[Let’s Make Communication Great Again] — How the Nature of Words Should Impact Your Communication
A Primer on Language and its implications for the entangled web of our existence as fellow human beings sojourning through the earth.
This article has been updated.
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I want to take you through a journey of the Semantic Triangle (from the field of communication…which I have a degree in, so obviously, I am [not] an expert) and what it means for your life.
Let’s start with two questions and a quote:
If you hear the word “orange”, what comes to mind?
It’s an important question for one reason — multiple options can be represented by the same word.
This is the problem with language. We are not given a pre-determined set of words with their singular meaning. Would that make communication easier? Probably. But you can say, “Orange” and mean a color or a fruit or maybe something else entirely.
Another problem — you can say orange and it could mean nothing to you.
For example, if you didn’t subscribe to the English language, “orange” would just be a random set of squiggly lines or an interesting sound coming out of someone’s mouth. Just because it means something specific to you not only means that another human being won’t necessarily derive the same meaning, it also could mean that another human being won’t share any meaning with the word.
If I said the Hebrew word “melek” to an English speaking audience — it would mean nothing.
Words and language aren’t as clean cut as we might wish for them to be.
Second question — how many words added to the English Language every year?
Well, depending on who you ask, anywhere from 100 to 4000, though the Oxford Dictionary usually adds about 1000 per year (and gets rid of just about as many).
So if you still needed some credibility to the ever evolving, non pre-determined nature of words…I think that should do it.
Now for the quote:
“The finger pointing at the moon isn’t the moon.”
It’s a great way to explain meta-physics, but it also accurately describes how words & language works.
Where Does Language Come From?
Maybe an over-simplified version of the history of language will help us.
A person made a sound or drew a shape, someone else heard or saw their attempt at communication, they agreed on what it meant, and now they have language.
If you delve even further into communication theory, you notice that communication is more than language — it is the passing of some sort of information from one source to another. Do babies communicate? Yup. Do they use words? Well, not as we might define them.
You are constantly communicating (Principle of Communication #3 — its where the phrase “non-verbal communication” comes from) and language was a way to make that communicating easier.
Not to get all “Tower of Babel” on you, but language is a technology (though there is some debate on the exact nature of this, let’s just stick with a general definition of technology). It is not an inherent system pre-ordained in the universe that we just have to uncover and learn — it is a tool we came up with to use in order to make life better.
Which is why different people and cultures have come up with different ones — they wanted to communicate more efficiently, so they agreed on certain sounds and images meaning certain things and formed their own language.
Note: There are examples of language experts who either create a language or use some old or fantasy created language and teach it to their children. Why does this work? Because they are just taking sounds and shapes and creating a shared meaning between the individuals (which also means that those children grew up to realize they couldn’t communicate those sounds and shapes to people who had not also learned them and usually defaulted to only using the culturally common version of language).
Language being a technology is also why words can mean different things and the same word can change meaning over time. For example, the word “gentleman” — which was a formal title with specific legal implications such as someone who owned land — or the word “meat” which used to be a general reference to food. Words evolve — because, I’ll say this again, they have no inherent meaning.
This is getting out of control, let’s just get to the The Triangle.
Because there are all sorts of problems that have come up so far if this stuff is true — from how this can get real nihilistic real quick to how a group of people can decide to make a word “official” in a language or dictionary to babies communicating to why different languages might exist at all.
The Semantic Triangle (also called by lots of other names)
This geometric shape, which means that it is just a use of the communicative technology to help communicate better, is a way communication theorists have come up with to make sense of all this.
You have the word — let’s stick with “orange” for now — it is a sound or a bunch of squiggly lines. The word is a symbol.
Then you have the actual thing — the color or the fruit — the actual concept you are referring to. This is easier with something concrete that you can actually see or touch or hold…it gets more complicated with abstract concepts (that’s coming up at the end).
Then you have what you actually mean — the meaning, or, how you interpret the sound or shapes in reference to the concept being discussed.
All three of these parts work together to create language — the symbol in reference to a concept that we deduce meaning from.
The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.
The word is not the thing and the thing is not the meaning and the meaning is not the word — they point to each other. Words or symbols, then, are the finger that points to the meaning. The concept is also a finger that points to the meaning. But the symbol can also point to the concept. And the meaning (the moon) directs itself back to the other two.
Don’t worry, I’m confused, too.
Shared Meaning — the only way this works.
So how about an over-generalized blanket statement?
Words are meaningless.
Quite literally, they don’t mean anything.
