[This subject is also treated in Modes of the Finite, Part 3, Section 3, Chapter 5.]

7.1. Language

That, then, is a brief sketch of how we can get at the truth.

But having acquired a true judgment of the way things are, how do we go about letting other people know of what we discovered, so that they don't have to go through the whole painful process for themselves? For that matter, how do we go about storing these concepts and judgments so that we don't have to "rediscover" each time that grass is green or that two and two are four?

Understanding, as I tried to show in Living Bodies, is a spiritual act, and as such can't be "stored." But since we are bodies organized with an act which is both spiritual and a form of energy, we store concepts and judgments by creating special sensations (using our imagination) whose function is precisely to "reactivate" the spiritual act in question.

And this is also how we communicate with others. Since no one can get into anyone else's mind or consciousness directly, then we have to produce something that can be perceived by the senses in such a way that the one who sees or hears it can understand the relationship that we understood when we produced it.

DEFINITION: LANGUAGE is the expression of mental acts in perceptible form.

So we don't exactly "think in a language"; the thought itself is independent of language. But as soon as we want to save that thought or communicate it with others, we make up something visible that will stand for it, and we are using language. Thought expresses itself in language.

Of course, there are many different mental acts besides the act of understanding: (a) Sensations (including perceptions, images, and emotions), (b) choices, and (c) acts of puzzlement (non-understanding). Each of these sorts of things have their expression in language. "Ah!" expresses an emotion; "Shut the door," a command (involving an "act of the will"; "How do you express ideas?" an act of puzzlement. The different sorts of mental activities correspond to the different "moods" that are talked about in grammar. The "declarative" mood is the way acts of understanding are expressed; the "interrogative" mood expresses questions; the "imperative," commands; and the "exclamatory," emotions.

Interestingly, though all but the declarative mood express acts other than understanding, they must all be expressed in such a way that they can be understood. That is, the hearer or reader must be able to take the expression and understand that it stands for the way the speaker feels, or what the speaker wants the hearer to do, or what the speaker wants to know.

Hence, understanding is always involved in language, because the one who hears it must be able to know the relationship between the expression and the mental state that the speaker wants to convey to him.

7.1.1. Its social arbitrariness

What can be used as language? Anything that people agree on.

It seems that in general human beings use vocal sounds as the primary language, because these leave your hands free (as, for example, the deaf-mute language does not), and the person you are communicating with does not have to be looking directly at you. But we also use visual languages, like the deaf-mute language and the language you are now responding to. Certain handicapped people have a language involving touch--which, however, is very inconvenient.

Those of us accustomed to English perhaps thing of written language as a copy of vocal language; but this is not true in all cultures. The Chinese written language is, I understand, a completely different language from the spoken languages of China, with its own grammar and words. You can translate from written to spoken Chinese; but it is really a foreign language. That is, if two people who speak entirely different dialects read the same text, the words that they use to express the written text will be different words, and the grammar of the translations will be different grammar. This is handy for the Chinese, because all the different dialects can then communicate by the written language, without anyone's having to learn a whole list of what are in fact different languages.

Ludwig Wittgenstein has made a great deal of language as a "game," with its own rules, which apply only within the game. He got to this from the opposite view of thinking of language as "pictures of facts" (He considered "facts" as what I called "sensations," which I would think is rather wide of the mark), and the story goes that he was riding on a train and explaining his theory of language to a companion, who shrugged his shoulders, and then said, "And what fact is that a picture of?" He couldn't answer, and so scrapped his "picture" theory and gradually developed the "game" theory.

Noam Chomsky, however, thinks that language is not really arbitrary. His idea seems to be that there is a kind of "built-in grammar" in our brains, which makes a kind of "core-grammar" that every language is a variant on.

I think both of these people are, in a certain sense, completely wrong, but in another sense right. Chomsky and the linguists are wrong in looking at the brain or some kind of "instinct" for the common core of language; but they are right in thinking that there is a common core, because any language must be understood by those who use it. Hence, they must be able to know the relationships between the expressions and the mental acts to be conveyed by them--and relationships need, as we saw, relata, relationship, and foundation. This will form a common core. It is also the case that there are the four types of mental conditions that need expressing, no matter what your language is.

But Wittgenstein was right, I think, in saying that how you present these three elements--in what order, whether some elements are implied and not expressed, and so on--makes no difference, as long as people can figure out how it is done. Further, it doesn't matter whether you express the different moods in basically the same way, or by vastly different types of expressions.

