Insufficiency of Language

Language insufficiency or the inability of language to facilitate accurate or precise communication has been a notion I’ve stressed for years. In fact, I have another post with a similar title,

Conceptual language is likely to have been formed for a purpose different to social communication. It may have been formed to facilitate internal dialogue. This language was not written and may not have even been words as we know them, but we could parse and reflect upon our experiences in this world. Eventually, we developed speech and then writing systems to share communication. We went on to develop speculative and conditional language, visions of possible futures and answers to ‘what-if’ queries.

My intent is not to create a piece with academic rigour, though I might wish to. I may not even deign to link to references I’ve accumulated over the years. They are in memory, but it takes time and effort,especially when one isn’t purposefully accumulating citations.

I was prompted to write at 4am when I read in a story that Google CEO Sundar Pichai was taking “full responsibility for the decisions that led us” to twelve-thousand-odd layoffs at the company he helms. But what is the responsibility he cites? It’s meaningless. What can it mean—that he’s sorry? Responsibility is a weasel word. That and a dollar won’t buy you a cup of coffee at Starbucks. And on one hand, he can say that at least these people were employed with income in the first place, but thqat is little consolation for the expectation of longevity. Here’s a lesson in impermenance and trust. We tend to trust companies, but the trust is rather hope. We hope they don’t let us down. Hope is another weasel word, as is trust. Trust me.

About 40% of words employed…are phatic or filler words with little objective communication value

About forty per cent of words employed in a typical day are phatic or filler words with little objective communication value, though some provide a social function. This may be superfluous, this is not insufficiency. Insufficiency stems from not being to articulate what one wants to say or the expectation to understand what is being conveyed to you. In fact, people tend to overvalue what they hear or read.

In most cases, this may not matter. As long as the content of a transmitted idea contains enough value to convey a message, this is good enough for everyday communication. “Look out! There’s a car turning into your lane.” “I’m hungry. There’s a restaurant.” “That was a good movie.” “Let’s meet at four o’clock.” In fact, much can be communicated without words—in gestures and facial expressions. It might even be argued that these vectors carry as much if not more communication content than the words we use.

IMAGE: Communication without words

“There.” I point to a drive-through restaurant ahead on the road. “I’m hungry.”

I could probably omit the there exclamation and just point. Here, words are sufficient, even if they may be redundant. There are challenges even at the fundamental level. Notably, aesthetic concepts are often nebulous.

“That restaurant is good.”

What does this statement mean to convey? Essentially, it means that I, the speaker, has been to the referenced restaurant and liked at least some of the food they tasted: “[The food at] that restaurant is good.” Perhaps, they are referring to the staff or the atmosphere. It depends on what good is qualifying. It also depends on a shared definiton of good. This is a insufficiency.

Of course, this insufficiency can be mitigated fairly quickly. Once you understand the ‘tastes’ of your interlocutor, you can parse whether the goodness also applies to you. If you don’t happen to like, say, Indian food and that is the restaurant being referenced, then you can dismiss the comment as phatic. If you don’t prefer satire, you might want to chalk up a statement like ‘M3GAN was a good movie’ to a sharing of personal information rather than a recommendation.”

Perhaps the biggest insufficiency is in the communication of abstract concepts, a category where aesthetics also sits. These are concepts such as God, love, and justice. Iain McGilchrist seems to feel that although these words may be insufficient, we all know what they mean. These are right brain notions that the left hemisphere just can’t rightly categorise. Though this might be a left brain argument, I am going to disagree by degrees.

My (hopefully not strawman) argument is that we do have subjective notions of what these things are, but the communication value is still diminished and in some cases insufficient. If my statement means to convey justice as {A, C, D, X} and the receiver understands justice to mean {A, B, C, Y, Z}, then the only shared aspect is {A,C}. If that is the only portion contextual to the conversation at hand, that’s fine. Communication has been sucessful. But is the message was meant to emphasise {Z}, then the communication is insufficient.

It could be that further conversation reveals this, but often times, a shared definition is assumed. When I say “I want justice” or “I take responsibility”, I have a notion of went denotative and connotative elements I have in mind. I expect the the receiver of my statement shares these elements.

In the case of the statement by Pichai, his notion of responsibility is clearly divergent from mine. This might fall back on some notion of blame, but he has no real repurcussions for his action. Perhaps reputationally, but like politicians, CEOs of large companies are already expected to be sociopaths with empty words, so he’s appologised with no weight, and for most people that’s good enough. The people who have been affected are just as unemployed as before. He may have arranged for a severance package, but in the case of the family referenced in the article, this means nothing because they have 60-days to become employed or they will be forced to leave the United States as a conditiopn of their H1B visa.

On a personal level, I was recently chatting with an Indian mate with an H1B visa who had just been hired after having been layed off by another company. He was racing against this 60-day clock. He had received a verbal offer, but once the company discovered that he needed sponsorship for his via, they offered him $30,000 less per year because they knew he had no bargaining power. This is just an editorial aside, so I won’t go down the rabbit hole of wage slavery, but know that I recognise the relationship and the exploitation in it.

When I have time, perhaps I’ll flesh out this notion and provide additional support. Of course, I also know that I am shovelling against the tide owing to the insufficiency of language. I won’t even start on the related topic of the rhetoric of truth.


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