What is language? Why do we use language? Why am I using stilted rhetorical questions as the start of this post? That third one probably won’t be answered today, but the first two are what I want to discuss. This arose from a conversation with my brother in which we debated, for almost an hour, under what circumstances and conditions it might be appropriate to define and utilize a word in a manner which may be contrary to the typical meaning assumed by a reader approaching a text. If that sounds like an exciting conversation to you, then you should definitely check out our podcast, Thought Out. Speaking of which, it is highly probable that some version of this discussion will eventually appear on that podcast, but I wanted to post a few thoughts here, examining it from the lens of writing, or perhaps more accurately, from the lends of editing.
A long time ago, there were no dictionaries, no modern language associations, no Oxford standards. Language is a fundamentally organic system that has been evolving for thousands of years, as complex and intricate as something like the economy, and for most of its existence its rules have not been explicit. Spelling was done by convention, not definition, and meaning was derived from association, not from a dictionary. That’s why, if you find an old piece of writing in English, you will see all kinds of creative spellings and sentence structures (I really wanted to work in my favourite example here). Only relatively recently did we start codifying and recording standard ways in which we would choose to spell, define, and use words.
Doing so goes against the way that people use language, however, and so every dictionary or book on grammar is fighting a perpetual, losing battle against the eternal change and evolution that language inevitably undergoes in its application by a large population. Spelling has more or less stabilized, but grammar, and especially definition/meaning, remain highly volatile. For instance, in Aristotle’s Poetics, he constantly uses the term “poetry,” but his meaning of the term is very different from the modern one. A modern reader who sees the word “poem” will likely think of a specific kind of literature characterized by rigors of rhyme and rhythm, but Aristotle’s use of the term is far more inclusive, covering almost every style of literature.
These kinds of changes are going on all around us, constantly. The word that set my brother and me to debating these ideas was “republic.” A modern reader will see that term and define it as something like “a system of governance characterized by a representative system of popular will.” My brother, however, who has been teaching himself Latin, argued that he should be able to use the term in an essay with its original definition, referring not to a system of government at all, but to a concept of the “will of the people.” Our debate was wide-ranging and touched on a variety of subjects, including my dislike for Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, but mostly revolved around the function of language, and how to best achieve that function. In other words, the role of the editor.
At the most basic, the function of language is to communicate. Words are symbols to which we have assigned some meaning upon which we as a community of language-users agree (and in a phonetic alphabet system such as the one we are currently employing in this post, those words are themselves composed of symbols, but that gets more into writing than it does language). You can almost think of words as a sort of shorthand, especially certain words that communicate complex ideas. That we can define words using more words is demonstrative of this concept: we could use a word’s definition any time we use the word, and if the definition is rigorous it would communicate the same thing, but it would not be nearly as succinct. We use words, we use language as a whole, to communicate ideas, concepts, and information.
Originally, this was a technique to tell each other practical matters of survival. I don’t remember where I read the quote that goes something like “we’re trying to describe the intricacies of the universe using a language developed to tell people where the best fruit is,” but it’s become one of my favorite sayings. I would contend, therefore, that language is only useful insofar as it enables communication between people, and this is where definitions come into play. My engineer side and my philosopher side clash over this all the time. From an engineering point of view, definitions are most useful when they are rigid, largely unchanging edifices upon which we can count with absolute certainty, but the philosopher in me acknowledges that this is neither realistic, nor as useful as the reality, which is that definitions change and evolve over time, and that even a rigorous, up-to-date definition will never fully capture the exact meaning which is assigned to a word. This is the difference between definition and connotation: a definition is the engineer’s answer to what a word means, while connotation captures how the word is actually used and all of the nuance therein.
This is significant, because it has an enormous impact upon the functionality of a given implementation of language. If language’s purpose, its entire reason for existing, is to communicate, then the meanings which are being leveraged when that piece of communication is created will have an enormous impact upon whether that language is effectively achieving its purpose. While I could spend a few chapters at the beginning of my book providing alternate definitions for the words that I intend to use, separate from those that are commonly understood, doing so will significantly raise the barriers to entry to my work, and in some ways will undermine the very purpose of language, which relies upon shared understandings (this was one of my major critiques of Justice as Fairness: A Restatement). Even using more complex or unusual words according to their established definitions can have the same effect, and in some ways will similarly raise the barriers to entry to my work, undermining the very purpose of the language involved.
Thus, the conversation of definition, meaning, connotation, and linguistic functionality reduces to the concept that prompted me to write this post separate from the likely podcast discussion: choosing words. I’ve written about choosing words before, but that post was not entirely rigorous, and this is a component of that decision-making process upon which I did not touch at all in that earlier post. If we go back to the concept of word windows (if you remember when that post first went live, then you’ve been following the site for quite some time, and I thank you for your loyalty and support), then using words that are in the common lexicon (which probably does not include the word “lexicon” in this degenerate age) according to their presently understood meaning will afford the greatest transparency, while using words that are less commonly known with greater profligacy, or worse, according to alternative definitions, will push the language towards not offering windows at all. Similarly, Dickens books or other, older works can seem opaque now because the connotations of the words they used have changed, even if the meanings have not.
If we think of this as a spectrum, then it is the editor’s decision where on the spectrum they want their work to be (note: in this case I am not referring to the career field of editor, but rather to anyone performing the functions of an editor, including the author). The transparent end will make the work most accessible to most people, while the anechoic chamber end will make the work inaccessible to more people. This does not mean that transparent word choice is always the optimal technique to implement, however, because you can sometimes communicate greater nuance, detail, and depth using words that are less commonly understood. Plus, you are able to leverage certain literary techniques that can push your writing more towards the poetic or lyrical (in the modern senses of the words, not Aristotle’s).
As does almost everything in life, this reduces to a matter of personal choice, and there is no single, optimal answer, much less a correct one. Nor do I write this post in order to advocate for such an answer. While there are strong arguments in favor of making your prose transparent, there are equally strong arguments in favor of leveraging a greater diversity of verbiage. Even the extreme example, of providing custom definitions for words explicitly in order to use them to communicate a separate and independent meaning, is not necessarily wrong in all circumstances. Instead, this is another axis to consider when writing and especially when editing, because the words that you choose to use will affect not just the meaning of your work, but also the audience. I want my communication to be clear, but I also love words, especially interesting, unusual words that don’t show up very frequently these days but are able to communicate very specific meanings and nuances when employed correctly. Wherever you fall on this axis of word choice, I hope that this prompts you to consider just how your language is functioning.