For instance, we can express a question by an inversion of subject and verb: "Is this a question?" or simply by a difference in tone of voice or punctuation "This is a question?" Conceivably, there could be a language in which "This is a question" would be the statement and something like "Ques*&" would be the equivalent of the English "Is this a question?" We can express the question, "What do you mean?" by a shrug of the shoulders and a certain facial expression, and the shrug with a different facial expression means, "What you are saying makes no difference to me." We can express a command in words, "Take that outside," or simply by pointing.

These arbitrary relationships can be very different from culture to culture, and are often the subject of intercultural "incidents." The story goes that there was an American seated in an Italian restaurant, who looked at a pretty girl across the room. She said something to her escort, who came over and tried to punch the man. When the dust settled, his companion told him that what he had been doing with his hands as he looked at the girl was an obscene solicitation in Italian. I myself once brought back from Washington a set of notepaper with a picture of an owl on it as a gift to an Argentine lady who was staying with us; and the expression on her face when she opened the package made me ask my wife (who is Argentine) what was wrong. It seems that in Argentina, to say "You're an owl," is the equivalent of our "You're an ass." It took a while to straighten that out. (In Latin America, incidentally, "She's monkey" means "She's cute.")

In spite of the fact that language is arbitrary, however,

Language is socially arbitrary. That is, the people as a whole in the culture determine what the language is to mean. The individual is not free to "make it mean" what he chooses.

This should be obvious, because language involves communication with others, and so there has to be an agreement on what is communicated in order for others to be able to understand what is meant; especially since the symbols language uses have no real "natural" relationship to what is expressed.

In this respect, I think that some of the things the feminists have tried to do with language miss the point.

First, they have imputed meanings to words that didn't actually have these meanings (such as a derogatory meaning to the respectful term "lady," a "sexist" connotation to the term "chairman" because of the "man" in it, but a non-sexist connotation to "woman" even though it contains "man."

The result of the declaration that these words "actually, secretly" mean what the feminists claim they meant, plus the inconsistency in which words had the secret meanings and which ones didn't has had two effects: (1) it has created invidious connotations to terms that didn't have them before, and (2) has caused resentment among those who now have to consult the feminists to find out whether innocently intended expressions will be taken innocently or not.

But more important, it has made language a political tool expressing social values more than a device by which we can express as clearly as possible what we understand to be true.

This shift from "language as vehicle to share understanding of truth" to "language as expression of values" is a severe disservice to language, I think. It is hard enough, God knows, to express your ideas clearly; but when grammatical awkwardness and linguistic vagaries are decreed, it makes what you are saying doubly difficult; because it is first run through the processor of whether it is "acceptable" before it can even begin to be understood.

As an example of what I mean, consider that there is now no acceptable way to speak of "brotherhood." We can talk of "siblings" meaning "children of the same parents" without being "sexist"; but there is no English word "siblinghood," expressing the abstract idea of "being a sibling." The only English word for this concept is "brotherhood"; and it is forbidden. And since, as a Christian, I happen to think that brotherhood is the most important relation human beings have with each other, the fact that this relationship can now not be expressed in English eliminates something very, very important.

Again, the decree that "person" should replace "man" used in the generic sense where it includes women now means that God (who is, according to my faith three persons) no longer can be called a "person," and Jesus, who is a human being but not a human person (he is a divine person), can't be spoken of accurately.

These sorts of unintended consequences are very apt to follow when you start saying that words are now to have new meanings because you don't like some of the ways they are used. I personally think that "sexually neutral" language as imposed by the feminists is profoundly anti-Christian--whether it was intended to be so or not.

7.1.2. Meaning in language

Language, in any case, expresses a mental state; and one of the most important mental states is that of understanding facts.

It therefore follows that language has a relationship with both the mental state expressed, and when that mental state is understanding, it has an indirect relationship with the fact understood by the speaker.

DEFINITION: The MEANING of a linguistic expression is the mental act expressed by it.

Meaning is the expression insofar as the hearer is calculated to understand what the mental act of the speaker was.

Meaning, then, is almost what you "intend to express," but not quite. For instance, if you go outside and say, "What a beautiful day!" intending to speak ironically, but your tone of voice does not in fact express the intention of meaning the opposite of what the words say, then you expressed satisfaction with the weather, when you wanted to express dissatisfaction.

