Monday, September 29, 2014


A Rosoideae by Any Other Name
“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate…”

Item: I once went to my doctor and old him I had pain in my kneecap. He examined it and told me I had “chondromalacia patella.”  “What does that mean,” I asked. “That means,” he replied confidently, “that you have pain in your kneecap.”
Item: I had a friend who was incredibly proud of his infant son saying the word “ball.” Sure enough, when I visited, the tyke was playing with a big red one, happily giggling to us “ball… ball…”  What a prodigy! Of course, he also used the word “ball” to describe a shoe, a hat, a cookie, and the cat.  Perhaps you can imagine how pleased the cat was to be included.
”I propose that the fundamental purpose of language is to communicate. By communicate, I mean that what the message receiver hears is what the message sender meant. It doesn’t always go down that way. Maybe you’ve noticed.
Part of this failure to communicate is because about 90% (your mileage may vary) of communication has nothing to do with the text, that is, communication isn’t limited to the actual words you say.  The largest part of the meaning in the message is non-verbal: posture, gesture, facial expression. Another chunk is para-verbal: volume, pitch, tone, pace, inflection.                                                                                                                                                             Actors do an exercise in which they play a scene, say, a couple breaking up, but instead of dialogue, they just say the alphabet. They focus on the non-verbal and para-verbal elements, stemming from what actors like to call the “sub-text.” As in, “What’s my motivation in this scene?”   That’s why you can understand what’s going on in an opera sung in Italian, even when you have no idea of what words they’re singing. It’s also why email is such a lousy method of communication. But to be fair, ANY print medium deprives the message senders and receivers of the para-verbal and non-verbal dimensions of communication, emoticons, notwithstanding.
Another part of the communication problem is that not everyone uses language to clarify, elucidate, and illuminate. Some people use language to confuse, obfuscate, complicate and confound. Yes, Virginia, some people are liars. But also language can serve to identify who’s in with the in-crowd, who’s hip and who’s a drip. That’s why teenage slang is always changing; once adults get hip to it, it’s not cool anymore, that is, it’s no longer a reliable identifier of US as opposed to THEM.  Criminal slang changes when the cops get hip to it.  When the enemy knows the password, you change it.
Some people use language as a power trip, to denigrate, ridicule or disenfranchise others who don’t know the right secret words.   For example in a recent online (there’s two strikes against communication, right there) discussion of the longsword, I mentioned that I had had the opportunity to learn something of this weapon from a mentor many years ago, about a decade prior to the other party’s involvement in it.  The other party –who for some reason believes that the longsword had been dead and forgotten until he and his pals discovered it--- then, rather rudely demanded to know what “sources” (texts) I had used. He further demanded to know if I knew this or that medieval German longsword term.  This gentleman’s position was 1) that I could not possibly learn longsword from an actual teacher, without meticulously scrutinizing some ancient book and 2) that I could not possibly know anything about the longsword if I did not use the same arcane pet-names for it that he did himself.                                                                                                                                           The gentleman’s underlying error here is learning domain confusion. He’s likely very good at the cognitive domain, but it leads him to believe that the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, can be found exclusively in and through his sacred text.
But a book no more contains truth than a clock contains time.
Well. I don’t speak German, that’s a fact. And neither does a longsword. It has no idea whether you are speaking German, French or Venusian, and it doesn’t care. Whichever language you choose to describe it is irrelevant to how the weapon is used. Fighting-form follows function. When fighting-form follows fashion, you’re toast.

  “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right   names.
                                   --- K’ung Fu-Tse (Confucious)

