Words: When Language Breaks Down

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I have a theory on language communication: words only work so far and our biggest problem is in assuming they are enough. Here I am trying to explain my theory on the different concepts of words by using words… hmm, bear with me… Of course there are obvious language barriers when two people are communicating in a language that is not the native tongue for at least one person involved. What I’m talking about are the not-so-obvious language barriers and opportunities for miscommunication within your own native language and in speaking with those people who share it. Yes, I realise I’m communicating here in English, and English, by far, has the most opportunity for miscommunication with so many words that mean the same thing, many words that sound the same yet are not, as well as many words that also have different meanings depending on when they are used. Miscommunication can happen so easily! I find that it’s often the case that it simply never occurred to the person committing offense that another person could possibly take what was said offensively. This is when I think communication between two speakers of different languages actually have an advantage in attempting to communicate successfully. For example, let’s say one native English speaker and someone else communicate in another language. Until the native English speaker has been immersed in the other language and culture enough to build personal bias about certain words, they only carry whatever understandings they were taught for what each of the new language’s words really means. In a general sense, this means no bias but what exists within the language structure itself, such as formal or informal speaking. So while communicating may or may not be difficult depending on how fluent the native English speaker is in that other language and whether they are basically understood by the other person, miscommunication is largely restricted to the use of the correct word, rather than the potential nuances of meaning behind it.

I’ve seen evidence that even within our own communities and mini-cultures each person can bring a slightly different understanding about what any given word might mean to them. My theory begins with children when first learning to use words for communication. When you have no words for reference, what you have left is learning to understand by observations of body movement and listening to tonal inflections (far greater teacher, by the way). Simultaneously, a child learns about human interaction and whatever context is at play in addition to the words being spoken. Consequently, to everyone, all words have each their own specific set of feelings, biases, or “as I understand it” that comes into play every time we communicate.


A minor example of what I mean might be the slight cultural differences of Westerners referring to a carbonated beverage as “soda”, the Midwest calls it “pop”, the New Englanders generally refer to a drink as either “sodapop” or “soft drink”, and in the South, they often call it “Coke” no matter what the brand. I have no idea what they call carbonated beverages in the Greater SouthWest, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn there are even more options for referring to such drinks in smaller pockets here and there. On the surface, this seems simple enough, it’s the same thing but different words, right? Synonyms. Weeeeell…not exactly… I spent most of my formative years in the Midwest where we called carbonated beverages “pop”. To me it was defined a rare treat and so the simple word had loads of positive excitement wrapped up in it. When we spent a few of my early years in the New England area, I learned that “sodapop” was not considered a treat, it was treated like a very poor junk food that can make you sick. To my internal reference guide, this seemed simple enough: “pop” is a positive treat, but adding “soda” to the word made it somehow bad. Pop = Good, fun, reward. Soda = Bad, icky, don’t want it. The first time I realized this inconsistency was when visiting a friend’s home as a teenager. I was asked if I “wanted a soda.” My immediate gut-reaction was “yuck, no!” The problem with this was when that same someone immediately remembered I came from Wisconsin, corrected herself and teasingly asked if I “wanted a pop.” My gut reaction then was “OH YEAH!” Yup, I was confused.

These personal reference point differences can be way more complex when considering the different meanings of the same word. One obvious point I can make here is how words like “love”, “dude”, “radical”, “wicked”, and many others have become so altered from their original definitions due to newly commonplace slang. They have evolved. If you were to poll a selection of people from different generations, even if they are from the same region, each will have their own, similar though very different, understanding of “love”, “dude”, “radical”, and “wicked.” So let’s try the word “rainbow”. That’s a simple enough word, right? What does “rainbow” make you think of? Do you think of rainbow as associated with pre-teen girlish fantasy obsession for all things colorful? Do you think of the rainbow that has become the hallmark of gay pride accompanied by your personal feelings on the subject? Do you think of a rainbow in the sky, complete with misty rain clouds and sense of wonder?

Of course when the word “rainbow” comes up in a conversation, it will likely be in a context that makes most of that choice for you. But only if you can honestly say you thought blandly “rainbow…a band of gradient colors…what about it?” when I asked first can you say you have no bias on that particular word. The fact is that the vast majority of humans have personal bias associated with most every word in their native tongue. It’s also true of words in additional languages if we are fluent and have had occasion to use meaningful words with many different types of native speakers. We will eventually pick up nuances of how to properly reference something without offense in a given situation, and it may change depending on the audience present. This is why I say it’s the words, not which language you use, that is a problem. So, not only do we have biases from our own formative understandings of words, and generational biases to our understanding because word meanings are constantly evolving, but we also have biases based on our personal feelings wrapped up our understanding. In most instances people can bridge the gap well enough to be basically understood. We do this everyday. But, I think the best we can do most of the time is just bridge that gap. It has occurred to me that the way I think about meaningful words is often so subtle, it’s like shades of grey or variations on a scent. It can’t really be adequately described, language just breaks down. The variations are just there, I mean “this” not “that”, think that “at least I know what I’m talking about”… and too often we assume others think the same way we do. So what happens? Miscommunication, offense, hurt feelings, and the like. It can even mean you find yourself committed to something you weren’t even aware was on the table for discussion – ever had that moment: “wait, what just happened here?”

