Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
It is often difficult when analysing a problem to know where to start. Cause and effect sometimes seem to chase each other around in a circle. In the study of language, should we look first at the meaning of the words, or the sentence? This is a chicken and egg problem, the hermeneutic circle.
The term hermeneutic circle describes a core problem in the understanding of language. In order to understand any spoken language or text, we have to understand the individual words. But it is inherent in the way that language works that we understand words by what they mean within a sentence. And so, as we interpret the meaning of what we hear or read, our mental processes are circling round between word meaning and sentence meaning, trying to build some kind of model of a reality, so that the mind may grasp it.
The neural activity in the brain must perform an action more like a spiraling-in to a conclusion. Even so, the study of this circularity of the powers of understanding is valuable. It gives us great insights into the indisputable fact that we each bring to the spoken or written word a set of pre-dispositions, a mind-set that colours our understanding of the words we are hearing or reading.
Language is both an invention of society and a tool of society. It is a continually evolving tool. Whoever is rigid in having learned to use the tool yesterday, is not properly equipped to use the tool so skilfully today. It is the same knife, but its blade and handle have been changed and reshaped over and again since the dawn of language.
The Commune and the Collective.
Our society has its histories, philosophies and ethics, and these impose themselves on our shared language. Small groups have their own shared sub-set of language, as a jargon or slang. But this in turn can reflect back into the communal language. Groups also have their own unique histories, philosophies and ethics, and these again reflect back somewhat into the common pool. Thus we, the people, the commune of our language, are unaware that terms in our common language, the collective may have origins in military slang, farming, the Bible, Shakespeare and even science. We are even less aware as a commune of how the meanings of those words have changed in the collective.
Every individual on the planet has a unique history as a person, and is a member of at least one group with, in turn, its own history. A national language is a meld of all that is common to all users and groups within that nation, and much of what was common in the history of that nation.
When Words Collide
The problem of misunderstanding is less as between two people from different nations than as between any two randomly selected members of one nation. When it is a matter of different languages, such as French and English, an awareness of, and an expectation of differences makes the mind receptive to the idea that words may convey different meanings to different people.
That is not the case with two people conversing by means of a common national language. Immersed as they are in a culture of shared values, members of a nation tacitly assume that each is using the language as the collective in exactly the same way as any other member of their language community. This is a serious error. We each approach a word from an angle determined by our upbringing, our education and our own language use preferences. Each member of the collective is naturally and strongly biased towards using his or her own ideolect.
Each language user has her or his own parallax view of the meanings conveyed by words. There is an aggregate or collective property of a language such as may be noted by an impartial, objective outside observer. Then there is a personal, or ideolect property of the individual user's use of language. The neutral, outside observer notes that no two ideolects can be shared: it is the common, shared portion of all ideolects that forms the collective. It is only language as a collective, unknown to language users, that can properly be called 'the' language.
The core problem of the understanding of what is said or written is this: each language user tacitly assumes that he or she, and every other user, is using the collective, rather than ideolect aspect of language. That assumption is invalid.
Escaping the Collective
In order to use language powerfully, in order not to have somebody else do our thinking for us, we must remain ever mindful that our shared experience of language has its origins in shared history, shared culture and shared experiences. Just as no person ever stepped in the same stream twice, so no two people can scoop the same bucketful of words from the collective. Armed with that knowledge, we can endeavour to overcome the barriers to communication that are built into the very core of language itself.
To paraphrase Alexander Pope: Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; the proper study of mankind is linguistics.
Just by making myself aware that my reader has not lived my own specific life path, I make myself aware that my meaning may not be at all plain. And so, I struggle that much harder to explain to my meaning to my invisible audience.
If I have failed at all in my struggle, then may I direct my reader to these excellent resources for further reading:
An excellent introduction to Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics
An in depth article on hermeneutics and much else Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.
For the reader who may need some light relief from all of this,
may I recommend an experiment with a chicken and an egg