Language is quite fallible (Chesterton)

What I see in a lot of discussions is how people are just not understanding each other because the same words do mean different things for other people.

Losing my faith in language, and realising I could never naively believe in language as a  trustworthy way to describe the world, and communicate my feelings and ideas to others was probably a big day in my postmodern evolution, but the sentiment of language being quite fallible to communicate sometimes even the most basic things, let alone important matters of Faith, Love and Life, is not new. The Orthodox tradition knows that the most important things that can be said about God are what God is not… More eastern traditions like certain streams of Buddhism and probably Taoism could teach us exactly the same, as could the continental postmodernists like Derrida.

But you don’t have to be Derrida to know this; I found this beautiful Chesterton quote that expresses it very well…

Every time one man says to another, “Tell us plainly what you mean?” he is assuming the infallibility of language: that is to say, he is assuming that there is a perfect scheme of verbal expression for all the internal moods and meanings of men. Whenever a man says to another, “Prove your case; defend your faith,” he is assuming the infallibility of language: that is to say, he is assuming that a man has a word for every reality in earth, or heaven, or hell. He knows that there are in the soul tints more bewildering, more numberless and more nameless than the colours of an autumn forest; he knows that there are abroad in the world and doing strange and terrible service in it crimes that have never been condemned and virtues that have never been christened. Yet he seriously believes that these things can every one of them, in all their tones and semi-tones, in all their blends and unions, be accurately represented by an arbitrary system of grunts and squeals.

G. K. Chesterton, Watt’s allegorical paintings

I know, we all need to trust language enough to use it, but it’ll fail us. A lot of discussions between Christians and atheists, or moderns and postmoderns, are bound to fail because of a paradigmatic and semantic disconnect that goes undetected, and even if detected it would take a lot of time to just make clear from which worldview one comes, and what he or she means with the terms used. And most of the time both sides don’t want to listen to that…

  (And I’m not even talking about linguistic relativity here, which words and concepts that exist in a certain language will shape the worldview and thinking patterns of the persons using it. Some things I can explain much simpler in dutch, and I need more words to explain them in English. Or there are misunderstandings that lead to weird doctrines like John Piper who builds a whole doctrine on Adam meaning ‘man‘, that helps maintaining an injust system. )

So, my question is, what do you people feel about the fallibility of language. What are the implications? Is there any way we can communicate that is misunderstandings-free and if not (which is very likely) what does that mean? And isn’t it true that most things that are Real and True can be described more in poetry, story, pictures and art than in technical and systematic lingo?

Or even be shown in deeds instead of spoken in words?



7 responses to “Language is quite fallible (Chesterton)

  1. Beautifully stated! Language is one of the most overlooked items in the world. Folks assume that just because they speak the same language that the words in that language mean the same thing. Words, however, carry with them emotions that can trigger subconscious memories that fuels one’s actions in the present, taking you away from the literal definition of the word into a whole different realm of communication.

    Because of all this, I don’t think that there ever will be such a thing as ‘misunderstanding-free’ communication. There is just too much noise in the communication system to really be misunderstanding-free. The best we can do is to constantly ask questions of each other and try to fill in the gaps as best as possible. We also have to have a lot of grace and mercy for each other we will all make mistakes. Perhaps this is why Jesus and Paul constantly encourages us to have love for each other?

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  7. I concur at many points. One of the biggest aha-s of my life was when it dawned on me that many conflicts can be resolved easily if I take time to understand what the other person meant by their use of a certain word. Often, I’m defending my own interpretation of a word.
    Gets messy reading the Bible…the Bible has lost a lot of ‘flavour’ for me because words like ‘good’, ‘right’, ‘love’, ‘righteousness’ have lost their colour. Maybe it’s because I’m too reliant on the written word (isn’t that what all good Christians should be?… lol). Sometimes it read too literally, not poetic enough – I see hands raised in objection – at least the standard English versions.

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