In our current age of text and print communication, with no body language, tone of voice or eye contact, and very little in the way of emphasis (despite emoticons), this chasm between what we say and what we mean widens exponentially. For one thing, we humans need to remember we are feeling beings first and language is simply NOT an exact science, no matter how many rules and conditions or smiley and angry faces are applied to it. This propensity for shortening words, and even leaving out whole words, in the interest of text brevity has some sad implications for future communication… rather future MIScommunication. I’m stunned when a miscommunication happens over that sort of brief texting and those involved just can’t understand how it happened…. Um, what? “But we’ve been besties forEVER, of course she knew I meant ______. She just had to! I would never mean ______. So how could she be mad at me? What did I do?” Cue tears.

They grow up eventually, I know, but unless they are also willing to communicate a bit better, the potential is kind of scary. Truly. You should see some of the online job applications that are submitted for University entry-level or assistant support employment. They’re young, to be sure, but supposedly educated, young adults writing professional introductory letters that come across almost like a text message to a friend?! It’s so atrocious it’s a wonder they can ever get an interview, much less hired. How did they ever pass an English composition course? Would you want that communication-fail employed for any sort of administrative work? Don’t let them near a keyboard communicating with any of your professional contacts via email!

Ok, so back to spoken miscommunication within the language. Here’s an idea: think of two different people you know with the same name. Now, aside from the obvious physical and experiential differences you have, how does your mind separate the two in your head? They are just different, right? Even if your two very best friends in the whole, wide world have the same name, you don’t differentiate in your mind by thinking “Tommy #1” and “Tommy #2”, or by their surnames, or by “Big Tom” and “Little Tom”. In fact, you don’t think their names at all in your mind. No, you feel them differently inside yourself. They are simply “him” and “him” and only YOU know the difference.

Twins talk

It’s how sometimes you dream about somebody who doesn’t look like themselves in the dream, but you still know who it is because it feels, and maybe acts, like so-and-so. When you wake up, you might think, “wow, baby Jessica is a 10-foot-tall man!” I won’t go into the many possible reasons for dream-morphing here, my point remains the same: the person feels like whomever to you so you just know that’s who it is regardless of their appearance. It’s the same sort of thing with words, synonyms or not, many words may have a similar meaning to you, but only you can explain exactly what those differences are to you. The right word to use in order to relay whatever it is you are trying to say is easily different from someone else’s choice were they trying to relay the same information.

Imagine if there was a way to somehow measure or record the exact response a person has to some meaningful words, whether it be emotional, mental, or that-weird-something-we-can’t-describe, and compare it against the exact response of another person/people in monitored conversations. I believe we would find the measurements very rarely, if ever, match. When the conversation is deeper than casual or professional, the difference in our understanding of the words used are also deeper and more personal. I sometimes find myself trying to explain how I think or feel about a thing, realise I’m either losing or offending my audience, and give up with the catchall, “nevermind, language breaks down.”

5 thoughts on “Words: When Language Breaks Down

    bodyofbalance said:
    January 27, 2015 at 4:08 PM

    Great stuff. You’re dead on. While there might be an “original” meaning to a word, once it leaves its nest and goes into circulation, it is whatever a person makes of it. In the end all effective communication is based on shared feelings between people, so that the words are not as important as the feelings behind them.

    Liked by 1 person

      knightwitch responded:
      January 27, 2015 at 5:37 PM

      Thank you so much. I was a little worried no one would really get what I was trying to say 😉


    daharkins1 said:
    January 27, 2015 at 7:08 PM

    Nice blog post! As a writer, it is always difficult to find just the right words that say exactly what I want to say! And, while I text, it never sounds like me….words are so important.

    Liked by 1 person

    The Liebster Award! | KnightHearth said:
    March 12, 2015 at 4:04 PM

    […] “Words: When Language Breaks Down” because no matter who you are or what your beliefs or opinions on anything, this issue is relevant to everyone. […]


    The Gift of Listening | KnightHearth said:
    April 20, 2015 at 12:38 AM

    […] I’ve mentioned in a earlier post, Words: When Language Breaks Down, words alone are enough to easily cause miscommunication, so listening fully with your whole being, […]


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