Story of my life: language is arbitrary

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Once upon a couple of years ago, I studied IGCSE Psychology and I fondly remember one lesson when my teacher, Ms Bower, show her middle finger up to the entire class. It was a lesson about body language and we were discussing physical symbols in cultures, we raised points about the soles of your feet or a thumbs up being derogatory in some cultures then someone mentioned the finger. Ms. Bower asked us to be specific, obviously enjoying the unease in the room as every student glanced around sheepishly, no one dared to do the actual action as we didn’t want to flip her over. So she did it to us instead.

“What this?” She says with her mouth as her hand says fuck you “it’s just a finger!”

I think this moment was important to me because I often thought, even before then, about why we have to follow some social concepts but never did I expect someone older than me (and hence should follow strictly these ideals) to tell me, in an academic scenario, that we only follow them because we believe them. It’s just a finger. It means fuck you. But it’s just a finger.

A couple of years later my English teacher, Ms Bruce, made a similar point but this time in linguistic terms. First lesson of English and she tries to get us to define “language”, no easy task. She defined it as “Arbitrary symbols that we attach meaning to”, her point being that if enough people use a word to mean something then a meaning is attached to the word. She made a point of saying that if we got enough people to start calling ‘tables’ ‘Olivers’ (one of our classmates, he wasn’t too impressed by the joke), the object ‘table’ would be known as ‘Oliver’ instead of ‘table’.

To some people this seems to be a huge mindfuck. A table is a table, a table is not an Oliver. That is true but the object of a table does not have to be called a table, in every language the words that describe objects are different. In German a table is einen Tisch, in Cantonese it’s pronounced ‘toi’; yet all these words mean the same object. On this simple premise it seems obvious that language is relative to culture, language is arbitrary, there is no supernatural dictionary that defined words before they came into being. Not to make an existential point about human existence but as Satre said “Existence precedes essence”, in a linguistic sense anyway.

It’s interesting then that many people seem to be ignorant of this point. If you’ve read my previous post “Cups of Poison Tea” (if not you can find it here: https://composingphilosophy.wordpress.com/2014/06/08/cups-of-poison-tea/), the point of drinking the poison tea being the only polite thing to do is an extension of language being treated as having objective meaning, which I also said in that post I find rather short sighted. Having said that, that post was not about language so all these are loose interpretations. However, say that I offered one of my Western friends a cup of tea and they refused it saying they don’t like tea; do I get angry that they do not conform to my cultural expectations of social language? Ridiculous.

The point of this post I guess hasn’t been so much to explore new ideas, as some of my posts try to do but rather just to write a bit about my experiences and why I have the ideas I have now. I do like sharing these little stories, maybe I should do that more.

tmx

image from: https://composingphilosophy.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/a3099-sign2.png

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