Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Is Cereal Soup?

Honestly, there is no real answer. The answer is whatever we agree the answer should be. We make up the words, and we make up the categories. 
This is an interesting idea. Watch the video (and subscribe to the channel and everything else. It's pretty great). This, to me, conjures up thoughts on etymology, psychology, semantics, linguistics, and all sorts of other cool stuff.
In a general sense, many people don't challenge their language. This, at least for me, only happened when I became bilingual, and then when I had to begin to look at my mother tongue as an editor from the standpoint of a native speaker of my second language. Does that make sense? I'm a native English speaker looking at and editing information in my mother tongue, but I now do it from the standpoint of a native Chinese speaker looking at English as their second language. What does that do?
Well, as you will know if you are (at least) bilingual, that ability gives you the perspective to see where and why, for example, Spanish speakers speak English the way they do, or why a certain group of people have certain trouble with certain sounds in English or whatever else. You're then aware of not only your target language's perceived inadequacies, unclear areas, and idiosyncrasies, but starkly aware of the same in your mother tongue.
What this has led me to do is question the wording, the logic, the very foundations of my language, and see that really, so much of it is in the eye of the beholder. We do the best we can as speakers and humans to communicate something effectively, to express ourselves and let our emotions be understood, but with everyone on the same playing field, as native speakers of the same language, there's still so much room for interpretation. For example, a word (the first that came to mind, for whatever reason) like 'angst' may mean "the same thing" to many people, but not all of them would use it in the same contexts or in the same way to express the same thing because it carries different meanings for them or elicits different reactions in listeners. Is there a real difference between
confused, perplexed, flummoxed, discombobulated, or puzzled? If you ask me, I'd say yes, because I would extremely rarely ever say flummoxed or discombobulated, but they  have their very specific uses precisely because of their lack of common use. They all mean about the same thing, but the general go-to for most people, I feel, would be just 'confused,' or something equally common and perhaps more slang, like 'mixed up,' or 'lost.' If you asked 100 people to describe to you the shades of difference in meaning between these (or any other set of closely related and colorful words), you would get many different explanations, mostly based on context.

Words mean different things to different people. What does that say about us?
A word that came up recently that I had to look up to make sure I knew how to pronounce correctly and define (on set) was 'irascible.' That's not a terribly common word in English, and again, there are a half a dozen other words that come to mind to describe an irascible person that I or most other people would use before we'd get around to using 'irascible.' A word like irritable may not really mean exactly the same thing, but for all intents and purposes (not 'intensive purposes') it conveys the main point of what you're trying to convey, that someone is easily angered or upset or flies off the handle easily. If you said someone is quite irritable, your listener would understand, but if you described the same person to someone as irascible, the reaction may be more toward your choice of words than the meaning you are trying to convey.
I guess what I'm saying here, and this is no revelation, is that language is so so subjective. Whether I'm looking over an article (like one I've written, casually) or something meant for legal, instructional, procedural, or comical purposes, you go into it thinking from different angles, and perhaps the hairiest of them is like, a legal document. I don't think 'cereal' or 'soup' appear in many legal documents, but, per the video above, even these simple terms can be difficult to categorize.
What does all this have to do with language? Well, in my line of work (my day job), I have to be incredibly pedantic about English and its rules and basically the logic of the language and what it's trying to say, and think about it almost from a devil's advocate kind of way, so that no matter who sees it, who reads it, there aren't loopholes or potential misunderstandings. That's obviously an extreme example, but that aside, language is just... an approximate means of representing our human experiences in words, and when you begin to play with those words in different languages, you'll realize that humans from other countries and opposite ends of the world have at once so much in common despite all the cultural and linguistic differences, but also so much that's so entirely different. This can all be intimidating when you're learning a new language, but when it comes down to it, in most settings, you don't jump into a language day one giving medical lectures or editing legal documents. There's a lot about language that's not exact, and granted, most of that is at the higher, more advanced levels of the language with more finesse, but it's always good to remember to give yourself a little wiggle room. Make mistakes, explore the ins and outs of your new language, and learn how people use it. It's just a tool, one that does the exact same thing as your mother tongue, with just a few differences. Relax, and enjoy the learning process.

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