Day: May 15, 2013

7. WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF LANGUAGE?

mcdonalds

An obvious answer to the title question may come to mind. Language exists so we can communicate vocally in ways that don’t require grunting, snarling, snorting, and screaming. There’s no doubt these expressions still prevail–especially among men–but there’s a much more profound need to speak. We crave deeper connections to others, not just through our senses, but mentally.

At one time, my speech was quite stoic. It had neither passion nor imagination.  When I attempted to illustrate myself with the limited feelings I had connection to, the descriptions came out clichéd and boring. For years, I uttered the same words in the same tone of voice to the same uninterested people. I never stopped to think about what came out of my mouth. My responses were never astute, and the results were often insulting and insensitive. I’ve tasted my foot more often than I’d like, and my attempts at taking back what’s  just been said  always had a tone of insincerity  when filtered through my toes. Once it was uttered, the original thought prevailed. Whatever came after did little to dispel the impact of  my initial misfortune. Over the years, I’ve consciously developed a slower response time. This, and a better vocabulary, has significantly improved my moments of awkwardness.

My mentor, Joe, sat me down years ago and posed the initial question. It changed my life.

“So, do you know what the purpose of language is?”

“Sure.” I said confidently. “We need to communicate so we can interact with each other.” Joe looked blankly at me, totally unimpressed with my answer.

He kept staring. “What happens when I say something to you and include a word you don’t quite understand?”

“I guess I’d probably ask you what you meant.”

“I doubt it.” He smirked a little and continued. “Let’s try an example and we’ll see what happens. How would you interpret Honor thy Mother and Father?”

I cleared my throat. “Well, according to the ten commandments I suppose we are obligated to love our parents.”

Joe smiled. “Look up the word honor.”

There was always a huge dictionary on the table when we talked. I thought it was there for decoration. I picked it up, flipped to the word, and read the entire definition. No where was mentioned the word “love.”  Joe could see I was speechless, so he continued.

“Here lies our problem. The purpose of language is an attempt of the speaker to take the images, ideas, feelings, and definitions of what they are thinking and  place them into the mind of the listener with as little discrepancy as possible. If each person has a different understanding of the same word, communication will not take place as intended. In cases where we are attempting to learn from those who are offering us information, it’s vital that we bridge the gap.”

I now carry a dictionary with me everywhere. I find myself looking up words with great frequency. More often than not, I still need assistance interpreting my own thoughts, especially when I’m writing. The accessibility of reference material has become quite easy these days with technology where it is. Any excuse I harbored for the unavailability of either a better word or its definition, has vanished. I’m no master of the English language, but I do consider myself at least a student. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean I don’t still grunt, snarl, snort, and scream from time to time.

With Love and Compassion, Daniel Andrew Lockwood