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From Nonsense To Sense: What Text Actually Means

By Marcus Ten Low

Learning to theorise and generalise about text (which is called “textual analysis”) has become one of the greatest conveniences of my learning career. For better or worse, most of this stuff is learning that I acquired through bits and pieces, and empirical experimentation and deduction, through sheer use and experiences with language. Most poorly formulated arguments (in social media, and elsewhere in everyday life) can be most conveniently resolved by pointing the perpetrator of the argument to a closer study of the regulations of textual analysis (which are, on closer inspection, self-evident).

Primarily, textual analysis is not about spelling and grammar, but rather about meaning and the intent to communicate. Language lives, is fluid, and can have a multiplicity of meanings. As time goes on, the same expression can change in its meaning. When all is said and done, what remains is the text itself.

Not all text is equal in merit. When thinking about the efficacy of a text, we must ask whether it delivers some effect on the reader, and exactly what that is.

Mere gibberish is a text. But it is not effective at communicating meaning in the way that is usual. Gibberish can be fun, funny. When I was young we called it “gobbledegook” and found it exceedingly creative to make more and more of, and recite it. That speaks of the power of language, as well of the power of jest in childhood. Very interestingly, an unintelligible language from another culture often has the same effect as gibberish: the more different the language is in musicality from one’s own language, the more hilarious it can be. It is when another language (including, possibly, gibberish) starts to form meaning that you have the real firstlings of a communicated message. This may be aided by gesturing, gesticulation, mouthing of words, and attempts to copy the other person’s language.

Learning the spirit of fun and hilarity in nonsense actually engenders a very important lesson in language and relations more generally. That lesson is that we should always attempt to honor the intention of a communicated message more than the face value of that message. Some language philosophers have referred to this as the method of “charitable interpretation”. This principle is not to suggest that we cannot have an opinion (good, bad or neutral) on the sender of that communication. We can honor their desire to communicate, but still be unimpressed with their character, for example.

However, taking the literal interpretation of a message is often a good way to ground any conversation and encourage all its participants to be careful with their use of language (whatever language is used). In this way, the literal interpretation is perhaps the best starting point for assessing any enquiry, discussion or debate. This tactic must also be balanced with the understanding that sometimes, people do not say or write exactly what they mean or intend. Herein lies the ongoing complexity of language-usage.

From gibberish come many neologisms, but these are eventually left by the wayside rather than being appropriated by tradition, or regular usage. Even so, there is a famous poem that uses gibberish with such skill that people can claim to understand exactly what it means. That poem is Lewis Carroll’s ‘The Jabberwocky’.

The arch enemy of users of gibberish and gobbledegook are spelling- and grammar-nazis. These are people who believe that they have been taught the “rules” of grammar at some stage in their schooling career and feel threatened with something terrible if they or anyone should waiver from these. I think that grammar nazis’ only usefulness is really only ever against those who are sloppy with their use of language when trying to communicate in plain language. The need for precision in language is only a need when there is a desire for clarity of meaning, intent and purpose. And that in turn teaches us (the sender of the message) to be able to think clearly. However, that being the sole reason for learning to be precise, insisting on precision to the point of obsession or aggression is usually excessive. There is scope to be very careful in structuring an argument, or an essay or thought-piece, et cetera. The way you communicate should be logical and effectively structured. But if at any time, sometimes, you decide to do away with the rules altogether, all you are doing is exercising a fundamental right to use language in your own way—not according to those rules. And sometimes, ambiguity and ambivalence of thinking is a skill in itself. Use of puns, word-play, deliberate ambiguity, innuendo, sarcasm, irony and more: all these are tools that can be used variously, for better or worse, at different times.

This idea of precision against imprecision in language can be generalised more broadly as the difference between concrete and abstract thinking. There is much to learn from both of these types of thinking. Concrete thinking presumes little, but tends to lack imagination. Many people who prefer concrete thinking would argue that abstract thinking is too airy and vague, because abstract thinking uses figures of speech, metaphors, and the like. In most interactions, depending on the degree of success we are having with our fellow communicants, we should have a mix of concrete and abstract thinking, without ever assuming that our chosen mode (or the mix) is a perfect way of expressing what we really intend. Language is not perfect; it is always an alive thing, that has its own faults and problems and beauties and fascinations. One theory argues that language’s effectiveness is dependent on its functionality and utility–and it is good to keep that idea in mind.

Even the word “language” has a variety of meanings. Computer programming, and mathematics, for example, are both examples of language. On the scale of functionality and utility, they rate highly, but only for their specified purpose. Like any language, they appear rather special and miraculous too, and have their own sometimes exotic and delightful expressions to discover and use.

At advanced levels of common language use, there is much to discover too, and some of it is decidedly negative. As a good example, politicians often use language in twisted ways and with the intent to persuade, often against careful and caring reasoning. Investing your time and effort to understand them can often be a waste. This leads us to an important point: No matter how interesting language can be, there is another element to consider: that of the character, or personality, of the person who delivers the message. This is otherwise known as the “ad hominem” analysis, which means analysis “of the person”. Using the knowledge that you have about a person’s character is of course relevant to anything that that person might say. This is despite the fact that some have suggested that attacks on personal character are “completely irrelevant” to a discussion. Of course they are! One thing to be mindful of, though, is that many ad hominem beliefs can never be fully proven. So be careful. If someone appears to you to be wasting your time, it is your decision to make to abandon communicating with them.

So. We have in some strange way come full-circle. Always remember where language comes from: gibberish, or nonsense, and remember the (too often unspoken) rules and regulations that come with the use of language.

MARCUS TEN LOW is an empirical analyst of languages, life and his own highly varied experiences.

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