Characteristics of Language

Characteristics of Language

 What are those characteristics of language that cause problems in encoding and make communication difficult?


Characteristics of Language

The general semanticists were first led by Alfred Korzybski, a Polish count who emigrated to the United States. His seminal work, Science and Sanity, was popularized by Wendell Johnson. These scholars have been concerned with language and how it relates to our suc­cess in everyday living and our mental health. They argue that we run into many of our problems because we misuse language. They say we would misuse language less if we used it more the way scientists use it—so that it constantly refers to the realities it represents.

The general semanticists point out several characteristics of language that make it diffi­cult to use it carefully. These characteristics cause difficulty in encoding and make commu­nication difficult.

Language Is Static; Reality Is Dynamic:

Words themselves do not change over a period of time, yet the world around us is full of change. Modern science has shown that matter is ultimately made up of small particles moving very rapidly. A wooden table that appears to be solid is actually decaying and oxidizing. Twenty years from now it might not be a table at all, but a pile of firewood. Einstein’s formula E = mc2 brought out that even matter and energy are not distinct but can be converted one into the other. Modern biology shows the same pattern of constant change. The caterpillar becomes a butterfly. The hard shell crab loses its shell and temporarily becomes a soft shell crab so •hat it may grow bigger. The theory of evolution brought out that even the species are not permanent and distinctive but are changing and developing through time.

Reality is a process, yet the language we must use to describe it is fixed and static. Another example of the process nature of reality is the cycle of the day. The sun is constantly moving, and its position in the sky changes throughout the day. The words we have to describe that ever-changing process are primarily two: night and day. Anyone who has watched a sunset and tried to say exactly when it has become night recognizes the difficulty of fitting those two words to reality in an exact way. People have invented a few other words to help deal with that problem: twilight, dusk, dawn. But we still have only a handful of words to refer to an ever-changing process.

The Greek philosopher Heraciitus said, “One cannot step in the same river twice.” The Way of Practical Attainment in the teachings of Buddha puts it this way: “Everything is changeable, everything appears and disappears.” George Bernard Shaw is supposed to have said, “The only man who behaves’ sensibly is my tailor: he takes my measure anew each time he sees me, whilst all the rest go on with their old measurements and expect them to fit me. ‘ T. S. Eliot in The Cocktail Party wrote, “What was known of other people is only our memory of the moments during which we knew them. And they have changed since then … at every meeting we are meeting a stranger.”

The Chinese 13th-century classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms in the opening, “All Under Heaven,” begins, “Such is the grand scheme of all under heaven, things that are separated will eventually come together, things that are together will eventually break apart.”

Towns and people change, yet the words (names) we have to refer to them usually re­main the same. The fact that the word does not change over lime can blind us to the fact that the reality is changing. A man might spend twenty years dreaming of retiring in Pleas­ant Valley, a town he visited as a young man, only to go there and find that it has become a busy city. Eldridge Cleaver in 1968 was a militant, critical nf almost everything Ameri­can. Eldridge Cleaver today is a converted Christian who says things are better in the United States than they are in most countries. The name stayed the same; the behavior of the person being referred to changed drastically. The general semanticists recommend a technique of dating to help remind ourselves of this kind of change. Putting a date after the name would help remind us which Eldridge Cleaver we are referring to: Eldridge Cleaver1968 or Eldridge Cleaver,,90.

Alvin Toffler, author of Future Shock and The Third Wave, said, among other things:

We felt the metaphor of waves offers a powerful way to characterize periods of fundamen­tal change in society, . . . The emphasis on process that Korzybski stressed is present in all the intellectual work my wife and I have done over the years. (TofHer, 1989)

The world changes much faster than words do. We are always using verbal models that are somewhat out of date and no longer describe the world we live in. The survival of civilizations and individuals depends on their ability to adapt to change. Failure to recognize change with time leads to generalizations like “If Tom said it, it’s a lie. He’s lied to me before” or “Once a failure, always a failure.”

Language Is Limited; Reality Is Virtually Unlimited:

Wendell Johnson (1972) points out that there are 500,000 to 600,000 words in the En­glish language and that they must represent millions of individual facts, experiences, and relationships. The vocabularies that people ordinarily use are much smaller. In telephone conversations, people typically use a vocabulary of about 5,000 words, and the average novel uses a vocabulary of about 10,000 (Miller, 1963,p. 121). This might suggest that our vocabularies are normally sufficient for everyday communication, but it is not difficult to think of cases in which our vocabularies begin to appear limited.

