Why Do We Use Language?

Language is our primary method of expressing feelings, emotions, desires, and warnings, as well as to share information.  Language can be written or verbal, and through the proper use of just the right words, language can be a powerful tool to guide the reader (or listener) to think or act in just the way the author intends.

Photo by jurek d. @2015 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Photo by jurek d. @2015 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

There are many aspects of language that can change what we mean to say. Connotations are the ideas that are associated with a word or phrase but that are not explicitly stated. “Is there something that you want?” is an innocent question that is asked when someone wants to understand what the person is looking for, information or otherwise. However, the phrase itself may make people feel as though they are interrupting. Depending on connotation, it may sound like a polite request or sound as if you have better places to be and this conversation isn’t wanted.

Connotation, context, or phrasing, can actually mislead the reader, either with or without the author’s knowledge.  Expressions such as “It’s not you, it’s me” or “I’m fine” are often intended to mislead the reader (or listener) as to the true feelings of the author (or speaker). These are all open to interpretation, and may impart a feeling that is far different than would normally come from from a simple straightforward reading.  Effective communication requires the correct use of words and context, either explicitly stated or subtle, to impart the precise reaction intended by the author.

“It is true that you may fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all the time.” — Abraham Lincoln

When reading a novel, how does someone know if a character is being truthful, to himself, other characters in the novel, or to the reader?  In the Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, Holden even admits to being “the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life” (pg 16). Most of the time, Holden doesn’t say or do what he thinks. “Only, I wouldn’t have the guts to do it. I’d just stand there, trying to look tough.” (pg 89).  Salinger keeps the reader guessing as to the motivation and desires of the main character.  This makes for a more challenging, and interesting, character.  The reader must work to pick the gems of truth from the diversions and misstatements.  Considering most novels come from a single narrator instead of an omniscient narrator, how is the reader to know whether the author is stating a fact or manipulating language for their own purposes unless the author’s meaning is explicitly stated?  Although the author may be able to ensure the reader understands all the characters completely through simple, straightforward language, the lies and half-truths said by the characters help to add life to the story.

Another habit that Holden had during his narration was changing subjects so often that it was sometimes hard to follow. Because it was written from a teenagers poit of view, he does not explain things fully. He just skips from topic to topic. On page 42, Holden goes from explaining his history with Allie to talking to Stradlater about Jane with barely a segue. Overall, his writing style is very disjointed.

Even though our everyday writing or speech may be as confusing as Holden’s, we find a way to communicate what we want to say in one way or another. That is the beautiful thing about language. Language doesn’t pay attention to borders or religions 2. Upper-classes use the same languages as the lower-classes (although different groups often add colorful words and phrases to add distinction and a sense of camaraderie). Language is what connects us to each other.

But, when it comes to the important information that absolutely needs to be imparted without possible misinterpretation, it is often difficult to find the phrasing to accomplish. There are over 6,000 languages in the world1, so why is it so hard to tell you exactly what I want to?  Why can’t I find the words to say “I love you”? Or the phrasing to tell you that “I’m not busy, I just don’t want to go” without worrying that my statement will be misinterpreted?

In any language, we should be able to impart information effectively. But somehow, our most trusted asset can fail us.  The very aspects that make language interesting and colorful can lead to painful misunderstanding.  But language is still changing. Still evolving. And as we advance, language will advance.

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language

And next year’s words await another voice.”  — T.S. Eliot

 

Sources:

1 “The Importance of Language.” Writing Commons. Web. 9 June 2015.

2 Evans, Vyv. “What Do We Use Language For?” Psychology Today. 14 Dec. 2014. Web. 9 June 2015.

~Leah

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