Wednesday, April 16, 2008

On pedants, pedantry and good language.

I am slowly dragging my way through the thoughts of JS Mill on “Utilitarianism”, a term which I firstly suspected coined by 21st century bloggers with an angle to promote but which to my chagrin I find was used by the good man himself.

I often struggle – as apparently does Obama among a very large number of other people – to find the right words to correctly express an idea that is floating through the probliverse. Sometimes the words are easy to find and are direct. In other instances it can become extremely difficult to put together the right words, in the right order, to properly express a fairly difficult concept.

I recall that when reading the Gita many many moons back, a good part of the Introduction, and many of the footnotes in the first few pages, guided the reader through the translation of the more religious terms and symbology. In many instances the “meaning” came down to there being “no direct equivalent” in the English language.

JS Mill had the same problem in a much more limited fashion. He uses the word “pleasure” as the nominator of a concept central to his argument. (There will be more to come on this later). As far back as Mill’s original publication, that term has been deliberately interpreted (or rather mis-interpreted) in order to oppose and denigrate his argument.

In more everyday situations, there is the same problem occurring between what could be considered different dialects of English – where the same etymology is used for quite different concepts. Most pronounced are the very slight differences between NZ and Australian English, and the differences between Australasian English and English English, or US English.

Another example that comes to mind is the old joke (probably more true than is admitted) about the Inuit, or the Lapps, or whoever, having a large number of terms for “snow”. AS an English word, “snow” has some twelve meanings (listed in First with the etymology for “frozen water falling from the sky in a specific form”, two of those meanings cover noun and verb. Second with the etymology “to obscure or mislead”, there are a further two meanings as noun and verb. Similar in intent is “to overwhelm with the intent to confuse”. There are further derivative meanings like “snow” on a tv screen, and the literary meanings attributing “snow-like” to other objects and concepts as well as the slang and street usages.

Essentially what this all comes down to is that English – as a language – can be said to have far too many words for a comparatively limited number of concepts. At the same time, there is also the criticism that English does not have the means of expressing alien concepts accurately other than by adopting the alien term (hence in the Gita, those terms not having direct or accurate English equivalents were presented in the original Sanskrit).

It has led, as a personal example, to my use of terms such as “mana” in the sense(s) that derive from the Maori word to express the appropriate emotive and respect responses that I am trying to put forward. I know that for an Australian or American, those responses would be far more limited than they would be from someone from Opononi or Whakatane.

The consequence is even more difficult to deal with. As Mill discovered, it can take a chapter in a book to clarify and express exactly what is meant by the term “pleasure”. That difficulty is increased geometrically when a reader intends that it should be mis-interpreted because the concept is not acceptable to him. My personal approach is to try and find a word where the first meaning in the dictionary is the concept that I wish to convey. That does not (in any way) prevent the intentional mis-interpretation. It does not stop the accusations (particularly from my wife) of my tendency to get quite pedantic about the meanings of words.

As for Mill, I thought I had a problem with sentence structure and readability. I take it back. My writing on average would be easy reading for a fifth-grader by comparison. Mill is convoluted, highly nested, and extremely precise writing. The typical sentence might contain as many as three or four levels – of noun and adjectival clauses – and often more than 50 words. Not easy going at all.


T. F. Stern said...

There are plenty of authors with great ideas who, for a lack of good sense, attempt to elevate the level of comprehension in order to appear educated. Then again there are those who are near genius in their ability to cover topics at multiple levels for a wide variety of intended readers, the more learned being able to discern greater concepts and then get the whole of the thought provided by the writer.

Dave Justus said...

In many subjects their is a 'technical language' that may be quite different from the normal language. Medicine, Law, and Philosophy being prime examples. Having a good vocabularly of the technical language is usually a prerequisite for understanding anything written in these subjects.

Sometimes a more commonly used word, even if its meaning in common use is precisely clear can be unclear when used in a technical context. This is because people who are versed in the language will expect a concept to be refered to in a certain way, and using a different term, even it is perhaps clearer to those unaware of the vocabulary, can cause those versed in the subject to wonder if you perhaps mean something different, since the 'proper' techical term isn't being used.

The probligo said...

I have to agree with both of you. The convolutions of professional jargons (and may I say that can range from the examples Dave gave to religions, plumbers and car salesmen) are a sad fact of modern life. Or should that be any time given that oral shortcuts and specialities at levels ranging from professions to regional dialects are so widespread.

It is not quite what I was aiming at though.

The other end - where a clear meaning of simple concept has been defined - involves not the writer (or speaker) but the receiver. If the mind of the receiver is closed to the concept then any means to defeat that idea will be sought. In the absence of logic, the intentional misinterpretation becomes the centre of a rebuttal.

That steps outside of the application of jargon and technical languages. It is a difficulty of communicating in a language which treasures its flexibility and complexity. It is a need to find a common point of reference between speaker and receiver.

Most of all it is the problem of intentional barriers to the communication. For example, if TF were to try and persuade me of the joys and benefits of his religion, I confess that even I would hear the clanging of the shutters coming down. I further confess that is to my shame from the point of view that I should make the effort to be more open minded in matters religious (now don't go getting your hopes up here TF, I am far too long in the tooth.).

That is the clearest that I can make the idea. It is the receiver that is the problem in communication as much - if not more so - as the speaker.

Dave Justus said...

Well, I always try, although I don't always succeed, to assume that the problem is me. If I don't understand someone I am not listening carefully enough or haven't properly learned the vocabulary in which they are speaking. If someone doesn't understand me, I haven't been clear enough or properly explained the assumptions that I am drawing from.

This might not always be true, but it seems a whole lot more productive then assuming the other person is wrong and needs to change to properly allow communication between us.

Of course I have my off days as well.