Suppose someone were to place a dozen oranges on a table before you and randomly pick one of them and ask you to describe it in words. Could you describe it in such a way that someone else who had not been present could later pick that orange out of the dozen? Unless by luck the orange had some obvious deformity, the task would probably be diffi­cult. The point is that we can make more distinctions in reality than we have words to describe easily.

The same kind of problem shows up on a more practical level in giving physical descrip­tions of people. Sometimes it seems as if people are only a little easier to describe than the oranges in the example just given. The problem shows up frequently in law enforcement work, where people have to describe another person so exactly that the person can be rec­ognized by other people. Many people often aren’t very good at this, partly because they don’t observe carefully but also because only a limited number of words exist for describ­ing people.

Or think of the problem of describing in words some continuous process, such as play­ing a violin, riding a bicycle, or tying a shoe. Most people would find these acts difficult to convey in words, and they are the kinds of things that are typically taught by one person showing another. Something as simple as the correct way to hold a guitar might be almost impossible to express in words, and a guitar book for beginners will usually caption a pic­ture to get the message across. The writer of a beginner’s guitar manual has a similar prob­lem in communicating what certain guitar effects are supposed to sound like when they are done correctly. Such a writer might be forced to describe a certain rhythm pattern by in­venting words such as “boom-chicka, ioom-chicka.” Even these invented words would’ only approximate the desired sound.

Because of the limited nature of our knowledge and our language, general semanticists stress you can never say all about anything. Thomas Edison said, “We don’t know one millionth of one percent about anything.” General semanticists recommend a technique of putting etc. at the end of any statement to remind yourself that more could be said about anything. (If you don’t actually say or write the etc., you can at least think it.) The general semanticists named their journal ETC. to stress the importance of this idea.

Language Is Abstract:

Abstraction is a process of selecting some details and leaving out other details. Any use of language involves some abstraction. And indeed, abstraction is one of the most useful features of language. It allows us to think in categories, and this gives us the ability to generalize.

In classifying a number of fruits into categories—apple, pear, orange, and peach, for instance, we are selecting some details, such as their color, shape, and texture, and ignor­ing others, such as their weight. We could classify them another way, into categories such As six-ounce fruits, seven-ounce fruits, eight-ounce fruits, and So forth; in this case we

would be selecting a different detail, their weight, and ignoring the details we paid attention to at first. Much human knowledge is intimately bound up in the process of categorizing or classifying we learn that certain red, round objects are good to eat, and giving those objects a name makes it easier to remember that knowledge and pass it on to others.

Abstraction is a useful characteristic of words, but it is also one that can lead to problem particularly when people are not aware of abstraction.

All words involve some abstraction, or leaving out of details, but some words are more. Abstract than others. And as words become more and more abstract, their correspondence to reality becomes less and less direct. S. I. Hayakawa(1964, p. 179) has developed a useful diagram to show the way words can have differing degrees of abstraction. His diagram, called an “abstraction ladder,” is based on a concept developed by Korzybski (1958, p. -” i called the “structural differential. An example of an abstraction ladder appears in Figure.

The abstraction ladder in Figure 5.1 takes a particular object, an automobile belonging to one of the authors of this text, and shows how it can be referred to at different levels of :. Abstraction. The lowest level of abstraction, at which no details are left out, is the process level at which scientists using instruments can observe the car. The second level is car as the object that we can experience with our senses. Notice that even at this level, the level of everyday observation, some details are being left out. This is partly because the eye can process more information than the brain. But it is also because we can observe from c. 3ne point at a time. When we observe the car from the front, we do not see the details se back. And we see only the surface, not the internal structure of the car. Even in observation some abstraction or leaving out of details takes place. The third level is the first level, the first level involving the use of words. At this level there is one word or : that refers uniquely to the one car being described. This could be the phrase Werner t; Accord. At this level, the word being used refers to the one particular object. At this level, we can use the word Honda to refer to the same object. We have then assigned object to a category, the category of all Hondas. We have left out the detail i: -d distinguish that particular Honda from all other Hondas. At the next level, that that of the word car, we would be including not only Hondas but also Volkswagens, Fords,

