Prabuddha BharataLatest Issue

EditorialEditorial : Meanings and Contexts

Words are the medium of human verbal communication. They are complemented by non-verbal communication like gestures, facial expressions, and different kinds of sounds conveying different moods. A grunt can never be adequately translated into a word. Even the word ‘grunt’ does not come close to the corresponding sound. Then there are pictures and symbols, the proverbial equivalents of thousands of words. Nonetheless, words occupy the maximum communication space of humans. Hence it is imperative that we understand the power and nuances of wordplay. It is necessary for us to effectively use words to create understanding between human beings.

Words have many meanings. Every word has numerous etymological meanings. It is no less a feat to understand the correct meaning of a given word as intended by the speaker. A speaker uses a particular word with a particular meaning. A series of many such words are used. Each word is spoken with a particular meaning chosen from many meanings of the same word. It is a miracle that the listener understands all the words in exactly the same meaning in which they are used by the speaker. This may not seem as something extraordinary to us. However, this is no simple task. The complexity of this process of dynamically choosing word-meanings both by the speaker and the listener in the everyday act of speaking is not understood fully till one attempts to replicate these actions through a machine. It is when one tries to use artificial intelligence to get a robot do this simple human task that one gets a glimpse of its miraculous nature. Neurological disorders or illnesses that take away the ability to choose proper words and synchronise them into sentences also set us thinking about the fine and elaborate mechanism of speech.

While meanings could be ‘mean’, we constantly ‘con’ texts to arrive at different contexts.

One starts wondering if there is something more to speech than just words, meanings, and contexts. There appears to be an inexplicable something that enables one to go for the appropriate words and phrases and weave them into a cogent combination. Language is an elusive search for meaning through words and phrases. If language were truly meaningful there would be no misunderstanding. True meaning eludes language.

Speech becomes more complex when one takes into account the play on meanings that is made not just by writers and poets but even a casual chit-chatter. Pun is a manner of speech that is used more in humour but also to pack more meanings into a word. A pun is lost if the listener is unable to catch the wordplay. This again brings to light the importance of synchronicity between the speaker and listener in speech. But then, meanings and contexts are not restricted to verbal communication alone. Any kind of communication relies on meanings and contexts. The meaning intended by the speaker should be the meaning that is understood by the listener. Even a different shade of meaning can create much misunderstanding. While much fuss is made about how people should try to understand one another and such ability is considered to be an important step in interpersonal relations, it could be that not understanding other people is more of an organic problem than mental or psychological. A less developed brain or less developed neural speech circuits may cause regular misunderstanding or the missing of the subtle nuances of language. We should focus as much on developing this ability of our brain as we concentrate on interpersonal skills at the psychological level.

No word has a meaning that is independent of its context. In a sarcastic context, a word of love could only symbolise hate or abhorrence. Derisive comments become loving appellations in the context of love. Any communication, verbal or otherwise, has the speaker, listener, time, place, mood, and immediate past events as contexts. The relation between the speaker and the listener is vital in determining or understanding the context. If the speaker is senior in any respect, including age, to the listener, then the context becomes more favourable to the speaker. How often do we give importance to a child’s prattle? Also, when a police officer is the speaker, you better listen! Oftentimes, it is the context that determines the result of the conversation or the fact whether it would turn out to be a conversation or a monologue. In contexts of chastisement or disciplining, the listener can hardly speak.

Contrary though it may seem, we can understand verbal contexts better only if we can understand the non-verbal ones. If one cannot read into a smirk or a grimace, one cannot also understand fully the complete meaning and significance of a word of contempt. Meanings and contexts determine the extent of our understanding of our surroundings as also of ourselves. They also determine the limits of our understanding through communication. Every word acquires a different meaning and continues to develop newer shades of meaning depending upon its contextualisation. While meanings could be ‘mean’, we constantly ‘con’ texts to arrive at different contexts. A word is ripped out of its original significance and a new drape of meaning is put around it to the extent that in due course it loses any connection with its original intention. Swear words or slang words are a case in point. Modern language has many swear words as colophons, albeit not at all in their etymological sense.

The problem of meanings and contexts is not just a problem of communication. It is also a problem of the deeper and more urgent need for understanding the meaning of our lives and our contexts in this universe. How much do we understand when we say that we understand? Are we not going into deeper recesses of misunderstanding when we don the robe of understanding? Are we not putting layers and layers of wrong meanings on the true meaning that is our true Self ? Are we not going round and round in circles instead of hitting on the point in the middle? If the purpose of communication was true understanding, why is it that we are yet to arrive at a plausible one despite our apparent achievements or progress? It all boils down to the wrong context or paradigm. Our contexts have to change. The way we look at things and beings has to change. Our quest for understanding diversity should change. We should aim to converge at the centre of the centrifuge that is this universe. Enough has been said. Enough has been written. Enough has been implied. It is time already that we try to see beyond speech, writing, and implication. It is time that we find the meaning of meanings. It is time that we put context in context. It is time we search for that which has been tried unsuccessfully to be contextualised. It is time we find meaning to our being.

click here