Language in Communications: Wikis

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The Nature of Language: Existing since roughly 100,000 b.c., language is defined as a structured system of symbols for communicating, however; not only is it a means of communicating thoughts and ideas, it also forges friendships, cultural ties, and economic relationships. [1] There are over 6,900 different languages. English is the language with the most words (250,000), and about 100,000 words are added to the dictionary every decade. [2] Because language is structured, there are specific rules it must follow. In order for people to completely understand speech they must process the non-linguistic, (properties not relating to language), properties of speech, such as grammar. [3]

All languages share four elements: structure, productivity, displacement, and self-reflexiveness.

Contents

Structure

Structure may be the most important element of language. It is made up of grammatical rules that specify how the components of language can be combined to create words. Grammar is divided into four subcategories. Phonology encompasses phonemes, which refers to the individual units of source of a specific spoken language. The sounds correspond to consonants and vowels. The English language specifically has about 44 different phonemes. Although a subdivision of grammatical rules, phonemes must follow their own phonological regulations which include which sounds to use, and how to combine the sounds in meaningful ways.

As phonemes are transformed into words, phrases, and sentences, productivity is determined. Productivity allows humans to express almost anything they are thinking or feeling. One’s ability to use language to talk about objects, ideas, events and relations that are intangible is known as displacement. Abstract ideas, and hypothetical situations can be discussed, and previous mistakes can be rendered for the future. Displacement makes it possible for us to communicate the past, present and future. Language is also self-reflexive. The self-reflexiveness of language allows us to actually discuss the concept of language, itself. We use our language to analyze and talk about how we can improve it. These four elements; structure, productivity, displacement, and self-reflexiveness; keep the rules of language consistent so it can be understood and appreciated by everyone.

Self-Reflexiveness

This is the ability to use language to talk about language. In fact, this is the reason for English class: Using language, we learn about how to use the language. There are hundreds of vocabulary words that pertain to the English language alone – grammar, metaphor, syntax, sentences. These words exists to define a language. This ability allows us to improve how we ‘speak’, per se. Using language to talk about language helps to understand language, and how to improve it and communicate more clearly.

The Abstract Process

The abstract process is the process in which we formulate increasingly vague conceptions of our world by leaving out details associated with objects, events, and ideas. This process allows displacement and self-reflexiveness. There are four levels of abstraction: sense experience, description, inference, and judgment.

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Sense Experience

This allows us to approximate our physical world. This level of the abstract process is inherently selective and limited. Language allows you to share your thoughts about the world with others, even if you do not technically experience them in a physical way.

Description

Descriptions are verbal reports that sketch what we perceive from our senses. The less detail we use in our descriptions, the more abstract we become. Even if one was to use a lot of detail to describe something, it would not be the same. Each person describes what they see personally, not the object of description. Because of this, description is always slightly vague.

The Inferential Stage

The next level of the abstracting process is the inferential stage. According to Dan Rothwell’s In the Company of Others an Introduction to Communications, inferences are conclusions about the unknown based on the known. Inferences are what you may call educated guesses. You take what you already know to form a knowledgeable guess about the unknown. For example, let’s say you have a test coming up in history and you are reviewing for it. You remember in past classes that your professor focused a lot on Chinese culture and told the class “to keep it in mind for the test.” You can infer that a good bulk of the test will be on Chinese culture (the unknown) because of the many lectures on the Chinese culture and hints about it being on the test (the known). The professor could just enjoy discussing Chinese culture and not put much on the test or forget to put it on the test. However, with what you’re given (the known), it is logical to infer that mastering the subject of Chinese culture would be very beneficial in preparing for the test. Judgement

Making Judgements

The fourth and final level of the abstracting process is making judgments. Again, according to Rothwell, judgments are subjective evaluations of objects, events, or ideas. The main idea to keep in mind with this level of abstraction is that making judgments is not a description, but a subjective evaluation, for it is not a factual report. It is also more than an inference for it does not just draw a neutral conclusion from what is known, it makes a defiant conclusion from what is known. A couple examples of judgments would be you saying “Billy has poor table manners” or “Jenny dresses well”. You attach a subjective positive or negative value to a judgment. Unfortunately, according to Dr. Clifford N. Lazarus (Director of Comprehensive Psychological Studies), you will find that most judgmental people are not liked and often avoided, for most people notice that being judgmental is a distasteful trait. [4] Though there are judgments that express positive opinions, it seems that more times than not judgments have negative connotations. All in all, the key component of the judgment level of abstraction is the fact that it is an evaluation.

Language and Thinking

Human language as a medium of communication is extremely influential when it comes to our thinking, perceptions, and behavior. A German-born American anthropologist by the name of Edward Sapir, is best known for igniting the ongoing debate over just how influential language is on thought and perception. Sapir left what has become known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to his student Benjamin Whorf to become the principal advocator for it. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that our perception of reality is governed by our thought process and that our thought process is governed by our language, therefore; our perception of reality is governed by our language. However, there are actually two versions of this perspective: linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity. Linguistic determinism states that we are imprisoned to our native language, that our world view is shaped and reflected solely by what the culture speaks. Linguistic relativity states that our world view is strongly influenced by the grammar and lexicon of the native language, but we are not imprisoned to it. The main problem with linguistic determinism is that it assumes thought is dependent on language, where in reality we can think without language. As a result, this version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is often unsupported. Linguistic relativity is much more often supported than linguistic determinism thanks to recent research. For example, studies on the influence of masculine-generic gender references in the English language revealed that masculine-generic terms are far more likely to be used than gender-neutral terms. These masculine-generic terms can form an image of a woman in your head, but will more often than not form a masculine image. These studies displayed that we are able to formulate images of women when gender biased language is used (nullifying linguistic determinism), but it is much harder to (affirming linguistic relativity).

