On Language and Meaning

For a while now, I have been fascinated by the possibility of using metaphor in design. For example, if a process works in the sport of cycling, why not apply it directly to business–“a person is a chain link”. I got started on this path by being unexpectedly fascinated by a panel discussion including George Lakoff, an applied metaphor linguist from Berkeley. He spoke of language in way I’d never thought of: as a fundamental cultural tool, applied to history in order to predict future events.

This got me thinking about language and its role in design. If language can be applied to cultural history to improve the future of culture, surely it can be applied to design history to improve its future. Transparently comparing different fields to improve design seemed an enormously powerful tool, requiring a vast knowledge base and intelligent links between items, both of which I already aimed to build with this site.

So to introduce language to the database, here are two recent observations of remarkable lingual tools, one from church and the other from economic theory–but, in true metaphorical fashion, each very applicable to the other.

1) The “if-then” sermon: In church Christmas Eve, the sermon discussed our tendency to say “if [something] happens, then I’d be happy/able to do [something else]”. This was applied to Christian faith as the common rationalization for misplaced priorities. When hearing yourself say these words, it is best to consider the true reason that the action has not been taken–if God has truly provided all that is necessary for good deeds, the reason for inaction is usually a goal that is not right, or simple cowardice. No preconditions are to blame.

2) In-order-to motivation: From The Experience Economy, the idea that all proposed actions be plugged into this sentence: i am doing [blank] in order to [blank]. This makes certain that all things have a definite meaning to them.

So of course applying 2) to 1) solves its problem; as does watching for 1) to trigger an emergency 2). Language at its best…

But are there cases where language is not useful? Consider highly emotional events. Often these are summarized in the aftermath as “an indescribable experience.” What does this mean? Is it truly impossible for others to understand, or simply impossible through words alone? How else could this emotion be conveyed?

My girlfriend is astoundingly bilingual, a Spanish major in college with a passion for Latin America. The other day I was channel-surfing and fell upon the movie Mr. Deeds, dubbed in Spanish. As a considerate and generous boyfriend, I allowed it to play for a few minutes as she enjoyed the language being spoken to her. Finally enough was enough, and I switched channels–to the same movie playing in English! I commented, “Well, that was certainly a change for the better” to which she replied “What changed?”. The barrier between the two languages was so transparent to her that she switched unconsciously.

This was yet another instance where I was extremely jealous of her language skills. Having metaphor on the mind, I immediately thought, “With two languages under her control, she has access to double the ideas, double the describable emotions that I do.” In fact, she often has said to me, “I just felt, well, I can’t describe it in English. But in Spanish it’s ______.”

Language holds immeasurable power, and I can easily see that in the future, those best able to shape words will also be in charge of shaping culture. To others at least, we are what we speak.


  1. Bob
    Posted February 14, 2004 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

    Another example of the “if-then” fallacy is found in Daniel Gilbert‘s happiness research. Gilbert argues that we don’t know what we want, and even if we did, getting it won’t make us as happy as we think it will.

    Video interview on edge.org

    Transcript and summary

    In the end, Gilbert concedes something in a NYTimes article:

    ”Maybe it’s important for there to be carrots and sticks in the world, even if they are illusions,” he adds. ”They keep us moving towards carrots and away from sticks.”

  2. Bob
    Posted October 11, 2004 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

    Languages: an extra whack at the truth:

    Dorfman notes that his acquisition of English helped him to counter the “proliferation of passive forms” his Spanish-speaking friends employed to pass the buck. He is also careful to point out, however, that, “no one language condemns you to laziness or efficiency, mendacity or truth. If you dispose of two languages, therefore, you can lie twice as much — but also have a good extra whack at the truth, if you are so inclined.”

    Wittgenstein pronounced that the limits of my language are the limits of my world, but these bilingual writers tend to suggest that both limits are extremely elastic. Language opens up possibilities of perceiving, but even it is not everything. Reality sometimes intrudes from outside language and changes things, and the person aware of more than one language can often spot this before others.

    Fortunately, none of these writers has ever had to make a stark choice — mother tongue or English. That is their good fortune. “That good extra whack at the truth” that Dorfman writes about, provided by an acquired language, haunts and challenges them.

    “I live on,” writes Ha-yun Jung, “not feeling whole in Korean or in English. For me, one language is complementary to the other, one always lacking a capacity that the other has. And I have a fear, constantly, of not quite being understood in just one language: Do you know what I am trying to say? Do you know who I am?”

  3. Bob
    Posted December 20, 2004 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    Malcolm Gladwell, one of my favorite authors, says he wants to frame people’s thinking by giving them new language to describe it:

    Gladwell deflects the charge that he’s just a savvy marketer of ideas, standing by his earnest intentions to help frame people’s thinking. “When I was writing The Tipping Point , I realized that in order for people to talk about something . . . they need some way to describe and name things,” he says. “So I always like to try to come up with simple, sort of catchy ways of capturing complex ideas.”

  4. Bob
    Posted July 9, 2005 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    An interesting take on why we forget our childhoods: it’s because those memories (before we learn to speak) are not encoded in language, and then after we start thinking in words we forget how to remember pre-language memories.

    Though they clearly could remember the experience, and even showed the experimenters how the machine worked, they didn’t use the proper words for the parts of the machine (”handle,” “knob”) if they hadn’t known them at the time of the original event. The memory existed, but the words were not associated with the memory.