Tuesday, July 24, 2007

On language

Here's an interesting thought from Sasha Volokh:
There is no such thing as the English language. Every person speaks slightly differently, understands a slightly different set of words, uses words slightly differently. When we say that a set of people "speaks English," this is a sloppy shorthand that means that when each of them speaks the way he normally speaks, the other people in the set can mostly understand what he's saying, and the meaning he's trying to convey is more or less the meaning they get. It's just an empirical statement about the degree of overlap between each person's "language."
Language is really a contract of sorts, and some of its terms are much more clear than others. When I use the word "dog," for instance, with another English speaker, it is mostly likely agreed that I am referring to a member of the species Canis lupus familiaris, a/k/a the domestic dog. However, "dog" could have other meanings as well, depending on the context, but it is unlikely that serious errors of understanding could occur between English speakers over the word "dog."

The real problem occurs with so-called "abstract" words, i.e. faith, justice, liberty, etc. Where the "contract" of language breaks down altogether is in politics. "Liberal" and "conservative" mean different things to each person saying the words. I like to use the word "conserfascist" to describe those currently in power in certain branches of the government, because their actions run so counter to my conception of "conservatism," yet as part of the Republican Party they get to claim conservatism's mantle.

My favorite example is a quote, allegedly from Winston Churchill, that gets tossed about these days:
Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has no heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains.
Churchill, if he ever said this, was probably referring to political parties of his day, so the quote's usefulness in today's context is quite questionable. These days, at least in the parlance of the White House and its media flacks, opposition to the Iraq occupation and misdaventures of the Bush Admin makes one a "liberal," and unquestioning fealty to said Admin makes one a good "conservative." Churchill would probably be scratching his head at this.

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