How Do We Make Sense of Things? The Language Connection

As award-winning blogger Maria Popova once said, “We can never see the world as it really is“. And that’s because, on the one hand, we are part of the very system we are trying to describe, and on the other because the things we perceive make little or no sense to us until we plot them onto a certain map of meaning – a “range of known social and cultural identifications” as Hall (1978) calls them.

Oftentimes, the way we understand and represent the world and its phenomena to ourselves and to others will differ based on the underlying myths we grew up with. As cultural theorist Roland Barthes said, to describe something is to add connotations, “to signify something different to what is shown”. 

Does that mean that perfect communication – or, in Bergson’s terminology, “simultaneity” – is impossible among human beings? There are many authors, especially those of modernist and post-modernist extraction, that support this idea. And yet, our daily experiences show that true communion among people can exist (what Durkheim calls “collective effervescence”). How come?


Well, first of all, because communication is always more than just words. The verbal element is often in the minority. Para-verbal and non-verbal aspects can make a hell of a difference. Heck, even punctuation can. One such example is the old adage about Czar Alexander III of Russia, who allegedly signed a deportation order consisting of the following words: “Forgiveness impossible, to be sent to Siberia!“. The queen his wife, however, disagreed. She is thought to have saved the man’s life by simply moving the comma. The note now read: “Forgiveness, impossible to be sent to Siberia!”  (Which is why you always need an eye for detail – not to mention a highly-qualified and well-rested linguist to proofread your texts!).


It would appear that human communication is fragile indeed. And yes, misunderstandings happen all the time. However, we’re usually able to communicate fairly effectively when we share the same cultural space, cultural references, values and scripts.

So, why does the newspaper headline “Unemployed mother of six receives welfare check” as opposed to “Single woman with six children by two different men, living at your expense” change how we might relate to the situation? It probably has to do with cultural values such as work ethic, monogamy, responsibility, equity, which are part of our culture, but which the two headlines hint at in different ways. In the first version, the focus is on helping the less fortunate. In the second, it is on profiteering. The situation has been reframed to make the woman sound unworthy and to reinforce prejudice. (Remember, the media are gatekeepers; they make decisions about what and how to present all the time; what we see is never an exact copy of reality, nor is it the whole reality or the objective truth.) But why is it that words can shift perception?


One answer comes from semiotics. Words, semioticians claim, are signs. Certainly more abstract than an arrow or a tree, but still signs. They carry meaning on several levels. The both denote and connote. Language is a symbolic system we use to represent the phenomena we encounter. The meaning we attach to utterances depends on context, usage and our previous knowledge. It depends (among other things) on the speaker, the situation, the channel, the purpose of the communication, our cultural background and certainly our biases. All of these things affect interpretation.

To use language is to manipulate symbols. In order for something to make sense, we need to organize these symbols in a structure. In a very Cartesian sense, this structure has two dimensions: on the horizontal (the syntagmatic axis), words are connected sequentially, to generate coherence and cohesion. On the vertical, what linguists call the paradigmatic axis, is where we make those mutually-exclusive word choices that create nuance. In the sentence “I am pleased“, I, am, and pleased are linked together via syntax to create a grammatical sentence we can understand. A syntagm. Replacing “pleased” with “elated“, however, changes the paradigm by making a different word choice to suggest a different (hyperbolic) meaning.


Language is not just for exchanging information. It is also an instrument used to reveal emotions and stances, to build relationships, to launch appeals, and to fashion identities, interpretations, and hierarchies (see Schulz von Thun and others). And words – as symbols – are often used or avoided precisely because of the underlying myths they conjure up, precisely because they are “fraught” or charged with a certain meaning, which by sheer repetition has come to feel natural, self-evident, normal – the only possible one. 


This is where PC, human rights activists, feminists and minority advocates often come into the picture, arguing for a change of linguistic paradigm in an attempt to dismantle entrenched representations. Because some words have developed such a strong, inexorable association with a reviled meaning, the assumption is that they cannot be simply freed from it, and end up corrupting thought itself. So new words are employed. To some people this feels wrong and artificial. What do you think? Can we switch to other words the same way we change shoes that no longer fit, and can we enforce their use? And if yes, why? Can we force or nudge people to apply different concepts or is that too much like brainwashing and propaganda?

But two other things can happen to words during the course of their long existence: 

1. Their meaning can get altered as our knowledge about the world evolves, as social and technological contexts change, and as new physical, political or economic realities emerge. The episteme itself changes slowly but inexorably. 

2. With frequent and extensive use, some words get depleted, drained of their meaning – they become bureaucratic labels, empty husks that have lost the capacity to express anything of substance. They pale, they lose their luster and their ability to inspire.

To remain relevant, we often alter the metaphor in our marcomms when it becomes cliché. When the paradigm changes and audiences develop new expectations, we may use words in ways that challenge the very myth they were built on.


Of course, human thought does not begin or end with language. But language often plays a major role in how we represent the world, and it’s important to keep that in mind. It’s only words. But they don’t just make the difference between an exceptional writer and a mediocre one. Words cut deeper. Words can liberate and words can insult, intimidate or oppress. 

Need polished communication that is culturally aware and treats each word responsibly? YourTranscreator is happy to assist with translation, transcreation, copy-editing, media research, discourse analysis and communication audits, localization and training. Until then, have a wonderful holiday season, a happier 2021 – and a Merry Christmas to all those celebrating it!

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