So the meaning of an expression is what (according to the conventions--the arbitrary rules--of the language) is what is actually expressed, whatever the intention of the speaker.

The speaker knows what his mental act is; he is trying to convey it to the hearer. Thus, it is his (the speaker's) task to make it possible (and easy) for the hearer to understand what his mental act is; so the speaker has to produce an expression which objectively conveys what he "intends." The expression "You know what I mean" when you didn't express what you meant is a copout. The only way anyone else can read your mind is through your use of language, and if you abuse the language, don't be surprised if you are misunderstood.

Notice also that the meaning refers (in its primary sense) to the whole expression. That is, it is sentences that have meaning, really, not words.

Words in isolation have potential meaning, depending on what they can mean when used in sentences; words used in sentences have actual meanings when they express relationships.

DEFINITION: The MEANING OF A WORD is the RELATIONSHIP actually or potentially expressed by it.

That is, though strictly speaking the whole sentence is what actually "means" something, certain words in the sentence do the job of expressing the actual relationship. What relationship (or relationships) a word expresses is one of the things that is dependent on what the culture wants the word to do.

The potential meaning of words is the kind of thing you find in dictionaries (refer back to our definition of "definition" in earlier chapters: these will be nominal definitions). For instance, the word "green," we are told, has the meaning, "of a certain color, a mixture of yellow and blue," and also "young, naive, inexperienced." If you use "green" to mean "well-versed in computer science," you aren't speaking English.

Not all words have meanings.

Many words (in fact most words) used in a sentence do not do the job of expressing the relationship which the sentence itself expresses. Some words as used in a sentence merely point; others have functions which allow us to combine words into word-groups which either point better or express the relationship more clearly than a single word, and so on. Some words have only this pointing or combinational function and have no meaning at all: "this, John, and, in, with" would be examples.

Most words that have meanings can also be used to point: In "Dogs have fur," "dogs" merely points to the class of dogs; what they have in common (how they are related) is expressed in "have fur." But in "Golden retrievers are dogs," you are pointing to the class of golden retrievers, and you are saying that they are similar in dogginess--and so you are using "dog" in its meaning-function.

In the next chapter, we will see a bit how this works, and what you can do once you know how it works.

7.2. Truth in language

But here, let me remark that sentences have a special sort of truth.

They express mental acts, and are supposed to be expressing the mental act of the speaker. But, as I pointed out above, they may fail to do this.

Now there are several ways in which this can occur. But first of all, let us lay a little groundwork and say what we mean by calling statements "true" and "false."

DEFINITION: A linguistic expression is TRUE when it expresses what is actually a fact.

DEFINITION: A linguistic expression is FALSE when it expresses as a fact what is not a fact.

DEFINITION: A STATEMENT is a linguistic expression of a judgment, and hence of a fact.

Note first that statements are the linguistic expressions which can be called "true" and "false"; other expressions, such as commands, questions, or exclamations, aren't either true or false, because they don't express judgments. They may or may not express what the speaker intends, but they aren't "false" when they don't. That is, "Go shut the door" is not false when what you intended to command is "Go open the door"; it's just mistaken.

Note secondly that statements' truth or falsity depends on whether the statement matches the fact, not on whether it matches the judgment.

This allows, therefore, as I said above, for several different types of error.

First of all, the speaker may make a mistake in expressing himself (he says what he thought expressed his act, but which doesn't, possibly because he thought a word meant something which it didn't).

For example, a person who says, "I'm infinitesimally grateful to you" thinking "infinitesimal" means "very infinitely" would make a false statement, because what the statement means is, "I'm insignificantly grateful to you." Note that his judgment is true, because he is very, very grateful (which is what he intended to express; but his statement is false, because he used a word that expressed the opposite. So the statement's truth or falseness does not depend on the judgment at all; it depends solely on whether it matches the fact or not.

And so, secondly, the speaker may have an erroneous judgment and express it accurately, in which case his statement will fail to express what the fact actually is.

For example, you think that there are people on Mars and you say, "There are people on Mars." But there actually aren't any people on Mars, and so your statement does not express what the fact is, even though it expresses perfectly accurately what your judgment of the fact is.

