Language and Communication

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary tells us that language “is the whole body of words and methods to combine them used by a nation, people, or race; words and methods of combining them for the expression of thought”. This would appear to be simple business. In reality, it is most troublesome. Tennyson, for one, thinks so when he writes:

And Thought leapt out to wed with Thought

Ere Thought, could wed itself with speech

Robert Browning appears to think along similar lines.

For me, I touched a thought, I know

Has tantalized me many times

(Like turns of thread the spiders throw

Mocking across our path) for rhymes

To catch at, and let go.

As a student and a user of English, I have encountered this problem in my attempts to communicate with people. As Fred Weston aptly remarks in his Manual of Good English, “…language is, at its best, not a perfect vehicle for transmission of thought”. But in spite of these problems, good communicators succeed very well indeed.

Papillia, wedded to her amorous spark

Sighs for shades, “How charming is a park!

A park is purchased, but the fair he sees

All drowned in tears, “Oh odious, odious trees!”

In these four lines Pope draws a picture of many a woman we all know, clearly illustrating the contrary nature they exhibit. He has put into abiding words what we have always known vaguely. This is the purpose of language: to communicate thought in words more effectively and better than anything else can.

We use words as vehicles of thought. If chosen well they prove effective. They can be interpreted by others in the intended sense. Thought carried from one mind to another to achieve the intended communication is the purpose of language.

When we use words to write or speak, we do so without any acute sense of the strict meaning that should be attached to them. So long as our usage conforms to the practice of our fellow users, the sense in which they interpret is the sense in which we have used them. We cannot be too rigid; language is not a matter of mathematics. The words in current use run about the streets and market places, often without a precise meaning.

A look at some English idioms, which we use without a second thought, will make this clear.With, a preposition, is a good example. Originally, with meant opposite to. This sense remains in many expressions. We contend with our competitors; we compete with (or against) our rival; we vie with our competitor; we withstand an onslaught. But when Malvolio is advised to be “opposite with a kinsman, surly with servants”, or in Milton’s line “Now glows the firmamentwith living sapphires”, the word denotes accompaniment. There are phrases like I sympathisewith you (we also have, without any logic, I disagree with you); The lady with the camellias(where with indicates characterized by always carrying); He writes with a fountain pen (by means of); I can do nothing with him (I am unable to influence him). We also have expressions, odd enough when we look at them: I have parted with my best friendI can dispense with the money (here with implies separation, not company); With best intentions he failed (in spite of possessing).

Language is a tool which needs to be used very carefully to communicate. If we are not to lose our way in a maze of idioms and varieties of meanings of various words, we have to use them carefully in accordance with current usage. As Pope wrote:

In words as in fashions, the same rule will hold;

Alike fantastic, if too new, or old;

Be not the first by whom the new are tried

Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.

It is always sound advice to use a short, instead of a long, word if you have a choice. In doing so we will be following the example set by the best users of English. When Antony calls upon his friends, Romans, and countrymen (during the funeral speech in Julius Caesar), he does so most effectively in monosyllables. Indeed, he is so effective that Brutus, Cassius, and the conspirators have to run for their lives.

Another example is Houseman’s epitaph.

Here dead we lie because we did not choose

To live and shame the land from which we sprung.

Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;

But young men think it is, and we were young.

There are only two words in these lines that are not monosyllables – because and nothing. All words are ordinary, yet the effect is superb. Similar is the case with Patmore’s letter.

I hope you are well. I write to say

Frederick has got, besides his pay,

A good appointment in the Docks;

Also to thank you for the frocks

And shoes for Baby.

It would be difficult to find a better example of an informal letter.

Lucidity, or clarity of composition, is the essence of good communication. Clarity of composition comes from clarity of thought. Clear thoughts need to be dressed in simple words to achieve unambiguous communication. Our communication should not be worded like the response of a harassed prime minister to an importuning writer: I shall lose no time in reading your book.

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