Language is like choosing which side of the street to drive on
November 17th, 2018
A debate I’ve come across again and again is whether language is objective or subjective. It tends to crop up in moments like when dictionaries update the word "literally" with contradictory definitions or when people argue that Ebonics isn't "correct" English.
The working definitions we'll use:
- objective: something that can be correct or incorrect, i.e. really out there in the world independent of whether or not you perceive it
- subjective: something that is up to interpretation, i.e. your personal experience of something
On one hand, it's clearly possible to have different levels of mastery over language—some people are better communicators than others, and it's a skill that can be learned. On the other hand, everyone has their own style and taste, and language is subject to constant evolution and experimentation. Neither "objective" nor "subjective" is really the right category, but we tend to argue about it at this binary level.
Language is more like choosing which side of the street to drive on. Language can be "correct" in the same way that it's "correct" to drive the left in the UK and on the right in the US while the reverse is "wrong".
There is no empirical, moral, or theoretical law of the universe that forces it to be one or the other. These are just norms, decided and agreed upon by society. They're not objective in the sense that Americans are doing it wrong or that the Brits discovered some secret of the universe (nor vice versa).
However these norms are also not subjective in the sense that you can just choose to not believe them. Deviating is costly. If you drive on the left in America, you're gonna have a hard time. If you drive on the right in Britain, expect to be honked at angrily. It may have been a matter of chance that things ended up one way or another, but that doesn't make the consequences any less real.
Many aspects of daily life are like this. What they have in common is there's not one "right" answer, but it does matter that everyone is coordinated with the same set of expectations and you don't get to just ignore the consequences of deviating. Other examples that come to mind:
- The location of a market: It doesn't really matter on what downtown block you put the Farmers Market, but you want all of the sellers and buyers to end up in the same place. If you wake up Sunday morning and decide that it's outside your front door rather than 10 blocks away where everyone else agreed to meet, sorry but you're not going to get your organic squash.
- Electrical outlet standards: Within a most countries you can assume that anywhere you go will conform to the same plug, socket, and voltage standards. It doesn't really matter what those standards are, as long as you and the society around you agree on one standard. Notably, like deciding which side of the road to drive on, the intersubjective truth of what is the "right" plug differs from country to country. (Note: Differing from country to country is a hint that something is an intersubjective truth!)
- What counts as "proper" grammar: You can choose to be relativistic with your semantics, but you shouldn't be surprised if people judge you for it or have a hard time understanding you. (Descriptive, not normative!) Grammatical rules differ from group to group. What matters is that they can communicate effectively when they need to.
- Whether your vocabulary is understood by others: You can choose to coin new words or throw in vocab from other languages, but you shouldn't be surprised if people don't understand what you mean. You may have a shared vocabulary with friends that constitutes an intersubjective truth, while the rest of the world doesn't get it. It doesn't make it false, but it's not objective either.
Of course the options for each of these examples have design tradeoffs too. The choices aren't totally arbitrary, and there may be legitimate reasons one option is better than another. The point is that, for the most part, the "right" choice for an individual is determined by the standard the rest of the group established, not by a fact of nature or by a personal preference.
I was excited to learn a useful word to label this category recently: "intersubjective", which means "Involving or occurring between separate conscious minds; accessible to or capable of being established for two or more subjects". For ages I just thought that my inability to categorize language as one of "objective" or "subjective" was a failure of imagination. Upon discovering this word I realized that it's in a wholly separate category. Language is intersubjective, as are markets, electrical outlet standards, and much, much more. It's amazing how finding the right word can illuminate a concept that's been forming in your head for years!
A few fun thoughts to chew on:
- Does reality include intersubjectivity? I like Philip K. Dick's definition: "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." Following this, subjectivity and objectivity are both part of reality. I'm satisfied with this working definition, because it also explains why so many people seem to want to insist that language is "objective". My impression is that they actually mean to say that it's "part of reality", i.e. you can't change it, but they don't have the words to distinguish between that and objectivity.
- I'm using the term "intersubjective" somewhat differently than how others often use it. If you think I'm abusing the definition or overloading the term too much here, let me know! Words are important.
- All of our beliefs about what is objective actually stem from intersubjectivity. (And if you want to dive even deeper, all intersubjectivity derives from subjectivity...) We are more confident that something is objective the more others agree with us, but we can never be entirely sure that it's not a mass delusion.
Thanks to Dandelion Mane for introducing me to the term "intersubjectivity"! This concept had been bouncing around in my head for years, and finally I have a label for it.
Epistemic effort: I did a 1h quickwrite to brain dump my thoughts on the subject, then I spent one evenings revising it so it actually made sense.
Keep in touch!