It can even be the case that you make an erroneous judgment and you express it badly, and by accident your statement matches what the fact actually is, and so is true. In this case, the two mistakes cancel each other out. For instance, you think that John is Negroid, and you think the word "Caucasian" is the word used to express those who belong to what is called the "black" race; and so you say "John is Caucasian." As it happens, John is white, and so what you said is true.

There is a further complication: It can happen that a person wants his hearer to think his mental act was not what in fact it was: "A marvelous dinner!" says the father to his daughter who cooked for the first time. She glows with joy, and he excuses himself to look for the Rolaids. This is called a lie.

DEFINITION: A LIE is a sentence that intends to express the opposite of the speaker's mental act.

In the example above, the father didn't try to state a fact (he simply expressed a satisfaction which he didn't feel); but he lied nonetheless; because what his sentence meant was that he enjoyed the meal, when he wasn't.

Interestingly, if the speaker is making a factual statement (i.e. if his mental act is one of understanding) and he lies, then it is possible for his statement to be a lie and also to express the fact correctly (if he made a mistake about what the fact is). For instance, if John thinks that his friend is hiding behind the chair, he might say to another person, "There's no one else in the room" to get him to talk. But if his friend had got up and left, he would be lying (because he thought he was there), and yet what he said would be true (because there wasn't anyone else in the room in fact).

Note that the lie about the people in the room is a true statement, even though it is a lie; because it in fact states what the fact is. If John had happened to say, "There's someone hiding behind that chair," he would have been "telling the truth," (in the sense of not lying), but his statement still would not have been true.

Lies like "What a wonderful dinner!" are not, strictly speaking false, because they aren't statements of fact. They can by analogy be called false, because they imply a statement of fact; since they have meaning, they are the equivalent of "I think that the dinner was wonderful," which, of course, is not a fact if the person doesn't think it was.

But the point is that linguistic expressions can only be true or false insofar as they relate to the fact, whether the fact is the fact of the person's mental state itself (as above), or the fact that the person was trying to express. And they are true or false irrespective of whether the speaker has made a mistake or not or is lying--i.e. irrespective, really, of his mental state. If the statement expresses as a fact what really is a fact, then it is true; if it doesn't then (whether because of a lie or a mistake) it is false.

Lies belong in the study of ethics, because they are deliberate misuses of the act of communicating facts. But there are all kinds of complications, and statements which are literally false may not be lies, because they are using language in a different mode from factual communication. Let us leave these subtleties to books on ethics.

Note that acts of understanding are either true or mistaken; statements are either true or false. The reason for the distinction in terminology is that understanding can be "not true" only if a mistake is made (you can't lie to yourself, really, because if you know what the truth is, you can't believe the opposite), whereas there are two ways in which a statement can be not true.

Now let us confine ourselves to statements of fact, and see how these are constructed, and what we can do based on the way words are used to express what is true.

Summary of Chapter 7

We store our acts of understanding (so as not to have to relearn them) by using our imaginations to make images that stand for them and reawaken them. Perceptible symbols of mental acts also allow us to communicate our mental states with others. Language is the expression of mental acts in perceptible form.

Judgments are not the only mental acts; there are exclamations, commands, and questions also; but in order to communicate these states to others, they must be in a form which can be understood by the hearer; so understanding is always involved in language.

What symbol is to stand for what act of the mind is arbitrary, though not totally, because relationships need to indicate what is related and the kind of relation. Further, language is socially arbitrary; the culture decides what words and so on are to mean, and if a person goes against this, he will not be understood. Attempts to wrench language into "acceptable" form misunderstand that language's main function is to convey facts, not to express attitudes, and also have unintended consequences which can be serious.

The meaning of a linguistic expression is the mental act it expresses; but the meaning expressed might not be what the speaker intended to express, because he might have misused the language. Isolated words have only potential meaning; actual meaning is conveyed by the sentence. The meaning of a word is the relationship it expresses. Words can either mean or perform other functions, such as point; some words potentially either mean or point, depending on how they are used.

Statements are linguistic expressions of judgments, and hence of facts; they are either true if they match the fact, or false if they don't (judgments which do not match facts are simply mistaken, not false).

Since the truth or falsity of the statement depends only on whether it matches the fact, statements which match erroneous judgments are false, as well as statements which do not match correct ones. When a person deliberately tries to misstate his judgment, this is called a lie. Sometimes, lies or mistakenly stated judgments can be true, if the judgment is mistaken and the misstatement of the judgment cancels out the mistake of the judgment itself.