#sorryimnotsorry (an addendum)

(Posted by Sandeep)

Discussing the significance of Clinton’s word choice of “regret” makes me wonder about the strength of Austin’s third justification, that natural language can convey all distinctions required by people.

Does Clinton really feel “regret” as we might understand it? Is “regret” an appropriate word? It’s probably one of the most significant words in his whole statement — he doesn’t actually ever say “sorry” — so we might assume that he weighed his choice of “regret” carefully.

So Clinton’s choice is fallible; fine. The way we use natural language isn’t infallible, but in his third justification,

(3) that the words available in a natural language suffice to satisfactorily convey all distinctions that we might like to make

Austin seems to be hinting at that by arguing generations of language users have honed and perfected the spoken tongue over centuries.

Does that mean that somewhere along the line language couldn’t convey all distinctions? That seems highly unlikely, unless we return so far back in human history we’re no longer talking about the modern species. If something needs to be said, it will be said.

Language isn’t along some sort of scala naturaewith modern language at the peak. Language changes, but it’s not necessarily improving. What I mean to say is that perhaps Austin’s second and third justifications are sometimes at odds with each other — we can’t always acknowledge that our language is inadequate and arbitrary while still glorifying the existing language as complete.

Other troublesome questions remain, too: is a person who claims to speak English always required to know the semantic shades of meaning of all words? Some people do for some words, and some people don’t for the same words.

Austin talks about dictionaries and how to use them. I wonder how useful a dictionary is in terms of ordinary language. Yes, we use them, but what about before dictionaries? How were people able to deduce shades of meaning?

Ordinary language is what people do say. People speak, and people have spoken for the history of our species. Here is where Austin’s scala naturae also uncomfortably collides with the science of language development. Oral language came first, and there were no dictionaries then. All present literate societies are fundamentally oral and secondarily written. Austin argues that, well, language has developed more shades of distinction over time. We know that to be dubious, but it would actually theoretically go in tandem with the fact that dictionaries are a recent, helpful invention.

The relationship between Austin’s assertions and what is known about historical language development is complex, but I can’t help feeling that there is some gulf of understanding between the two.

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