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©2020 Global Center for Religious Research (GCRR)

Is Our Problem Today that We Speak Two Different English Languages?


Star Trek: The Next Generation (Season 5; Episode 2: "Darmok”) Director: Winrich Kolbe Story by: Joe Menosky & Phillip LaZebnik Original Air Date: September 30, 1991

I want you to try an experiment with me. It’s quick and easy. If are not already doing so, I want you to find a chair and sit down. Then, I want you to ask yourself a question: What is a “chair”? I mean it. Sit down and, without grabbing a dictionary, define what a “chair” is. If you think about it long enough, you will begin to realize this is a very difficult thing to do. For every definition you try to provide, we can find hundreds of examples that contradict the definition. For instance, defining a chair as “something you sit on” would seem to suggest that a wall classifies as a chair, as well. But that’s not right. A wall is not a chair. Or you could define a chair as “something you sit on with four legs.” But that’s not accurate, either. There are some chairs with only three legs and some with no legs (a bean bag, for example). Why is it so difficult to define a chair!?! We all know what one is, right!?!

I was first made aware of this particular example while doing research into the philosophy of art interpretation. I ended up attending a course by a professor who specializes in the philosophy of making jokes (yep, apparently that exists!). He brought up the chair scenario only briefly and in passing, but it stuck with me, nevertheless (unfortunately, it was the only thing I got from the course; my jokes still fall flat today). But the scenario brings up an amazing dilemma that we human beings suffer from because of our unique ability for syntactical and lexical verbal communication (this is not to suggest that other animals don’t communicate; they just don’t do it with the type of precision that human language produces).


The dilemma elicits the question: How much of our differences and arguments today (in religion, politics, ethics, etc.) are the result of language? And more specifically, an unnuanced and inarticulate practice of the same human language?


One of my favorite philosophers of language was a man named Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) and his famous book, Philosophical Investigations. Here, Wittgenstein argued that human communication between different languages (for example, English and German) does not represent a one-to-one correspondence between words and objects, despite this seeming to be our experience. For example, if I wanted to learn the word for “chair” in German, I would point to a chair and my translator would label it “Stuhl.” Therefore, the German word for chair is “Stuhl.” That is, until I do the same thing to a different chair, and my translator labels it a “Sessel.” What just happened!?!


Nuance happened. And more specifically, nuance with how my translator articulated his conceptual thoughts about the reality he perceives and, naturally, expects me to share.

Wittgenstein helps us to realize just how much our individual languages construct our expectations and embed a form of life, as well as how dangerous this can be, even for those speaking the same language. For instance, imagine I were to tell you to look at a creature’s genitals and tell me if it is a male or female. Naturally, you’d look at the creature’s lower extremities region and try to find something dangling between the thighs. But what do you do if I’m asking you to look at the genitals of an argonaut octopus (pictured below)? Take a look at the octopus and tell me whether it has a penis or not.


Surprisingly, yes it does! In plain sight, no less! But the way I phrased my question naturally forces you to have a conceptual expectation of reality that, in this case, does not fit. What is needed here is nuance and a little explanation.


I personally ran into this problem about a week ago with a man I highly respect and love. He posted something on Facebook that, in essence, told men they needed to start acting like “men” (and stop acting like chumps). As a philosopher (and a bit of a jerk), I replied, “Can you define what a ‘man’ is and how a ‘man’ is supposed to behave?” One of his definitions was that a “man” has no problem resorting to violence if he or his family is “disrespected.” I couldn’t believe what I was reading! THAT is a “man”!?! Knocking someone’s lights out for disrespecting you!?! I replied swiftly, “That’s not a man. That’s a coward who can’t handle his precious feelings and pride getting hurt, so he resorts to hitting.” My friend (and brother) responded, “Allow me to clarify. I’m referring to someone who is coming at you or your family and is running their mouth, etc., etc.” The problem quickly became obvious. We were both speaking English, but we weren’t communicating … at all! What he labeled as someone being “disrespectful” I would label as being “aggressive,” “belligerent,” and “hostile” to the point of needing physical intervention.


