March 30th, 2007

Crying Man

Communication, Knowledge, Bodies and God: Part 4

Categorisation and Language

Our difficulties in communicating with each other are further exacerbated by the complexities of language. People used to think that categorising and choosing a word to describe a category were pretty much the same thing. That is, by naming something we categorise it together with everything else of that name. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The relationship between categorisation and words is much more complicated (Malt et al., 1999).

The problem comes from the fact that naming and language are tools for communication, not necessarily for categorisation. The two are, of course, closely linked, but they are different. Categorisation groups similar things together so that our brains can save some effort in processing the masses of sensory input they constantly receive. Communication, on the other hand, is about sharing an understanding (at least, that will do as a working definition). This means that when I am communicating with somebody, I will choose words that I think they will understand. If I use words that the other person does not understand, then communication will fail.

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Malt, B. C., Sloman, S. A., Gennari, S., Shi, M.  Wang, Y. 1999 , ‘Knowing versus naming: Similarity and the linguistic categorization of artifacts’, Journal of Memory and Language 40(2), 230–262.