They only mean what we agree they mean. Because every symbol has to be interpreted by the person receiving the symbol to agree on the concept trying to be communicated. The finger points and there has to be a common agreement that the moon is the object of the pointing.
This is why that dictionary you use to look up a word is not a standard, set definition engrained in the fabric of the universe and why it constantly changes — because the generally accepted interpretation of words changes.
Or why two people can say the same word and mean different things. Because a shape or sound only means what you want it to mean — if we happen to agree on that meaning then we will be more efficient in how we communicate with each other — but it is process to develop that agreement. Or if I decided, when I said “orange,” that I meant the concept of snow, which I am certainly allowed to do, it would only work if we both understood what I was talking about.
This is why, for the “Meaning” part of the triangle, meaning only exists when it is shared.
Or, you could say, a word only has a definition based on the shared meaning two people agree on for the word.
See, words don’t mean anything. And while that is only technically true, if we are going to use language more effectively, we need to be honest about it’s nature.
If a word is just a sound or some squiggles it means that words, themselves, have no inherent meaning. There is nothing built into the fabric of the universe that gives us a sound or a squiggly line some absolute, eternal value.
But that statement is only technically true because, though words have no inherent meaning, they do have meaning that two or more people agree on — they have meaning when we share the agreement on how we interpret that piece of language.
Whatever two or more people agree on, that is what a word means in that specific context.
As a society, this has been made easier because we have worked hard to generate shared meaning by teaching a common usage of the technology of language for what specific symbols mean in relation to their concept. This is why Oxford can produce a dictionary — it isn’t what the words mean by default, they are telling us what sounds & squiggly lines are commonly meant as in a democratic fashion.
But it isn’t what the word means, it is what we agree the word means for our common convenience.
You could use that same word with someone who has a different meaning for that word and now the shared usage no longer exists.
Note #2: I also find this has major implications for translating between languages — because the shared meaning that is generally accepted for the word “naranja” in Spanish translates as “orange” in English, but the value system, perspective, and, therefore, the interpretation in Spanish won’t transcribe on a 1:1 ratio in English. If we might have different interpretations of the same sound or shape in a shared language, how much more so for different words in different languages?
Even though we think we might have the same definition, while it might be close, there will always be at least minor differences in how we are interpreting the meaning of what is being said.
So a couple implications and then a final example:
1 — Language is Limited — (which means we will always disagree)
You are reading this, understanding it in your own unique way based on how you interpret the meaning of the hundreds of symbols being used called words — this means we aren’t going to completely see this the same way.
My communication will never fully align with yours because my view of the world will never be the exact same as yours. Even how you use the word orange, though we might agree in the moment you are referencing a color, how you perceive the color, the history you have of the color, and the meaning you ascribe to the color will always be a little bit different.
Unless you can completely get inside my head and share every piece of context with me without bringing any of your own, our communication will never be completely symmetrical. This writing doesn’t completely work for this reason. We may have some semblance of agreement on how we interpret the meaning of each and every single word, but we aren’t going to fully understand what I am communicating in the same exact way.
This isn’t bad, it means we have the unique expression of billions of people to add to the world story, but it does mean it is messy.
Each particular perspective adds value. Each language that exists expresses a different take on existence (which is why it is such a bummer when a language goes extinct — whether because of the elimination of that group of people or because of the recipients of that language trading theirs for a more common one. When a language doesn’t get passed on, it might make the world more convenient, but we lose something of human history in the process).
It would be convenient to have exact definitions that are completely fixed implanted into our brains at birth, but we don’t…and I don’t know that this convenience would necessarily be a good thing.
We will have to accept the limitations and, therefore, the messiness of language.
2 — Words Carry No Moral Value
This implication is a bit of a soapbox and may not be useful or, even, agreeable to you, but alas:
A word can’t be bad — because words don’t carry meaning in and of themselves — only a meaning can be bad. Even that, though, is subjective.
This is why we don’t use certain four letter words in some contexts, but we do in others. We understand that the shared meaning the people in those contexts have will make it a positive or negative experience.
I would really like us, as a culture, to get over the taboo of certain words by claiming they are bad words or swear words. They can be negative and if that particular word has a shared meaning that could cause harm, let’s not use it! I completely agree with that kind of restraint…its a great idea! But what else are the words capable of that we lose if just civically try to eliminate them altogether?
For example, sometimes my children, who are quite young, will “swear” as you might say. They might drop something and it breaks and innocently react with, “Aw, fuck.” Or they might be given some un-ideal news and respond with, “Dammit”. In our familial context, we try to be adamant that those words aren’t bad — but we always push to be clear on the shared meaning.
