Appreciating [the imperfection of] Language

–Davi Johnson, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies

Scholars across disciplines are paying increasing attention to language, discussing such phenomena as the “linguistic turn” and the “social construction of reality.” At the heart of these inquiries is a fundamental recognition that the power of language to shape social life is paralleled by its resistance to human control. Academics aren’t the only ones who recognize that language is slippery. Most of us have blamed a misunderstanding on the ambiguity of words, or are familiar with the experience of finding it impossible to find just the right words to impart exactly what one means to say.

We are told that to “say what we mean, and mean what we say” is a maxim of good communication, but more often than not, a stubborn gap between our meaning and our saying persists.

Because of this breach of words and intention, parts of our messages are lost in translation while at the same time we somehow end up saying far more than we ever intended.

The slipperiness of language has led some scholars to question the conventional understanding that we are in control of our own language. Philosopher Daniel Dennett suggests that it is actually words that “do things with us,” rather than we who do things with words. The great communication theorist Kenneth Burke expressed a similar sentiment when he questioned the instrumentality of language, “Do we simply use words, or do they not also use us?” Perhaps words have their own motives that subvert our constant (and futile) attempts to pin them down for our own purposes.

This obstinate imprecision of language poses unique challenges to the functioning of a liberal arts institution. Our worlds are shot through with language—it is the stuff of which all of our classes, our tests, our books and our meetings are made. It is akin to a biological medium, the atmosphere in which professors, students and staff alike carry out the activities and daily routines that together make up that hallowed abstraction, our “institution.”

At a very general level, to speak of the “politics of language” is to recognize that language and meaning are always caught up in processes that at least partially escape our control. C.S. Lewis has written that the nature of language makes it impossible for us to communicate “the very essence of our lives, all day and every day”; we can only grope and gesture toward our desired meaning with our crude assembly of “hints, similes, metaphors and the use of those emotions which are pointers to it.” The gaps, chasms and fissures that rupture our communication (which means literally to impart, to share, or to make common) are not mere accidents but intrinsic to language. We experience these gaps in very practical ways—for example, as a professor, I am sometimes consternated by my students’ apparent failure to share my own excitement about the subject matter, and I recognize situations where a student is frustrated with my seeming inability to grasp the intended message of their essay or assignment.

Faced with this recalcitrance of language, I believe there are two possible responses. The first is to make every attempt to close the gaps, fill the chasms and suture the fractures—to do everything in our power to put language firmly under our control, to tame its excesses by making it exact, precise and wholly unambiguous. I am concerned that attempts to render language technical in this fashion ultimately amplify the negative consequences of misunderstanding by holding communicative activity to an impossible standard.

The alternative to judging language against an illusory perfection is a simple one, and has been expressed in a variety of forms for centuries: acceptance entwined with forgiveness. John Durham Peters, a professor of communication at the University of Iowa, puts it this way, “Nor are the gaps between sender and receiver always chasms to be bridged; they are sometimes vistas to be appreciated or distances to be respected.”

Abandoning the dream of perfect communication means giving up attempts to make the other see things in precisely the same way that we do, and accepting what Peters calls the “radical otherness of selves.” It means recognizing that we perhaps never completely “mean what we say and say what we mean,” and even if somehow we believe we have found the exact words to match our intentions, there is no guarantee that our meanings will not slip when we try to share our message with others.