Signal Reactions

A signal reaction is a split-second, gut reaction to a “hot-button” term, verbal obscenity, ethnic slur, chant, slogan, buzzword, or other signal. It signifies an immediate reaction, not a delayed, thoughtful response. The latter reaction is known as semantic and is an attempt to clarify the situation before responding behaviorally (acting on an emotional response). A connotative or personal meaning associated with a word or phrase is the most common form of signal reaction. If you find it impossible to temper your signal reaction with a semantic one, at least refrain from retaliating with verbal obscenity or “fighting words”, which could provoke aggression and violence and illicit signal reactions from others.

Framing

The term “framing” refers to the influence wording has on our perception of choices. Questions can be framed in different ways to trigger different responses. For example, most people would want to invest in a corporate strategy with a 70% success rate but not a 30% failure rate. A false dichotomy is a way of framing choices that uses either-or language to reveal two opposing possibilities but not an obvious third option (also known as a false dilemma). To avoid this, try to think of other options apart from the two choices presented.

Labeling

A label is a descriptive word or phrase that can influence perceptions. Labels can cause bias, especially if they’re not true (for example, saying that someone who liked to tidy up had OCD). To avoid mislabeling, try to operationally define labels- that is, make sure the label’s meaning is clear to everyone before using it. Inference

Dead Level Abstracting

Dead-level abstracting is when one is “stuck” at one level of abstraction. This can mean being stuck at a very high level of abstraction, being vague, or a low level of abstraction, being precise. There are also levels in between. For example:

Jane likes animals. Jane likes mammals. Jane likes North American mammals. Jane likes grizzly bears and foxes.

The first statement is an example of high-level abstraction, while the last is more specific to represent low-level abstraction. Dead-level abstracting occurs when one makes use only of vague or concrete words, making communication more difficult. An example of people who frequently use dead-level abstracting is politicians – they frequently use vague, undefined terms, and when questioned about a vague statement, they generally respond with an equally vague answer. Of course, low levels of abstraction are not necessarily better than being vague, since detail riddled conversations can quickly become tedious. Also, such finer details should be related to a broader topic to prevent miscommunication and confusion.

Avoiding dead-level abstracting

1. Avoid assuming that everyone attributes the same meaning to a word. This is known as by-passing, and easily causes confusion.

2. Define abstract terms. In some cases, these are terms like “sexual relations” or “vegetarianism” since different people may interpret these differently in different situations.

3. Use levels of abstraction with flexibility. Vague and precise terms can be used conjunctively for more easily understood communication.

Inferential Errors

Inferential errors are mistaken conclusions resulting from an assumption that speculations are factual instead of interpreted, and varying in accuracy. An example of the significance of inferential errors is racial profiling, which results when law agencies incorrectly infer that a person is more likely of a particular crime because of their race.

Avoiding inferential errors

1. Do not base inferences on insufficient information. Limited information leads to inaccurate inferences.

2. Do not base inferences on weak evidence. High quality information, especially on important subjects, is essential to strong inferences.

Jargon, Euphemism, Slang

Jargon is specialized language utilized by a specific profession, trade, or group. The use of jargon helps to convey important, factual messages in a brief, yet clear, manner. An example of this use of jargon can be found in court rooms: terms like habeas corpus eliminate the need for long, drawn out explanations that can become tedious.
Jargon should be used so that everyone needing to know the information being communicated can understand it. If someone in the conversation is unfamiliar with the jargon in a particular situation, then it shouldn’t be used. An example of this is when a doctor is explaining a diagnosis to the patient – the patient will most likely not understand the medical jargon the doctor would be accustomed to communicating with.
A euphemism camouflages unpleasant or offensive ideas so that they can be accepted more readily. An example of a euphemism would be saying that someone has “passed on” instead of simply saying that they are dead. It is a kinder, gentler way of exposing a harsh reality. Euphemism can be used to control public relations as well. Euphemisms should be used cautiously and wisely so that communication does not become confusing. Also, euphemisms should not outright lie in most cases.
Slang is highly informal rhetoric used by a group with a common interest. It can be used to identify both those within the group and those outside of it.

About the Authors

This page was constructed by a group of first-year honors students in their communications studies class, which just so happens to be their favorite class. Their professor, who is quite possibly the greatest communications professor to ever grace the academic world, is Claud "Lee" Mayfield. Some of these students have had their lives greatly influenced by their professor, one choosing to note that "my life will never be the same," and "Lee is really a great guy who really loves his students. I mean, he brings us bagels. What an awesome professor."

References

  1. ^ "World Languages in Culture." Language, statistics, and facts. 2004-2009. Vistawide. Web. 15Oct2009. <http://www.bistawide.com/language/language_statistics.htm>.
  2. ^ Rothwell, J. Dan. In the Company of Others and Introduction to Communication. 3rd ed. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2004. Print.
  3. ^ Siegel, Rochelle. "Wordplay: The Importance of Language." Sandspur 11Nov2005: n. pag. Web. 15Oct2009. <http://media.www.thesandspur.org/media/storage/paper623/news/2005/11/11/LifeTimes/wordplay.the.importance.of.language/1053959.shtnl>.
  4. ^ Clifford N. Lazarus. "Are You Making Judgements... or Being Judgemental." SelfGrowth.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Oct. 2009. <http://www.selfgrowth.com/articles/Lazarus2.html>.

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