A reminder about languages

J.R.R Tolkien famously wrote Lord of the Rings to give a cultural context to his created languages, which is to show that languages, tools to communicate, require more than merely understanding vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. Thus, one can know a language, but still not be able to effectively communicate with it for lack of a shared context. 

Take the following scenario: You run into someone you were introduced to last week and greet them, perhaps saying, “It’s good to see you”, and they respond: “It’s nice to meet you”.  What is your initial reaction? If you feel offended that this person does not remember you, then you are invoking an American context, in which the phrase “it’s nice to meet you” is only used in introductions. In a shared context, this response may reveal that this person has indeed forgotten they met you; however, outside of a shared context they may be saying something else entirely. The lexical range of “meet” is not limited to the first time you “meet” and can comfortably accommodate any subsequent meeting (e.g. “let’s meet up”, “it’s nice to meet you again”). In fact, certain speakers choose the verb “meet” over “see” as a compliment, believing “meeting” someone to be a stronger connection (since it implies proximity) than merely “seeing” them. If you felt offended and responded with “Actually, we met last week”, now who is doing the offending? 

(And no, I fortunately did not have to learn this from personal experience, but it did catch me off-guard until a trend developed across several different speakers which led to an interesting discussion).

This is only one of many possible scenarios where we take the meaning of words and phrases for granted based off a shared cultural context which may not shared as you travel abroad and almost certainly is not shared when reading manuscripts of authors long gone. The takeaway? Your/their context is not necessarily right or wrong, it is simply different, and to be careful before blindly assuming a context lest you “meet” with linguistic misfortune. 

Brett Yardley is a 2018-2019 Fulbright U.S. Grantee who is currently conducting research in philosophy at the Katholieke Universiteit of Leuven.  Brett is a Ph.D. candidate and lecturer at Marquette University where he has taught intro to philosophy, ethical theory, and bioethics.

Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State.