Sunday, July 3, 2011

The language game

The 20th Century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein focused on understanding the nature of language. His thoughts are often divided into two accounts. In his younger years he saw language as reflecting the objects and activities in the world that it refers to. Thus the word 'cat' refers to the physical cat - or the abstract idea of a cat - and 'water' refers to physical water. Successful communication is thus one that corresponds to the world which it seeks to portray. Hence, if one points to a cat and says 'cow' they've failed to use language correctly.

Later in his life Wittgenstein dramatically reviewed his account. He compared language to a game with its own set of rules. For language to work, as any game, people must have agreed upon common rules - be they implicit or explicit - to abide by. If individuals each have their own sets of rules, effective communication becomes impossible, just as one following the rules of tennis is not going to having a meaningful game playing with one following the rules of baseball.   

Both of Wittgenstein's accounts of language are important to communicate effectively with fellow skaters:

a. Skateboard culture has its own vocabulary for skateboarding specific objects and actions. There are hundreds of tricks, each with a particular name; there are words for each component of a skateboard and for the variety of ramps and equipment skated on. Without adequate skateboarding vocabulary it's difficult to speak about skating without long winded descriptions of what one is referring to.
b. Skateboarding also has its own language game, the rules of which must be learnt in order to communicate properly with skaters. For example, when a skater uses the expression 'sick', he's not recommending a visit to the doctor. In skateboarding, 'sick' is similar in meaning to words like 'amazing' or 'cool' - though it has a different emotional flavour which can only be picked up from hearing it expressed by skaters. Similarly, if a skateboarder swears, it's not to be taken as seriously as when a conservative person swears. In skateboard culture swearing is quite normal and casual; in more conservative cultures it may indicate an intensity of feeling that has caused one to break their normal manner.     

There is another profound aspect of language: every language offers a specific view of reality. The words commonly used in a language, the undercurrent of emotion charging words, the manner in which the language describes phenomena, the idioms, the phonetics,etc, all converge to form a lens through which to perceive the world. This is conspicuous in the languages of academic disciplines. Thus, the language of science offers a dramatically different worldview to the language of poetry. But in the same vein, albeit more subtly, Russian offers a different worldview to English or Chinese.

This greatly distinguishes human language from animal language. Animal language is instinctive, an expression of what an animal is; human languages are acquired and significantly influence what a human becomes. In learning the language of skateboarding one does not only improve one's ability to communicate with other skateboarders, one comes to perceive the world through skateboarders eyes...                            


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