A Poverty Of Language

One of the most profound ways that a language can be impoverished is to be unable to express or describe something.  There are, of course, various ways this issue can be overcome.  One can have languages like Hebrew, for example, where there are a few words but those words have a great deal of resonance in referring to many different senses, which can be felt or understood differently (and often in an ironic context).  One can have languages like German, where so long as something can be defined by adding words together one can simply make longer and longer words that allow one to express a given reality.  Alternatively, one can have a language like English or Greek where one attempts to coin new words to relate to the new realities, English being a language that is especially proficient at adopting words from other languages as well, a tendency that has only become more and more marked as a result of having been an unwritten language for centuries under Norman and Angevin French domination before returning to the world of literary languages in the 14th century and afterwards.

We must not delude ourselves into thinking that just because we have words to describe something that our problems are over.  Quite often in debates and controversies people have a way of talking past each other because each of them has different concerns and different worldviews and are paying attention do different things and not meeting minds at all.  Even if we use the same words to describe what we are looking for, we may mean those words in very different ways.  For example, a great many people will seek freedom as a freedom from intrusive regulation and domination while other people will seek for a freedom from the harshness of responsibility through paternalistic institutions and governments.  Such different senses and approaches to freedom are ultimately incompatible, since any institution or government that is strong enough to protect someone from poverty or folly will be far too oppressive and restive for others to accept as legitimate, given its own folly and theft.  And indeed we must not be under the illusion that understanding what others mean and having others understand what we mean is the end of trouble either, because in many cases goodwill and peaceful relations can only be maintained by ambiguity about what one means by things, because to be known is to be known as being in violent and massive disagreement, and therefore not someone who is safe to be on intimate and close terms with in a world where disagreement is akin to treachery.

Our poverty of language may exist on several levels.  We may lack the vocabulary to express ourselves to our own satisfaction, or may use words in different senses that other people do not understand.  We may lack the empathy or understanding to get where other people are coming from, often because we may not really want to know what they are about because it would be impossible to be on good terms with those whose ways we well understood.  We may have a poverty of language in the sense of being unable to deal with the sort of violent and extreme disagreement of thought, belief, and expression that we find.  Indeed, we may find ourselves facing this sort of poverty of language on all levels simultaneously, as appears to be the case when one is faced with violent rhetoric by people who have no seeming capacity to understand other perspectives and other worldviews and no empathy or standards of respect that apply to all humanity, including those with whom they are in disagreement.  Such a total impoverishment of language may also apply to us in our worst moments.

Nor does this exhaust the sort of poverty of language we may possess.  Without some sort of worldview we cannot make sense of the world or see patterns and structure in it at all, but all too often our worldviews filter out aspects of reality that are important to recognize.  We may see things that are not there, or see things that other people do not see, or do not see things that others do, and may find it impossible to convince others that what we see is genuine or to be convinced about what others see that one does not see.  J.R.R. Tolkien noted once, for example, that the hero of his friend C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy was like him only with his opinions Lewisified.  Such a fate befalls all who are written about by others.  I have no doubt that other people have been irked and bothered by how they have been Nathanified in my own writings and I have been irritated and bothered by the skewed and warped perspective other people have had on me that has had very little relation to the genuine article.  Our poverty of perception and our poverty of giving others the benefit of the doubt or viewing their motives and perspectives and approaches charitably feeds into our poverty of language and exacerbates its problems.  To resolve such problems we have to work on ourselves, and that is much harder work than most of us can do well or quickly.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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