Words and their Applications

So.. let me talk about words and arguments before the day gets moving and I have no more time to write.

I like words.

I didn’t always like them though.

When I was a kid, words were perhaps my least favorite part of learning.  I was very visually oriented as a small child.  I went to a Montessori Kindergarten between ages 3-6, and there you could do whatever you wanted–they gave you opportunities to explore all kinds of different subjects–from learning math with strings and cubes of small beads, to learning about nature and biology through live animals and ways of collecting natural objects, to learning about geography by drawing/copying/coloring in puzzle maps of the world(continents, countries, states, etc.), to going to the reading corner and reading books.

Out of all of those things, I most often spent my time with the math beads and the maps–which should make it totally unsurprising that I ended up a math/physics/history geek–but I also did stuff with almost every other kind of activity there.

Except for reading.  I never sat down and read books there.

At home, I had DOZENS of dinosaur books that I would go through, looking at the pictures and learning the names of all the dinosaurs–but I was not a big reader.  This would be true all the way up through high school (although I did start reading sci-fi for pleasure..), and it would have been unsurprising if I had ended up one of the math/science types who thinks writing and English are horrible things if I hadn’t been so lucky in high school.  For there, from Freshmen through Junior years, I had a string of fabulous English teachers who not only pushed me–but who also showed me that if I worked at it–I could master this language thing as well as I could the mathematical and visual subjects that came so naturally to me.

In these three years–I learned my words.  I learned them well enough so that when, in Senior year, I had an absolute fucking asshole of an english teacher–one who didn’t like me, who lied to me and who even tried keep me from taking my final exam at the end of the year–which was against the rules–I took great pleasure in getting a “5” on the AP English exam while students that he favored got 3’s and 4’s..

Words. I haz them.

However, as it should be obvious, words are not natural to me–they are an acquisition.  As such, my feelings and perceptions of them have always been as an outsider–a foreigner–trying to figure them out.  And even if I did eventually figure them out, what has always been clear to me is that words are not magical.  They are not absolute. They are not eternal.

Words are constructions. They are contextual.  They change.

Words are muddy and blurry in their essence.

Such an attitude was only reinforced when I found out about the subject/topic of linguistics and specifically etymology.  Trying to learn to speak German–as someone who’s not good at one language, much less two (and I should admit–I was a quiet child and I can be very quiet for a long time if I don’t see a reason to talk..)–such an endeavor did not come easy to me.  Thus, I tried to find tricks or other strategies to help me remember words and expand my vocabulary… and for me–the best thing I discovered was the Duden Herkunftswoerterbuch (etymological dictionary) while I was living over in Germany.  In that dictionary, they would give a german word and explain where it came from–but they would also give the links/cognates of the word in other languages–especially the Germanic ones. (I will note that the OED does a similar thing and I love it also… and you can find something that uses it online here.. .)

Here are some examples of these linkages: (German: word/meaning : English cognate)

Zaun/Fence-wall: Town
werfen/to throw: to warp
Haut/skin: Hide <–animal hide
uebel/ill: evil
Schmerz/pain: Smart (It means “sharp thing”–>Think “that smarts!”)
schaffen/to create: to shape, -scape (landscape)
etc.. I could go on here for days…

Thus.. I learned different ways of remembering German words by their links to English words, but–more importantly–I started seeing the underlying patterns of change between German and English… and that helped me grok further just how fluid languages and words really could be.

It made me see how creative humans were with their words… and it made me realize.. that words are our minions–We are not theirs…

Now.. this view towards words as merely tools.. as fluid constructs–but very, very useful ones–has served me well–even if it has also made me take very different positions than some of my friends in certain situations.  I once, for example, had a friend say “Well, you’re a historian, so you should know how important maintaining clear definitions for words are!”–>wherein I pointed out that as a historian I actually knew that words’ definitions were always constructs and not eternal things–and thus, I did not “know” what she was claiming, but instead argued that such maintenance of definitions was a choice and only made sense given certain contexts.  In her context–she was training to be a lawyer–such an approach to words did make sense–but in broader societal contexts–it did not always make sense–and any claim that words had eternal, essential meanings was ripe for being shot down in my view…

Anyway.. This is my take on Words… and why I think we could all be wordsmiths–at least those who are enamored with such a task.

