Porträt der Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein

Our relationship to language is changing

Porträt der Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein
Porträt der Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein

In a perfect world, we’d all understand each other. We’d all know exactly the meaning and context of every sentence, and it would always be the same — across cultures, times, languages — fixed on the pursuit of verifiable truth.

Unfortunately, meaning is not fixed. Just as our culture changes, so too does our understanding of reality. When the authors of the Bible wrote that Noah’s flood and Christ’s fasting lasted for 40 days and 40 nights, they did not mean literally 40 days. Rather, at the time, the number 40 held deep cultural and religious meaning and was used to denote a very long period of time, often associated with a trial, or a test. Interpreting language this way limits our understanding to a single moment in time. It’s like using one still-frame out of a film and expecting it to capture the entire movie.

So if our understanding of language is not fixed, where can we find meaning? My best guess would be from its use in everyday life.  There are those who feel that language is only a tool that informs our reality. While this outlook seems to be the general consensus, I feel it limits our ability to move forward.

The focus on truth may actually be the problem with the way we are using language today. Often times, we think that verifiable truth is what we are pursuing in all things. There are many ways of knowing and to use only one at the expense of others severely cripples the human experience. Can we scientifically verify if a mother loves her child? Can we quantify the beauty in Gustav Klimt’s paintings? More still — would we want to live in a world that could?

Saying that this truth is separate from language usage is where problems arise. To use the outdated political spectrum, both the right and left accuse one another of using language to further their ideology — either by hiding behind being “politically correctness” or brainwashing. We can see this at work in our very community, in the actions and reactions surrounding the “Date Grape” issue in Spokane, or even on a broader, national level with the more recent “#CancelColbert movement.”  Accepting that our own perspective is only a partial glimpse of reality and not the ONLY truth is a good exercise in beginning to understand how complex the use language really is.

When we remember meaning isn’t fixed, that there are sometimes other more important pursuits than evidential truth, I think that, especially with the great motivating forces in the world, we can then be free to focus on asking other questions. Instead of asking is this true? in an objective sense, we should also be asking What is being said? From this perspective, the modern world could learn much more than just evaluating claims, but would seek to understand and apply that understanding to their daily life.

If the Oxford dictionary formally added “selfie” to the English lexicon, then that leads me to believe that it’s not that language is being desensitized; it’s that our ever-evolving relationship with language is changing. Perhaps we can change too.

Join us for our next Coffee Talk for a discussion on “The Desensitization of Language” which will be at 10 a.m., April 5 at Indaba Coffee. Oberst is a panelist.  


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I think I agree.

After reading all the posts for Saturday’s Coffee Talk, I could post my question to any of the four panelists. (Skyler wins since he was last to post.)

Which matters most, the specific words chosen or the intention behind them?

If I read your post correctly, Skyler, are you saying we might want to consider trying to listen less by sample definition and more by intended meaning?

While this would require exercising listening muscles more than speaking muscles, I must say I really like the sound of this idea. 🙂


I believe intention behind words is as important as the words themselves.

What if we each tried pondering words “from the speaker’s point of view and taking into account their motivation” before responding?

Perhaps we might each choose our words more carefully and the world would be a different place? Great post! See you at Coffee Talk!

Paul Susac

I don’t think our relationship with language is changing that much. Or rather, I think that our relationship with language is that it is ALWAYS changing.

When the bible was translated into English, it was a different English than we speak now, and the languages that the books of the bible were written in were similarly in a constant state of flux. It would surprise me if the book of Genesis (for example) was written in the same Hebrew as Leviticus (for example).

This is why the idea of a sacred text is so pernicious. When you take belief in a book as the ultimate authority, the meaning of those words takes on the authority of the divine, and the meaning of those words is HIGHLY subjective. This invites people to turn THEIR interpretation into a rationale for all kinds of violence and pain.

And THAT’s where the inquisition comes from.

Apologists will claim that this is a “misinterpretation” of the text, but who are they to say that THEIR interpretation of the text isn’t the mistaken one? The problem is not one of interpretation. The problem is that too many people want moral certainty, and they outsource their responsibility for moral reasoning to a book in order to get it.

Paul Susac

“moral authority does not rest in a book, but in the compassionate search for a better tomorrow for the planet.”

Actually, I think this is a pretty good statement. I’m not sure I could improve on it.

One concern that I have is about the role of authority in morality. Many of us conflate obedience with morality. This starts in childhood – an obedient child is a “good” child. And to be fair, this really does work.

People “obey” the scriptures, but only the nice parts, and it’s a good thing that they do. Much of what is in the bible is ignored, and that is a VERY good thing in my book (otherwise, I’m sure I’d have been stoned to death a long time ago).

In practice, I think we do what we feel is right and then use rationalizations to explain it after the fact. “The bible says so” is one such rationalization. Sometimes our moral intuitions lead us astray, but mostly they work OK, and this is (in part) because we are socialized to feel certain ways in certain circumstances. Certainly religious training is a part of that socialization.

The modern prohibition against violence to animals is a good example of this. This is a fairly recent trend (according to Steven Pinker), and we respond with moral outrage at violence to animals in ways that our medieval counterparts would be bewildered by. Clearly socialization has a big role in forming our moral responses, but the FACT of the moral responses seems to be an innate part of our human nature.

Empathy, obedience, justice, guilt, shame, and pride are all a part of the evolutionary heritage that we received from our ancestors. It’s like a tool kit – nature gives us the tools, society teaches us when to use them and what to use them to build.

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