By Dr. Chris Myers
Associate Professor, Arts and Humanities Program at American Public University
The German philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer famously said in his magnum opus, Truth and Method: “Being that can be understood is language” (1990: 474). Human beings live in language like fish live in water, it is the medium of our lives and everything meaningful that we can come to understand and communicate with one another.
One of the most shocking things about language is that it is always changing! New words are constantly conceived to describe new human experiences and this is nowhere more clear than in innovative communication technology and social media. There is text-messaging and tweeting and a new “shorthand” including such phrases as BTW (by the way), IMHO (in my humble opinion), NP (no problem or nosy parents, depending upon the context), etc. Other symbols can represent things in tweets of 140 characters or less (# hashtag) and then there are emoticons (Confused o.O O.o)! Communication technology is developing so fast, it seems like a full-time job just to keep up!
However, at least some of us probably remember the comic book dialogue balloons with such symbols as: X@#*&!!! We also know about “real” shorthand systems that secretaries and court reporters use (or used to use) and we know about Morse code and braille.
Some people (including professors and students) are embracing the new linguistic freedom (or anarchy, depending upon your attitude!) and writing things like “lite” for “light” and “nite” for “night” (much more efficient for second language students!) and “they” for a gender inclusive singular pronoun instead of the awkward he/she or she/he. We are all familiar with some of the other idiosyncrasies and options the English language does not give us, like a second person plural pronoun, and so Southerners say “y’all” and Northeasterners say “youse guys” . . .
Then, we get into the academic arena and, depending upon our class or degree program or publisher, we must write according to a certain “style”: APA, MLA, Chicago, Turabian, ACS, AMA, ASA, IEEE, MHRA, CSE . . . it is enough to drive one crazy, isn’t it? After all, isn’t it the meaning that counts?
It would be tempting to think that language should be clear and concise and one word should have one meaning and this should never change so that there should be no possibility of misunderstanding. How many problems this would solve! For better AND for worse, this is not the case. Language is polysemic; one word can have multiple meanings and the meaning is determined by context. Even a very simple world like “ball” is amazingly complex. Think about it. Of course, there are many different kinds of balls that can be thrown, caught, dunked, etc. etc., but then there is the kind of ball that describes a historical event and situation (three balls, two strikes) and there is the kind of ball that one wears a black tie or evening gown to . . . In 1940’s jazz slang?? it means something altogether different! In the future there will be a new meaning for the word “ball” although we don’t know what that will be yet!
Ludwig Wittgenstein, as a very young philosopher, set out on the ambitious task of creating a new language that would eliminate misunderstanding. Each word or symbol would have only ONE meaning and so the language would have mathematical or scientific accuracy. He failed, and for the last sentence of his Tractatus logico-philosophicus (Philosophical Investigations) he wrote: “whereof one can no longer speak, one must be silent.” The mature Wittgenstein realized that language is a kind of social “game” and meaning comes from the context and linguistic games we play, whether it pertain to sports , computers , business , love , academics , etc.
So, we shouldn’t be afraid of the crazy innovations in communication technology or of learning how to write in a new academic “style” . . . Human beings have been “swimming” in language from the very beginning! Go ahead! Jump right in!
About the Author
Christopher Myers is an Associate Professor of Philosophy & Religion with APU. He earned his PhD from the University of Iowa in 2009. His dissertation was on philosophical hermeneutics, which is the science and the art of interpreting written texts. He has been published in several peer-reviewed academic journals and presented at a number of conferences. Before going to college, he was an entomologist with United States Air Force and is also an ordained minister with the United Methodist Church.