terms like dog, tree, hot, bad, love, blue, and god.

Language, how things 'mean' something, and truth are important subjects of consideration not simply because they are used in everyday life, but because language shapes human development, from earliest childhood and continuing to death. Knowledge itself is intertwined with language, its transmission and distribution. Notions of self, experience, and existence mostly depend on how language is used, what is learned through it, how it is interpreted and on-going assumptions derived from interpretation. The topic of learning language leads to all kinds of interesting questions. Is it possible to have any thoughts without having a language? What kinds of thoughts need a language to happen? How much does language influence knowledge of the world and how one acts in it? Can anyone reason at all without using language? Does language influence the "primal experience of being" (i.e., the animalistic pre-language state) in such a way so as to distort one's experience and worldview in order to confirm language's abstractions? The philosophy of language deliberately considers these types of questions. It is an important point of study because language is inseparable from how one thinks and interprets the world. People in general have a set of vital concepts which are connected with signs and symbols, including all words (symbols): "object," "love," "good," "God," "masculine," "feminine," "art," "government," and so on.By incorporating "meaning," everyone has shaped (or has had shaped for them) a view of the universe and how they have "meaning" within it. In a great many cases—especially when considering religion and politics—people infer meaning from words alone, from the abstractions inherent in language, because the objects of the describing words (entities or agencies like "god" or "afterlife" or "angels") are nowhere in evidence in the 'real world'.

By definition, then, and necessity, language is abstract and assumptive. The linguistic meaning of words is presupposed and inferred. There are essentially two different types of inferences when it comes to words we use: conceptual meaning and associative meaning.

The conceptual meanings of an expression have to do with the definitions of words themselves, and the features of those definitions. This kind of meaning is treated by using a technique called "semantic feature analysis." The conceptual meaning of an expression inevitably involves both definition (also called "connotation" and "intension") and extension (also called "denotation").

One issue that has bothered philosophers and ordinary people for as long as there have been words is the problem of their vagueness. Often, meanings expressed by the speaker are not as explicit as the listener would like them to be. The consequences of vagueness can be disastrous to classical logic because they give rise to the Sorites Paradox (in which the definition of a word like "heap" can be constructed or deconstruction one grain of dirt at a time until the object in question can no longer be considered a "heap" by definition but becomes something else).

Most people don't think about the abstractive and assumptive properties inherent in language although both are constantly used in day-to-day interaction. This is best demonstrated by an example. Consider the sentence:

The Dog Chased the Ball into the Street and Got Hit by a Car.

If you're like most people, the sentence above makes perfect sense to you. You know precisely what it means. You can imagine it, almost picture it in your mind's eye. But how? Every element of this sentence is completely abstract.

- I say "dog" but you've been given no description of the breed of dog or its size, whether it is a small Boston Terrier or a large Doberman Pinscher, or sleek or fat, or old or young. You have a fuzzy nebulous "feeling" for the idea of "dog" even though you know nothing about the animal in question beyond the word.
- I say "ball" but you've been given no description of the ball regarding it's type or size, whether it was rolling, bouncing, or flying through the air. It could just as easily be a tennis ball as a basket ball, or any other type of ball a dog is apt to chase.
- I say "street" and once again you know nothing about the type of street, its size, or the materials used in its construction.
- I say "car" and know nothing about its make or model, size or shape, color or speed.

What makes this kind of abstraction possible is your awareness of having actually had physical interaction with specific dogs and balls and streets and cars. You can conceptualize based on this interaction and thus infer the meaning from a broad abstract sentence like "The dog chased the ball into the street and got hit by a car."

Now, here's the kicker:

When it comes to supernatural religion it may be surprising to most believers to consider the simple fact that religion is all talk, only talk, and nothing but talk. Supernatural religion consists only of words, an ancient collection of words mostly recounted in anonymous third-person narratives (a fictional technique or unwarranted hearsay), and that's it. Because supernatural religion is comprised only of words, there's nothing empirical, physical, nothing of substance that you can point to besides art (derived from the word artifice or artificial) in any of its aspects: literature, poetry, music, painting, sculpture, theater, motion pictures, television, etc.

So, when believers talk about the "Will of God" or say things like "God is Love" or "God is Omnipotent and Omniscient" or ask "What Would Jesus Do?" not only are they utilizing a generic abstraction (like using the words 'dog', 'street', and 'ball') they are using an abstraction twice-removed because they are inferring God's godliness only from the artifice of words and not from any actual associations in the 'real' world. Ask a believer to describe "God" and to drill down to the particulars (as with the description of "dog") and you will be handed a list of generic abstract terms that are by themselves quite meaningless until they are weighed against 'real' properties that exist in the physical world.

