The arbitrary nature of language…..

April 6, 2013

and those who use it….

While the nuances of a language may change almost daily in practice, language itself, in the broader sense of human behavior, has been strangely consistent. Language could be the poster child for the whole “IT IS WHAT IT IS” concept, which is itself steeped in irony. Traditionally, Language has been considered a communication of ideas, wherein the ultimate “message” conveyed would be a combination of whatever the speaker actually said and how the listener actually received it. Mistakes have always been an integral part of the process, but of little importance compared to their ultimate resolution.

The most pointless exchange in the world might be:

“What are you implying?”
…answered by:
“Well, what are you inferring?”

And yet, we seem to be developing an entire body of cultural standards, and even of law to some extent, founded in just such a conundrum.

The message one intends to communicate is not necessarily the province of the speaker anymore, that aspect now being determined by other authorities. Through some fluke of intellectual mutation, communication has been skewed heavily in favor of the recipient’s side of the equation, that in turn being determined more by his own agenda than by his underlying grasp of conversational English.

We, meaning people who currently exist, or who have at least recently existed within spitting distance of The World as We Now Know it, didn’t invent this state of affairs by any means. Even the snarl of stubborn conflicts we enjoy today surely would seem insignificant if compared to the mess faced by those trying to say hello, goodbye, or where the hell is the bathroom during the time when the language of the Normans collided with the languages of the Saxons and Celts a thousand years ago. (by the way…..regarding the water closet inquiry…. “Hwær cwom gangpytt?” Might get the job done).

Nevertheless, just as one’s station in life, ethnicity, and personal agendas would have been implied and inferred by one’s manner of speech in the eleventh century, the real, supposed, and assumed communications of 2013 are equally a function of “PC”. Some things never really change after all, do they?

Most of us struggle through this jungle of innuendo, context, and interpersonal manipulation for decades before deciding to ignore it, deciding to make fun of it, succumbing to madness, or tying a bandana around one’s head, buying a chopper, and saying #$&% it.

…Which brings me to a couple of observations about our current linguistic zones of contention.

As mentioned earlier, what is said doesn’t automatically mesh with what is heard, the grinding of interpersonal gears and screech of dry metal on dry metal increasing in direct proportion to the distance between religions, political parties, genders, or some other essentially irrelevant or arbitrary opposing pigeon holes.

We have many ways to express displeasure, disagreement, pique, or to just tell another he’s “wrong” or to “get lost”, and, like it or not, some of the old favorites descend from simple Saxon terms for basic processes that the Normans weren’t able to sweep under the rug and replace with fancy sounding hundred dollar words.

Those of Norman ancestry tend to utilize “euphamisms” today. We all know folks who will, whether attending thousand dollar a plate fundraisers, or just sitting around the local pub with friends over a cold one, invariably smirk self consciously while excusing themselves for a trip to “the little boys room”, or “the little girls room”, or even, unfortunately, “the TOITY”. While the Norman in my heritage enjoys big words and all of the useless but amusing things one can do with them, the Saxon in me thinks that’s a bunch of shit and likes to get right down to brass tacks.

But it’s not that simple. There are cultural and political forces at large today that can quickly ensnare, cause angst and pain, or dock your allowance. Immunity is granted by the possession of certain “cards”, just as, oddly enough, possession of certain intangible “credentials” granted various feudal privileges way back when. Thus, a dark complexioned man of African heritage can use certain words and phrases both on the street and on stage with no repercussions except perhaps a large paycheck. Substitute a European pedigree, and perhaps a dash of gender to the mix, and lawyers start to giggle and twitch. Radio personality Don Imus got canned for making an aside that included the phrase “nappy headed ho”. Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor made millions with shtick that made Imus’ little PC no-no look like Sunday School fare. Go figure.

Today, factors such as who a speaker is, detailed taxonomy, gender specifics, and social associations determine intention. By default. Actual verbiage used or swearing on a stack of (pick a book) has little to do with whether the response will be reward or repercussion. Why else would it be that a male calling a female “bitch” might be construed as “sexual harassment”, while a female calling a male “son of a bitch” would not?

Aside from being considered impolite, rude, low rent, or what have you, certain pejoratives and turns of phrase are socially franchised, and unlicensed use can have serious consequences. Considerable legal expenses could be generated while lawyers quibble over whether you said what you said because the person you went off on chucked a reeking bag of household garbage and dirty diapers on your front lawn or, because you harbor socially discouraged opinions of that person, or because sexually motivated thoughts involving that person might have tainted your choice of words. There are BMW payments to be made and college funds to be fed, after all, and the lawyers need to get paid, too. Furthermore, who wants Al Sharpton or a bunch of strangers camping in the yard, orating, chanting, annoying the neighbors and befouling the rhododendrons?

In the long run, the BAD news is….

This will never change.

The GOOD news, on the other hand, is…

Well, I suppose each will have to decide for himself or herself what benefits and personal rewards might be fashioned out of whatever the future might provide as fodder.

My inner Norman will most likely just keep blogging in run-on sentences, while my inner Saxon will decide at the moment of impact whether he is dealing with fertilizer or shit, and respond accordingly


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