Duality in Languages
Languages have some interesting aspects. Two of which are synonyms and antonyms. Where synonyms can be used to find similar words for a particular word, antonyms, in contrast, give you a word with the opposite meaning. And the way by antonym works is interesting. One feels that the languages assume an underlying duality.
Duality may be referred to as binary choices, where everything can be limited to yes or no questions. When some statement is not affirmative, we may need to find another way to say it in the affirmative, and antonyms come into the picture. “Is this not hot?” can be rephrased as “Is this cold?”. Hot and cold, day and night, dawn and dusk, good and bad, long and short, etc., are some words coupled with their antonyms. One may get the impression that languages are meant to express the extremities. How to represent the states in between? Languages have adjectives like very, much, less, more to specify extremes of the extreme states. Yet, one cannot completely ignore words like noon, which refers to an interval somewhere in the middle of dawn and dusk. Words like warm, lukewarm, etc., can be used to say for objects with a temperature between hot and cold. The use of such words is subjective, even though they may seem objective. What is hot for one person may be cold for another.
Even though we have precise measuring devices that can give us accurate temperatures or accurate time of the day, duality in languages somehow force us to pigeon-hole objects into two extreme categories. The experience associated with the extreme categories is subjective. Some languages have words for comparison between two objects. Taller, bigger, smaller, shorter, etc., are such comparison words. Comparison words seem interesting because they can give a rough idea about which of the two is closer to the extreme. One needs to wonder about the truthness of extreme conditions expressed in the sentence. Interestingly, no manual relates a particular temperature or a range of temperature to hotness or coldness.
Can colors be considered as a counter-example? We do have black and white colors along with gray to specify a color somewhere in between. Our color perception varies. When it comes to colors other than white, we have got a wide variety of colors. Once again, we have no clue where the boundaries of color start and where they end. Just ask any person to give the name of color pointing to a particular point in the grayscale, color scale, or a color palette. This will eventually lead us to an interesting debate.
Another example is how some ancient and even a few recent documents focused on a particular gender, totally ignoring the other genders. Duality in languages assumed for quite a long time that there are only two genders: man and woman.
Growing up, I saw many documents, especially the user manuals assuming the gender of a user and used possessive pronouns like his or pronouns like he. Another approach was the usages like (s)he, his/her, etc., to ensure inclusive writing. Though it was the first major step, it remains incomplete. Unable to find an inclusive word, some authors previously introduced a new word to signify all persons at the beginning of a text. Some chose a particular pronoun and clarified that its usage needs to be seen as inclusive. Fortunately, recent years have seen a growing awareness of inclusive writing and the use of gender-neutral words. For example, gender-neutral pronouns like singular ‘they’ can be seen in many new texts.
We do have precise scientific terms for the human species: homo sapiens sapiens. We also have precise measuring devices and precise ways to represent different measurements. Yet, their usage is quite rare outside the scientific and technical circles. It is time to encourage the use of precise words and also ensure inclusive writing.
Originally published at https://johnsamuel.info.