I realize this is heady stuff, so let's try to make it a clearer with another example.

When believers explain that "God is Love" where are they getting this information? Are they observing God in action, then deducing from His behavior that he is a loving god? No. They are quoting and interpreting words in the Bible to make their case for a loving god while ignoring or conveniently forgetting other words in the Bible that make a case for a petty, judgmental, infantile, and merciless god. In either case, the very idea of a loving god was not derived from any behavioral evidence apparent in the 'real' world (with it's illness, disease, war, pain, suffering, cruelty, etc) but only from the artifice of words. Now, who wrote the words from whence believers derive the interpretation that 'God is Love'? In nine out of ten times, they don't know who wrote the words because the various authors are anonymous or the words subject to centuries of editing and redaction. In other words, believers are basing their interpretations of the attributes of God only on words written thousands of years ago by who knows whom? And apologists like to carp that rationalists and skeptics rely too much on naturalistic presuppositions!


A. Thinker said...

Hi Craig,

This was a great post. Thank you for it. I myself am a bit of a wordsmith. I deal with computer programming in the area of natural language output, i.e. making a computer look like it's talking to people in a natural fashion (specifically to tutor children in chemistry, mathematics, and older students in accounting).

I tell you this because this post hit on an interesting debate that we've had here at work recently. We have been debating whether or not numbers exist in reality. It's a question that comes down to, "Do Platonic Ideals really exist?" I have been trying to explain what I think they are, that instead of actually existing, they are simply concepts relating patterns of things which actually exist. The rest of my coworkers, I believe, disagree, and say they exist for everyone even if a person has no knowledge of them. They basically assert that, so that's annoying.

What are your views on Platonic Ideals? And could you point out any key books on linguistics? Thank you for your time. Have a good day,


Ben said...

I don't believe language is necessary for reasoning. I believe non-human animals can reason, and, while they might possess amazing means of communication, they don't possess what linguists usually mean by "language." Infants can reason, and I'm sure people with severe aphasia can reason.

So what? I don't know.

Dillie-O said...

Excellent post! I loved this reading!

The one aspect that I think you left out though, is context. Let's go back to your original example...

The Dog Chased the Ball into the Street and Got Hit by a Car.

Now let's say that this statement was uttered, not by you, but by a young teen living in the ghetto, where the word "dog" referes to one of his friend, "chased the ball" is a slang term for "selling stereos" and "hit by a car" meant that an enemy of his stole his goods.

This sentence now has a completely different meaning than the end of Fido's life. Don't immediately bash this statement as going to the extreme, because my point is that knowing what the context of the situation in which the words were spoken means a HUGE thing.

Imagine how our kids are going to look at us funny when we watch Harry Potter for the first time and they keep saying "wicked" after doing something good! I thought that was a word we attribute to evil folks. 8^D

My point being that a lot of initial fallacies inconsistencies pointed out in the Bible are often failures in getting the proper context of the situation.

A. Thinker said...

Dillie-O said, "My point being that a lot of initial fallacies inconsistencies pointed out in the Bible are often failures in getting the proper context of the situation."

I find it interesting to note that many believers will also take things out of context in order to rationally justify a position which is otherwise completely untenable. That's a very strange phenomenon, don't you think?

I think a good, clear example of the above is when many Christians say that Jesus set aside the old laws, which is why they're allowed to eat mollusks and pork and such, but they don't realize that this is taken out of context. The term used in the bible is the "Law and the Prophets", which essentially refers to the entire old testament (from what I've read). But then they think that somehow the Ten Commandments actually hold any sway, when Jesus set them aside?! I never understood that.

B H said...

Craig, I enjoyed seeing a post here on my subject area (and a great intro to the topic to boot), but I have one complaint:

When it comes to supernatural religion it may be surprising to most believers to consider the simple fact that religion is all talk, only talk, and nothing but talk.

Religion is more than talk, although talk does make up a good portion of it and gives it a means to spread from one generation to the next. Religion involves behavior as well, including performance, the creation of phsyiscal culture, the enforcement of societal norms, and distribution of wealth. Some of the "higher" functions of religion definitely depend on language (explication of worldviews and values), but I certainly wouldn't want to insist that all aspects of religion are necessarily dependent on language.

That said, I'm definitely on the critical/skeptical side of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I tend to define culture, society, and thought in broad enough terms that humans and human language aren't given any special status. So my thoughts may be accordingly taken with salt.

A. Thinker, the problem with ideals is that we don't have a way to interact with them, and all the psychological evidence suggests we construct our internal ideals from experience. Likewise in mathematics, I think set theory (despite the paradoxes it introduces) adequately shows how basic arithmatic can arise from idealized objects. That numbers are so useful in our world is really just a product of physical laws like conservation.