“What did you mean when you said that?” is usually the follow up question. If they can adequately explain their “concept” and have it result in a healthy “meaning” then that’s fine. If they aren’t able to do that, we ask them not to use that word in that way again.
But then there is a larger layer — because there is a macro meaning they must be aware of — so we always tell them, “Be careful of who you say that around…some people don’t understand those words the same way you do.” Some people can’t handle an F-Bomb…and we need to be okay with that, too.
Bad parenting? Probably. But we desperately want for our offspring to communicate well.
3 — What You Say and What You Mean Are Different
Back to the moon — if you point to it, your finger is not the goal of your communicative act…the moon is.
We have to see that the word is a medium to get at what you really want to point to — the concept or the meaning.
Our culture tends to be very loose with words…we talk a lot, but we don’t always point to something. In our common and frequent usage, then, very familiar words can become unfamiliar.
And if we are going to navigate the complex & messy situation we find ourselves in with words being so subjective and contextual, we will need to learn to differentiate between what we say and what we mean.
Which sets up implication #4:
4 — We Need to Be More Clear On Our Meaning
If this whole ‘nature of words’ thing is true — then it means we’ve got some work to do.
If we are going to communicate well, we can’t just assume that people will either learn our meaning or be left out of the loop. We just have to go a step further.
We will have to be more intentional & deliberate in communication. If we don’t, we will drift away from one another and lose the possibility of further, more intimate, and more meaningful connection.
If we do this extra work, we will be able to transcend our non-parallel means to still navigate the world effectively.
So for example, if you are translating a language — the more depth we can give to the words being used, the more we can assimilate our perspective and intended meaning, the better the communicative outcome will be.
If you are trying to describe something to someone, especially a child, using words needs to be intertwined with pointing to concepts and further unpacking meaning so that it can be shared.
This is why there is a difference between teaching a child to talk in a language and teaching a child to communicate using language. Young minds can replicate and repeat words all day, but creating a shared understanding for what they mean is more difficult.
Essentially, communicating should be slower.
Which we don’t want, but it is being honest about the compromises that come with a dependence on such a complex technology. Otherwise, we just assume we know what someone means and the familiarity drifts towards unfamiliarity.
We ought to take more intentionality, more time, and more awareness of our subjectivity if we are to keep this technology aiding & upholding our human journey as opposed to becoming meaningless jabber.
A Practical Example
Have you ever said you “love” someone?
Well, the English expression of “love” is already different from other technological inventions of language because love has lots of meanings. Most language groups, therefore, have lots of different words to express the different meanings that can be implied for the different kinds of “love”.
So let’s say you are the stick figure in the middle of the triangle and you express the symbol “love” (it’s the heart at the top). This gets tricky because for the word “orange” its concept is concrete. Love, however, is abstract. You can know love, but it is hard to draw it.
Therefore, when you say the word “love” you have to know the concept you are referring to — which could be an infinite amount of options. You can say you love sports. The next question would then be, “What do you mean by that?” Or better put:
What is love? (baby don’t hurt me…dont’ hurt me…no more)
Can you see why this might get a little difficult when you are trying to tell another person you love them?
Can you see why it might be possible for you to say the word love, but without the shared meaning of what you are implying, this could get interpreted differently — or it could just go without being recognized as anything significant because you said a word that is not rooted in any shared meaning.
The word itself is not love and you can say it all day, but it only means something when you go through the process of making it into something real with who you are communicating with.
If we can be as intentional with all of our words as we ought to be with the word “love” — we will make communication great again!
Last Retorts (The Simple Version of Everything I Just Said)
You can use words and construct culture and institutions and identities with words, but you must acknowledge their limitations & their constant evolution.
How we communicate with words must assume their fragility — that we will then work to be clear on developing shared meanings and accept that the words we use are a medium standing in for the real thing (the finger pointing at the moon) that we are hoping to communicate.
In an age of pseudo-online-based relationships, our communication has become quite dismissive. We need to re-claim our words.
Second, how we communicate with words must assume their dynamic nature — that the meaning and symbolism of the word is not static…it will change overtime.
If we don’t do this, we will add to the already constant confusion of interacting with one another. If we do, we will embrace a patience and understanding that the technology is meant to bring.
The awareness of the nature of words is what might make our communication great again…or at least allow it to be the effective tool it is meant to be.
To be better at communicating, it will require an acknowledgement of the semantic triangle.
I’m trying to discover how to “Become More Human”
If you’re interested, I’d be happy to share what I’m finding to help craft how you live, too. You can find more here: