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.