Verbal Levels  
8 Transportation
7 Land transportation
6 Motor vehicle
5 Car
4 Honda
3 Servin’s Honda Accord
Non Verbal Levels  
2 (Object Level) The maroon Honda Accord in the parking lot that we can see and touch
1 (Process Level) The car as atomic process


Cadillacs, and all other makes, so still more distinguishing detail would be left out. At the sixth level, we could refer to the car as a motor vehicle, putting it into a category that also includes trucks and jeeps and leaving out still more detail. At the seventh level, we could use the term land transportation, categorizing the car with railroad trains and snowmobiles. And at the eighth level, we could refer to the car with the word transportation, putting it in a class that would also include airplanes and ships. Notice that at each level more detail is left out until at the eighth level we come to a very abstract word, transportation. This word does not suggest a particular picture to the mind the way the word Honda does. Some people might hear the word transportation and visualize a boat, while others might visual­ize a truck, and many others would have no clear picture of anything. That is one of the characteristics of abstract words: they do not suggest a clear picture of something in reality, and people often have very different meanings in mind for them.

Because our language is limited and because we abstract and categorize, language com­pels us to emphasize similarities but permits us to ignore differences. We see similarities by ignoring differences. There are similarities among different things, just as there are differ­ences among similar things.

A well-known historian and philosopher of science, J. Bronowski, said, “The action of putting things which are not identical into a group or class is so familiar that we forget how sweeping it is. The action depends on recognizing a set of things to be alike when they are not identical. . . . Habit makes us think the likeness obvious” (Bronowski, 1951, p. 21).

With the exception of proper nouns, our language has no words for unique events, feel­ings, and relationships. We speak, perceive, and think of the world in categories. These categories are in our language and in our heads; they are not in nature.

We can use language to group together any two things (categorization). We can use language to place anything in more than one category. We can use language to treat things as identical (through categorization) when, indeed, they are unique. Language is some­times used in this way to imply “guilt by association.” What we call a person depends on our purpose, our projections, and our evaluations, yet the person does not change when we change the label.

One political campaign handbill depicts a red scorpion, the body labeled “DEMO PARTY” and the segments of the long tail, which ends in a poisonous stinger, labeled “queens; communist party programs; funny farm refugees; dope fiends; etc.” The bottom of the handbill contains a mail-in coupon that includes the statement, “I certify that I am of good character with Anglo Saxon blood foaming and churning through my veins.” This handbill supposedly originates with an organization called Americans to Restore Freedom.

Another leaflet listed 52 “reasons” why a candidate for the presidency should be de­feated, including:

Favorite candidate of the national homosexual-lesbian society.

Favorite candidate of the marijuana cult.

Has the support of all left wing organizations everywhere.

Favorite candidate of the left wing New York Times.

Supported enthusiastically by the widow of Martin Luther King.

He is the enthusiastic choice of the treason machine, sometimes referred to as the na­tional networks.

Supports Cesar Chavez, who is considered as a spearhead of the Marxist revolution among farm workers.

Supports the World Council of Churches which donates to international revolutionary activities.

Assumptions Built into Languages:

The structure and vocabulary of every language contains many assumptions about the nature of reality. Many are so ingrained that we are no longer aware of them. Wendell Jhonson observed that the language we use not only puts words in our mouths, but it also puts notions in our heads. Benjamin Lee Whorf put it this way:

And every language is a vast pattern-system, different from others in which is culturally ordained the forms and categories by which the personality not only communicates, but analyzes nature, notices or neglects types of relationships and phenomena, channels his reasoning, and builds the house of his consciousness. Each language performs this artificial chopping up of the continuous spread and flow of existence in a different way. (Whorf, 1952, p. 173)

One example of hidden assumptions in the English language is the many instances of sexism, often unperceived. The women’s movement has made us aware of many of them. Other languages face the same problems. For example, the Chinese language is built of ideograms (characters, symbols, or figures that suggest the idea of an object without expressing its name). The ideogram representing woman is often combined with other ideograms for other meanings. The combination of woman and child means good; woman and eyebrow means flattery; and woman repeated three times means treachery. The ideogram . woman is also used in other combinations, including adultery and lustful.

As Wendell Johnson observed, the language we use not only puts words in our mouths, but also puts notions in our heads—a major point mass communicators need to be aware of.

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