Magic of language is tough for mice and men

sprovost@thetribunenews.comJuly 9, 2012 

Editor's note: Today, we introduce a new column, “Defining Moments: How Language Shapes our Lives,” by Tribune copy editor Steve Provost. The veteran journalist will explore the power of words — how they can bring us together or, conversely, lead to misunderstandings that cause ever-deeper rifts in an already fractured society.

Language has always seemed magical to me.

Here’s how it’s supposed to work: Just take a thought from your brain, “insert” it into a series of symbols, and send those symbols — verbally or in writing — to another human being. Voila! Your own thoughts magically appear in the mind of the person you’re trying to reach.

Unfortunately, the process isn’t always that neat and tidy.

All too often, the “Voila!” exclamation I mentioned above is replaced by a choice four-letter word when the process goes awry. Even with the strictest safeguards, meanings can get lost in translation.

Let’s try a quick bit of word association. What do you think of when you read the word “vehicle”?

A Chevy Blazer? A Fiat? A Cadillac? A tank? Or maybe even a bicycle?

In fact, when I wrote the word, I didn’t have any of those things in mind. I was thinking of language, a vehicle used to convey ideas from one mind to another.

The point is, language without context is imprecise. If it’s magic, it’s the kind of magic practiced by a sorcerer’s apprentice who hasn’t quite got the hang of things yet. Think Neville Longbottom breaking his wrist during his first flying lesson at Hogwarts in the “Harry Potter” series or Mickey Mouse trying to get a handle on his broomstick in “Fantasia.”

If you haven’t seen/read “Harry Potter” or taken in a showing of “Fantasia,” you’ll probably have no idea what I’m talking about … which demonstrates the importance of context. Language isn’t just about words, it’s about shared context. If we don’t have the same or similar experiences, it’s harder to communicate.

Context is an important gateway to understanding. If we don’t know the meaning of a word, we can sometimes decipher it by studying the words around it. On the other hand, a lack of context can leave us flummoxed. Try reading a novel that’s short on description or background. You’ll likely find it difficult to follow the action or even develop an interest in the plotline.

Think that’s hard? Now try to decipher the intent behind the Constitution without understanding the context in which it was written more than two centuries ago. Or the Bible more than two millennia ago, not to mention the writings of Plato or Confucius.

Such tasks are even more challenging in culture dominated by text messaging, soundbites and disembodied headlines. Many of us no longer have the time or patience to provide any context to our conversations. We speak in labels and text in shorthand, conveying meanings that are incomplete at best, inaccurate at worst.

How about some more word association?

Evangelical.

Patriot.

Conservative.

Terrorist.

Liberal.

Socialist.

Mainstream.

These terms are used daily by people who assume they’re conveying a particular meaning. But are they? How could one possibly convey the details of a 2,500-page health care act in a single word? Many of the representatives who voted on it didn’t even read the entire thing. Without context, it’s all but impossible to guess their meanings.

Communication is seldom as neat and tidy as a headline or a soundbite. Headlines were never intended to be the main course, but to serve as appetizers for the meal beneath them. Soundbites work the same way — they aren’t really an end in themselves, but rather the starting point in a journey that beckons us to explore the context, motives and perspectives behind the message.

The moral of the story? Communication isn’t simple. It can be a minefield filled with soundbites, distortions and simple misunderstandings. But the effort produces a handsome reward: the realization, when all is said and done, that language is truly magical. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, we just need to keep working on it.

Steve Provost is a copy editor for The Tribune.

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