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One of language’s various functions is the significant one of providing labels for “things” that have multiple characteristics.   For example, imagine what it would be if  there were no word for what we in English call “apple” —  Every time we wanted to refer to this item of multiple characteristics that, at in our time and space “apple” points to, we would have to describe the phenomenon in all its characteristics and functions.  What a laborious task!!.  Without this labeling feature of language, we would, perhaps, be unable to communicate very much at all due to the time it would take!!!

The time and energy saver that comes along with having verbal labels also has a down side.  Labels (or verbal pointers, if you wish) depend on observations having been made of what is external to us.  And, that becomes a problem because we “labelers” are always limited in our observations due to the finitude and perversity of our sensorial and rational apparata.

I experienced that one day in a class dealing with cultural distinctives.  I divided the class into four groups, with all the groups having the same equivalent of a Rorschach ink blot.  (They are easy to make with an old fashion ink pen, a piece of paper that can be folded in half once you have splattered on the paper some ink from the pen, and time for the ink to dry before making copies for everyone).  Each group had the task of 1) pretending that their ink blot was the sum total of all reality, 2) labeling everything they could identify on the ink blot using either completely invented words, or words already familiar to them.  Then, we compared the results.

Without referring to all that this little experiment taught about cultural distinctives (since each group was its own microcosmic culture), allow me to mention just the following – the labels they all invented for what they observed as members of their own “new” culture did three things. First, the labels simplified communication.  Second, the labels established unintended limits on what most members of the group would later observe about their reality.  Third, the labels used by each group could, and did, make cross cultural communication a dicey endeavor.  The four groups all were working with the same reality, but none of them had the same set of phenomena that the other groups had labeled.

What the previous paragraphs describe also has application to relationships even between individuals.  We may not be communicating nearly as well as we think we are, even if that other person is the one we most love.  Our “worlds” of perceived reality hopefully overlap, but they most likely will not be identical!!

 

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