by Christian Ohnimus Wednesday, September 11
Part 1 of 3: The Purpose of Language
One of the most common objections I have faced in argumentative discussion is the level of import I place on semantics. I believe that it is important that words are defined and, furthermore, that those definitions have both an objective and communicative basis – meaning that it must be connected to reality itself and not merely “how I see it” and it must effectively communicate that reality between persons. However, that’s “just semantics” and therefore is irrelevant, or so I am often told. But semantics, that is, the branch of linguistics and logic concerned with meaning, is not only relevant to any discussion, it is essential. Words are important because they have meaning and if we cannot grasp the meaning that our words are meant to convey then their use is pointless or, worse, if we convey some meaning other than the reality our words are meant to express then our words are counter-productive.
In his essay, Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power 20th century philosopher Josef Pieper explains the purpose of words, “First, words convey reality. We speak in order to name and identify something that is real, to identify it for someone, of course – and this points to the second aspect in question, the interpersonal character of human speech.” Language, then, is meant, first, to reflect reality and, second, to communicate that reality between persons. These two functions of language are inseparable. Pieper goes on to ask if a lie constitutes communication. To tell a lie means that words and, therefore, information, pass between two parties but the meaning conveyed has been intentionally divorced from reality. As such, Pieper asserts, “A lie is the opposite of communication. It means specifically to withhold the other’s share and portion of reality, to prevent his participation in reality.” When the meaning of words are intentionally changed so that they convey something other than reality then communication breaks down. However, one does not have to lie in order to fail to communicate. Mere sloppiness may suffice, as will ignorance or misperception. In fact, any time our words represent anything other than reality, whether such misrepresentation is intentional or not, we can expect a breakdown in communication.
That’s why semantics matter. If our words do not possess the appropriate meaning then we risk preventing someone else from participating in that reality – and that can be very dangerous. That is the power of language. Through language we can share in our participation of reality as we are meant to or we can abuse language and use it to wield power over others by manipulating their participation with reality. Pieper elaborates, “Whoever speaks to another person – not simply, we presume, in spontaneous conversation but using well-considered words, and whoever in so doing is explicitly not committed to the truth – whoever, in other words, is in this guided by something other than the truth – such a person, from that moment on, no longer considers the other as partner, as equal. In fact, he no longer respects the other as a human person.” Thus, in the abuse of language, not only are our words divorced from reality but in doing so the interpersonal aspect of language is destroyed to the point that we may not even view the other as a person worthy of our respect or dignity anymore.
So, when we speak let us always keep the true purpose of language in our minds: to convey the truth between persons. Additionally, let us always be vigilant against those who would use words to twist the truth in an attempt to use us. Because, while it may be “just semantics” it’s vitally important to how we view the world and, therefore, to everything we know.
Christian Ohnimus is a registered nurse in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He holds a Bachelors of Science in Nursing from Franciscan University. He is a contributor to The Porch and The Catholic Renaissance.