This very dilemma has been captured in the 2016 blockbuster movie, “Arrival,” starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. Although the film’s plot advances through the largely defunct “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” (the idea that a person’s native language affects the way they perceive reality), the movie does a great job of presenting a conceptual thought experiment for its audience: What would happen if we encountered an extraterrestrial species with such an incredibly different language that it actually changes how people perceive both the world and time? This same dilemma was amazingly portrayed in Star Trek: The Next Generation’s episode, “Darmok” (season 5; episode 2).


Here, Captain Picard is forced to deal with an alien species whose language is so vastly different that it is practically unintelligible (for those who know me best know that I am a huge Star Trek, science fiction, and horror movie fan, so I often use these plots for comparison). The problem, however, is not that the aliens speak a different language. In fact, Picard’s “universal translator” is able to translate their language into perfectly understandable English. The problem is, the lexicon and sentence structure are so bizarre that their “English” words are coming out as gibberish! The reason Picard couldn’t initially understand the aliens is because he was expecting to find a one-to-one correspondence with their language and his English. But we soon learn that this alien’s ego structure does not have the concept of a “self-identity.” They speak in metaphor and allusion to their race’s mythology. In other words, they’re speaking English (through the translator), but their expectation of reality is not ours, and (like Amy Adams in “Arrival”) the only way Picard is able to communicate is through spending time in relationship and attempting to empathize with the perspective of the alien culture.

**If you haven’t seen the episode, go to Netflix (or wherever) and pull it up. Even if you don’t like Star Trek, I think you’ll love this episode.**And for my church history friends, St. Augustine had a lot to say about this issue, as well.**

So, here’s my philosophical question for you: Could it be that our problems today in discussing something as controversial and complex as abortion actually be the result of an unnuanced use of the English language? Is it possible that we’re making such hasty, generalized, and demonized caricatures of our “opponents” because we have a very twisted view of what they’re (trying) to say? Characterizing “pro-choicers” (a terribly unnuanced moniker) as nothing but “baby-killers” or “hedonists” or suggesting they don’t respect the sanctity of life is completely absurd. Likewise, characterizing “pro-lifers” (an equally unnuanced political slogan) as nothing but “hypocrites” or “zealots” doesn’t due justice to their position, either (as if there were only one “pro-life” position).


My hypothesis, derived in part from E. D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy, is that we have become so isolated and entrenched in our socio-political environment today that we are hearing and seeing only what we want to hear and see. Our socialized use of language has determined what we expect from the world, which (just like the octopus penis) may not fit! In fact, we’re oftentimes only communicating with people from our little particular subculture who share our same moral sensibilities and understanding of the English language. When we venture outside of our small circle, the “pro-choice” movement ends up looking like godless and irrational witches because that’s how the subculture’s language conditions their expectation of the so-called “pro-choice” position (I assure you; they’re not wicked devils who have lost all ability for obtaining well-reasoned and well-informed positions). The same is true in reverse (and is becoming even more apparent in debates between Trump-supporters and non-Trump supporters).


How much more so when you’re planting a church in just one town over (or clear across the country!)? Or when you’re witnessing to someone, but you continue to use culturally outdated statements like “God hates the sin but loves the sinner”?


So, I would like to encourage everyone (especially me) to think about this problem of language the next time they’re asking a question or about to argue/dialogue with someone about religious, ethical, or political issues. Is the discussion sufficiently nuanced enough to know that we’re talking about the same thing? Are my so-called “opponents” using the same English words as I am but with totally different meanings? Or have we become so sequestered in our own bubble that we’re incapable of empathizing and communicating with those outside of our little camp? Lastly, is my use of English really just an embedded form of life that is not the same as those with a different form of life and, therefore, requires the use of more than just a “universal translator”?

Maybe before we presumptuously attack our “opponents” (like I do), perhaps we need to first build an empathetic relationship that first tries to understand what they’re saying and why they’re saying it before we can actually begin communicating.