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.
Most languages contain at least a few synonymous words. To represent any particular concept I can usually think of multiple ways to phrase the idea. This is particularly evident in the English language. “English retains probably the richest vocabulary, and most diverse shading of meaning, of any language…. No other language has so many words all saying the same thing”. So, when I communicate, I will ideally try and phrase things in a way that I think you will understand.
The potential for problems here is enormous. When I speak to you, something rather complicated is going on:
- I know something
- I attempt to translate from my category structure to words I think you will understand
- You hear what I say
- You map the words I use onto your own category structure.
And, of course, I can only guess (perhaps very well, perhaps not) at what you will or will not understand. I do not know exactly what category structures my words will evoke in your mind. When I use the word ‘bird’, for example, I may not know what kinds of birds you have experienced. If you have only ever seen penguins, then your understanding of ‘bird’ will differ from mine.
Often we try and get around this by introducing redundancies. We say the same thing a number of different ways in the hope that our intended meaning will become clearer. That is why we have so many similes—each one with slightly different shades of meaning. Repeating ourselves certainly can help, but it can also introduce more potential for miscommunication, since the process is repeated all over again.
Unfortunately for our attempts to communicate, this means that language is always one step removed from what we know. And it is this kind of idea that gives rise to street-level ideas of post-modernism. That is, when we read or hear something, we can never fully grasp what the author or speaker really means. All we can do is take their words and interpret them according to our own understanding. This leads one to ask the question ‘Does it really matter then, what the author intended, since people will interpret things their own way anyhow?’ Given the plethora of homonyms, synonyms and colloquialisms in most languages, it is entirely possible to construct a meaning completely different from what the author intended (not that we can ever know what the author intended anyhow).
If all our understanding arises from context, environment and culture, then changing context, environment or culture changes understanding. What I understand as true and obvious may be completely different to someone who has grown up in a different culture and environment; especially if they speak a different language. One could be forgiven for reaching the conclusion that words are essentially arbitrary constructions that the listener manipulates to suit their own understanding of the world, regardless of what they hear.
I would argue, however, that not all of our understanding arises from culture and environment. Nor is knowledge restricted to arrangements of words. Not everything is relative. I will address this later. For the moment, we see that language has a complex relationship with knowledge, which adds to our difficulties in communicating.