This view also colors an idea that I had a few days ago that I want to get down—because it involved one of the most obvious applications of words–namely arguments.

Now–most of my good friends–those who know me well enough and who have chosen to hang around me for a while–know that I can argue with the best of them.

This is an interesting turn of events for, as I alluded to above, words were never my first love and they are not natural to me.  What is true, however, is that when it comes to arguments, there are a wide variety of ways that we can argue and such arguments take place in some radically different contexts.  On the one hand, there are spontaneous arguments/verbal disputes within a public setting between different people.  These “disputes” might just take the form of one-upsmanship in name-calling–or they might be longer and more in-depth arguments.  On the other hand, there are more drawn out and indirect disputes that take place less in the moment, and more by means of a particular communicative medium.  In the past, this medium would have been journals, but today, the interwebz-in its multitudinous forms– is the preeminent place for such indirect arguments.

Now–my thought–is that these two different forms of argumentation map fairly well onto the extraverted and introverted modes of living that I’ve spent a lot of time NOMing on.  In particular, extraverts tend to use the former mode–the quick shot, in the moment, form of argumentation/disputation a lot.  This kind of communicative exchange fits their brain and their style a lot–esp. for ExTx’s–because to them, the talking is what it’s all about.  Now..my (interesting) observation about this is that these extraverts’ appreciation of words–at least in all of my recollections and reflections–is usually very much like my earlier lawyer-in-training’s understanding of words.  Words are tools to be used in communication–but they are very much perceived to be like the antique understanding of atoms–i.e. indivisible and essential.  Thus, because the words are the “ground level” of essential meaning, extraverts often become quite fluid with them and can use them in immediate situations quite effectively, because there is no time to think about the words or to do any decipherment.   In fact, extraverts seem to assume that there is no need for interpretation or decipherement–that the meaning of these words is automatically apparent and clear immediately.

And.. in a certain sense–this is true.  If you just assume the “prevailing” meaning of a lot of words and annihilate “shades of meaning” or contextual limitations on meaning–you can often make some interesting claims and win arguments in a public sphere of people who either do not know these shades of meaning–or who aren’t normally interested in delving into such depths, because they are also extraverts.  Also–sometimes, the shades of meaning are not all that relevant….

Now–I’m not trying to paint a bad picture of this form of argumentation–but rather trying to show that this is how a lot of arguments seem to go–and they often especially follow this routine if you have an extravert arguing against an introvert in a public place and especially if both tend to be younger rather than older.  I know, for example, that this is what happened to me as a kid and up through high school and even partially in college–and it happened a lot to my introverted friends on a regular basis..

However–what I’ve noticed–and this was actually my thought–is that the older people get–and the more such arguments move into indirect realms–the more an introverted approach to words–one that doesn’t necessarily take them at face value.. (and I think this is also very much an INxx approach.. ISxJ’s aren’t like this as much…)–but that pays more attention to shades of meaning/contextual bindings/and which sees them fundamentally as constructs–this approach can be a lot more effective in the indirect kind of arguments, because it slows the conversation down, and it makes extraverts stop and try to complicate the clear stories in their heads–which doesn’t fit their style or goals and often makes them frustrated.  In my experience–i.e. on numerous occasions–I’ve watched extraverts make a particular claim, and then watched more introverted types dispute this claim (I’m definitely nefarious here..), and when the conversation gets going–and the introverts broaden and complicate the issues and the story—the extraverts seem more and more at a loss as to what to do–and seem to wonder why people aren’t understanding everything as they do…

Now.. this is, as always, not some essentialist thing.  Extraverted personalities can learn to argue in a more introverted way (learning to broaden their understanding of words), just as introverts–especially in settings that are “comfortable” for them–maybe like a small group of friends–can learn to argue more effectively in an extraverted way (quick and decisively…)–but this is the reflection/thought/notion that came to mind the other day that I wanted to chew on…

So here it is.  Now NOM on that, folks..

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About Prof. Woland

I contain multitudes. Come meet us.
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3 Responses to Words and their Applications

  1. Pingback: Follow up on Words and their Applications and now Math | The Philosophy of NOM

  2. Pingback: What do you Do? | The Philosophy of NOM

  3. Pingback: Types and Questions to Live by… | The Philosophy of NOM

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