The need for a more mathematical language

Pieter Bruegel the Elder - The Tower of Babel (Vienna) - Google Art Project - edited

Our language is multiplying and taking on new forms. Every day on Urban Dictionary and Word Spy, we see new words popping up as more and more people are connected and try to communicate with each other. The other day, a review in The New York Times of Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s new book on the 2012 US election – Double Down – was more interested in the new words that the authors had created to describe the changing political landscape than the actual contents.

This shouldn’t have to be the case. The world might be betting more complicated, but what we need to better communicate  is a simpler language, not a more complicated one. It is clearly time to bring back a simpler approach to language.

Now, a simpler approach doesn’t necessarily have to mean a dumbed-down language. Simon Kuper wrote a great piece on the rise of “Globish” a few years ago, but if we all went in that direction, we’d probably lose more than we’d gain.

One approach that we could perhaps learn from is Ordinary Language Philosophy (OLP), a school of philosophy that was popular in the UK between the 30’s and the 70’s, which was the topic of a recent BBC In Our Time podcast. OLP argued that a lot of the problems we encounter could be solved by using words in the meanings they have in everyday use, instead of looking at their abstract meanings. E.g. Wittgenstein argued that “We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place“. A more mathematical language like this, with less unnecessary abstractions might be what we need.

A similar phenomenon we’re seeing today is the rise of computer programming languages becoming more popular, and becoming a part of our culture. In a great article in FastCompany, Cathy Davidson argued that web literacy should be the fourth area of literacy. It was also very encouraging to see recently that the UK has recently added computer coding as a subject already in the first year of school.

Perhaps the best way to go is to follow the example of Daniel Dennett, who prescribes the use of linguistic tools (one part of what he calls intuition pumps in his latest book) as tools for thinking. We can use his examples of linguistic tools such as “sour grapes” or “loose cannons” as a way to simplify our language, and speak both more economically and more clearly.

Perhaps what we need in the end is a combination of the limited set of words of Globish with the exactness of OLP and Dennett, leaving out any room for ambiguity.

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