The abstract nature of written language

Written language is usually viewed as being more precise than spoken language – one supposedly has time to deliberate the choice of words. This is usually not the case in verbal communications. Sometimes the words come out before one has thought them through. However today I experienced an incident which reminded me once more of the abstract nature of the written language. By abstract I refer to the different factors impacting the meaning of the words used in a communication.

First factor – our knowledge of possible words, which can be used to convey a specific meaning, is limited. This knowledge base differs between native speakers, advanced students and new learners of a language. Sometimes one is simply not aware that there are other words, which are more suited to convey the message one wants to make. As a result, the intensity or meaning of the message conveyed is compromised. This loss in message happens even before it is sent.

Second factor – words are ambiguous in nature. To begin with a word can have various meanings while various words can have the same meaning. Furthermore the meaning of words could be coloured by regional associations or connotations. I once said to a colleague, “I am on medication.” I was having a cold and had to take tablets a couple of times a day. My colleague laughingly replied, “I knew something was wrong with your head.” The confusion must have been obvious on my face. He explained that ‘medication’ is associated with pills taken when undergoing some kind of psychotherapy. I do not know if this is a common association. But this example clear shows how easily misunderstandings arise. One wrong word and the rumour mill would have had a sensational titbit to spread – Irene is having psychological problems. In this case my colleague had background information, which helped in turning the situation into funny instead. He knew that I was not from England, that I was having a cold and that I did not understand the joke he was making.

Third factor – in my opinion we scan instead of reading to save time. This practice is especially precarious when it comes to responding to e-mails. Misunderstandings and unnecessary e-mail chains could lead to tempers running high in the office environment. Subsequently productivity levels and effectiveness at work are reduced.

Fourth factor – a written communication is not always received in the same language as it is sent. In times where the whole world seems to be connected through the web, communications might have to be translated. Just take a look at Facebook. A click is all it takes to translate status updates into the local language.

Fifth factor – body language is more effective in conveying meaning than words. With a wink of an eye, one can convey the sarcasm of a statement. However this kind of hint is missing in the written form. One could always add a smiley but that could be construed as simply being cheeky. I have made comments online, which were harmless in nature for me. However some people took offense because of the choice of words. Such situations can quickly get out of hand, when others jump into the discussion without really knowing what is all about. A harmless written comment could lead to a person being virtually lynched by a maddened online community.

This abstract nature of the written language makes it perfect as a form of art. Ambiguity gives room for interpretation. It provides space for personal fantasies to develop. In one’s mind the author uses alliteration to express his repressed feelings, which is evident in the repetitive use of the silent ‘B’. It is irrelevant, if the author only used the technique because he liked the sound of the words. That is art with the potential to endure generations of criticism and interpretations. Therefore I continue my love affair with the written language and hope that you will find some sense in my work, even when none is intended. 🙂

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