A third part of the problem is that context often defines the meaning of a word, for example when used in a court of law. Many words that are commonly used with broad latitude of meaning  have more specific, narrow and particular meanings as terms of art, the jargon of a particular field.  Therein lies the hub of the rub.
For example, the word “attack” is used by most people to indicate any forceful aggressive action intended to injure or destroy.  As in: “He attacked her in the alley.” “The bombers attacked the city.”  “They attacked his character.”
You might also “attack the problem head on.” Or you could say, “He attacked the steak with gusto.”  “He attacked the problem head-on.”  It can mean an incident of something “an attack of hunger, an attack of loneliness or anxiety – or an attack of silliness.
However, as a term of art in music, “attack” has a particular meaning and refers to the manner in which a tone is begun.
Likewise, in hoplology, “attack” refers to the initial offensive action in a phrase comprising more than one offensive action.
Good science requires that you define your terms as narrowly as possible, and use them in accordance with those definitions. Avoid using two different terms to describe the same thing, and avoid using the same term to describe two unlike things.
 "Tell your own words." Do you have your own words? Personally, I'm using the ones everybody else has been using. Next time they tell you to say something in your own words, say, "Nigflot blorny quando floon."              -George Carlin
I believe the lexicon of a particular discipline should facilitate understanding and communication.  It should be as precisely definitive as possible.  The use of foreign language terms, for any other reason, is merely as an obstacle.
Many languages have a word that means, “cut.” If your language is German, then it makes perfect sense for you to use the German terms. If your language is French, what’s the point of adopting the German term? Is it somehow more precisely descriptive of a “cut” than the equivalent French word?   It’s possible.
Take for example the fencing term “deceive,” as in “to deceive the blade.”  To deceive the blade means that your opponent intends to make some blade contact, to touch your blade with his own. When you avoid that blade contact, that is to “deceive” his blade.
Fair enough.
But suppose there are two very tactical different situations.
In the first, the opponent’s attempt at blade contact has an offensive character, that is, it’s an attempt at preparation (engagement, beat, press, etc) to facilitate a  subsequent attack.
In the second situation, you are making an attack, and the opponent’s attempt at blade contact is defensive in character, That is, your opponent is attempting to parry your attack.
In English, the word “deceive” is used to describe both situations.
But in French, there are two words “tromper” and derober.  Derober can mean to slip away or shy away from or to hide from.  Tromper can mean to cheat, swindle, tease, trick, fool,  falsify or hoax.
If the opponent’s attempt at blade contact has an offensive character, then when you avoid or “deceive” his blade contact, you are slipping away, shying away, or hiding from it.   
If the opponent’s attempt at blade contact is defensive, in response to your particular attack, then when you avoid or “deceive” his blade contact and continue your attack in some other line, to some other target, you have tricked, fooled, teased, cheated or swindled him – having appeared to be doing one thing, but actually doing quite another thing.
I submit that the French terms derober to describe your “deception” in the first situation, and tromper to describe your “deception” in the second situation, are more accurate and precise than using “deceive” for both situations.  Therefore, in the interest of clarity, I would favor using the  French terms derober and tromper over the single English term “deceive.”
Let’s consider another example.
In fencing, there are various trajectories (called “lines”) that a blow, whether cut or thrust, can take to reach the target. The trajectory can be above or below the opponent’s swordhand. In English we refer to that above the hand as being in the “high” line. That below the swordhand we call the “low” line.
In French, the two words are dessus (on top of) for the high line, and dessous (under, beneath or below) for the low line.  Despite their similar spellings, and, to the untrained ear, similar pronunciation, these words mean opposite things. Further, these words have no special meaning that the English words do not have. That is, they do not define the high and low lines any more precisely or accurately than the English words do.  I would submit that, for an English-speaker, the lack of any greater clarity with the French terms, combined with the high likelihood of confusion and error in using the French terms, suggests that the best choice would be to use the English terms “high and “low, and not the French terms “dessus and dessous.
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all."
       - Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass (1872)

The reason that selecting appropriate terms is important is that the way you talk about something strongly influences the way you think about something. And how you think about something strongly influences how you behave in regard to that thing.
This is important to understand, because, as already noted, terms are not always used to improve understanding and facilitate accurate communication.
For example, let’s consider the word “terrorism.”
Back when I was first learning about such things, “terrorism” had a very narrow, specific and precise meaning.  It described a very particular type of coercion. In the law, “coercion” defines the use of force or the threat of force to compel a person to do something that they have a legal right NOT to do, or to prevent someone from doing something that they have a legal right TO do.
Terrorism is the use of force or the threat of force to coerce a given population to do or not do something in order for the coercing party to achieve some political end. The political component is a sine qua non. Using coercion so you can rob a bank is not “terrorism.”  Further, not only must the end be political, but  with “terrorism” the coercion must target the innocent, non-combatants – especially children, and be characterized by extreme depravity, brutality or cruelty (the unnecessary infliction of unnecessary pain) that one could say “shocks the conscience.”
Given this history of “terrorism,” it is no wonder that in the popular consciousness a “terrorist” is considered to be a vicious, and sadistic person, lacking in compassion, decency, fairness, courage – indeed lacking ANY respectable human qualities at all. A bully and a coward.  Such a person is typically regarded with an immediate negative emotional response,  disdain, contempt,  outrage, and hatred.
Savvy political propagandists, however, have no interest in maintaining the once-narrow definition of terrorism.  On the contrary, their interest is in expanding the term to include anyone and everyone who opposes them or might oppose them. Indeed, they have spent the last couple of decades broadening the definition of  terrorism to include --- well, practically everything.  People who have the gall to resist a foreign army invading their country and killing their friends and families, are all most certainly “terrorists.” People trying to protect the environment from wholesale pollution and destruction by parasitic mega-corporations are now “eco-terrorists.”  People who want to save animals from living lives of unimaginable horror on factory farms are now “agri-terrorists.” Peaceful protestors, people who esteem the bill of rights, Muslims, Christians, Gays and Feminists have all been described as some form of “ domestic terrorist.”  Once there were jaywalkers; now they are pedestrian terrorists.                                                                                                                                  It is the hope of the political propagandist that by dubbing someone a “terrorist” other people will respond emotionally, automatically condemning the “terrorist” based on those characteristics that they associate with someone who is, in fact, a true terrorist, according to the narrow, accurate and precise definition of that word. To the propagandist, eliciting that emotional response is important because they know that their audience cannot respond emotionally and rationally at the same time. And “rationally” would give the lie to their use of the word. But to the extent that they can keep you emotionally aroused with some combination of fear, anger and hatred, they can be sure that you will remain incapable of the critical thinking that would almost certainly conclude that the propagandists, themselves, are liars, thieves and murderers.

Truth-seeking is contingent upon rational analysis and critical thinking. It can be greatly facilitated --- or substantially obstructed --- by the use of language.
That’s a good lesson. Courtesy of the Sword.


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