I can't think of any key books on linguistics that I would recommend. It really depends on what part of language you're interested in.

As for the context issue, I don't have much to say except whenever I hear a Christian bring up context, they always want to consider the modern Christian context and rarely the early Canaan context, the mystery religion context, the Rabbinic context, or other perspectives.

B H said...

That should have been "the trouble with Platonic ideals" - meaning ideals that exist independent of any individual's cognitive processes.

Dillie-O said...

I find it interesting to note that many believers will also take things out of context in order to rationally justify a position which is otherwise completely untenable. That's a very strange phenomenon, don't you think?

Yeah, I think that is crappy reasoning by a lot of Christians. And now I'll probably proceed to be flogged by a few individuals around here. I'm FAR from the "KJV is the only true translation" and am excited by the continued hermeneutic work that looks at the culture, writing style, and other issues of the time when the writings occurred and makes sure that the meaning is consistent with that.

I'm not saying that I'm some contextual wiz, but when I'm doing my studies, I make sure to take a lot of that into thought. I think everybody else should too 8^D

A. Thinker said...

b h: I'm particularly interested in the mathematics of language, actually. Do you have any tips for that, if it even exists?

B H said...

Yes, there are two major approaches to the mathematics of natural languages:

The first is statistical. This has primarily been developed by computational linguists. Some see it as representative of cognition, others see it as a shortcut for natural language processing until the formal models catch up. This isn't my field at all, but this online text seems to be a good start:

The second approach attempts to axiomatize natural language syntax and semantics so that natural languages can be generated from rules in the same way that well-formed sentences can be in first order and higher order logic. This approach is subject to major split between the transformational and lexicalist models, but the modern theories can more or less be traced back to Chomsky's Syntactic Structures (1957 I think). Montague's work from the 70s is usually credited as the first make formal semantics work for natural languages.

For the purely mathematical take that leaves out the theoretical disputes, I'd recommend Mathematical Methods in Linguistics by Partee, Meulen, and Wall. The first few chapters might be review for you, but the second half goes into more detail on the linguistic applications. This book doesn't go into great detail about specific linguistic theories, though.

For a book on this approach with more linguistics than mathematics, I'd recommend Syntactic Theory: A Formal Introduction by Sag and Wasow. This is written people who have been developing the second most popular lexicalist model ("head-driven phrase structure grammar") but their appendix shows how you can leap from the simple model they construct in the text to any of the other lexicalist grammars.

(Craig and the DC crew, sorry for stealing your thread. I really need to start writing about linguistics in my own blog. I've got a post on methodology in me that's dying to come out...)

Lee Randolph said...

Nice post!
I think the comments are as interesting as the post. I am also interested in language as it applies to dialogue in artificial intelligence.

anyway, one factor that christianity depends on is the ambiguity of words and ultimately the argument from ignorance, and the old standby "we don't have enough information" yet.

I think we can all point to instances of attempted 'redifinition' of words in a discussion with a Christian.

zilch said...

I'll second Lee's comment: good post, interesting comments. The interface between words and what the words describe in the world is a fascinating topic, and one that is ignored at our peril, especially in politics and religion.

I'd like to see your post on methodology, bh.

Lee Randolph said...

now that i've reflected on it a bit more,
this goes deep into christianity and its denominations. For example, the meaning of words from one modern bible version to another, then back recursively through to the original scripture. From what I know of the hebrew language a lot of words were ambiguous when they were being used. Then throw on top of that, change in culture, understanding and meaning attributed to words through the years, and then subsequent scholarship from outside cultures trying to interpret the meaning from hindsight.

An all knowing god should have anticipated this mess and done something about it to head it off assuming it really didn't want to create any non-believers.

A. Thinker said...

Who are YOU to decide what god should and should not do!?


In any case, probably the typical response would be that god DID know what he was doing, and this is all for the better. I don't see how, of course, but I'd guess that's the standard response (to Lee's post).

richdurrant said...

"An all knowing god should have anticipated this mess and done something about it to head it off assuming it really didn't want to create any non-believers."

Maybe, except wasn't it God who confounded the languages to begin with?

Craig this is a great topic and I will read with much interest. I do some programming but with PLCs and it's pretty much symbols, but I also speak fluent Spanish and I can tell you it is more difficult to translate meaning than words.

James F. McGrath said...

There is a book I've just started reading recently entitled Dangerous Words about religious language and fundamentalism that seems a pretty good treatment of the subject. It is written by an English professor (Gary Eberle) rather than a religion scholar, which provides a refreshingly different approach.