Language = Subjectivity

“Sometimes we mean what we say.”
When first reading this statement, some may think that the author is crazy. They may say, “I always mean what I say.” While this is a common belief, it is not always correct. In fact, Sean Hall, the author of This Means This, That Means That, has followed his idea up with a very compelling argument for why his statement is actually the correct one.
By starting the second chapter of his book with this powerful statement, Sean Hall is providing his readers with something to really think about. In fact, it creates an opportunity for the reader to ask themselves the following questions: Have you ever had someone misinterpret something you said? When this happened were you confused as to how that person could have misunderstood what you were talking about?
If this has happened to you, have no fear, you aren’t crazy. In fact, this is something that can easily happen to anyone. Just look at the image above. It is implied in the image that the two figures are conducting some sort of interview, and so, given the context, when the one figure is asked what it does, it informs the other that it is currently a cashier. Unfortunately, this is not what figure #1 was referring to; instead, the figure was trying to find out what the second figure does to help the world. If I were in the shoes of the second figure, I think I would have instead asked what the first figure meant by the question. This image is a great way to lead into my next point that people all interpret meaning in their own ways.
As individuals who think differently than each other, we all have our own ways of interpreting the meaning of things. In his book, Sean Hall gives the example of him looking at a painting and responding to it by saying, “The colors are very bright.” When I first read his response, I automatically thought that he meant that the artist had a bright idea, when he chose those colors. When you read that statement, what did you think? Was your response the same as mine? Probably not. This example provides proof that even though the speaker may mean one thing, the person they are speaking to may have their own ideas and interpret what is said to mean something else.
Another way that Hall tries to explain this idea is through using sarcasm as an example. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, sarcasm is the use of words which mean the opposite of what you really want to say especially in order to insult someone, to show irritation, or to be funny. An example of this can be seen in the image below.
In this short comic, we see an angry looking woman on the ground who is expressing how she feels after falling into a “sarchasm.” She conveys, through sarcasm, how she is upset about falling, that she has broken some bones, and how miserable she is in the “sarchasm.”
I myself am known, among my family and friends, as the “Queen of Sarcasm.” In fact, I have jokingly been told by some that I have it down to a science. What they don’t understand is that sarcasm can actually be broken down into a science. You see, when using sarcasm, you must first know your audience; much like with any other type of discussion. Then once you understand who it is you are talking to, you can then determine if that person will understand when you are being sarcastic and when you are not. This is most useful because really, who wants to waste a good sarcastic remark on someone who will not understand it?
Situations such as the ones above are a clear representation of how language can fall victim to something called subjectivity. As stated before, as individuals we all come from different backgrounds, have different beliefs, customs, etc. How does this relate to the subjectivity of language? Easy. When each of us reads something, we are using our prior experiences, personal beliefs and feelings, or a current situation to realize our feelings about and our responses to that piece of reading.On the other hand, when we are having a conversation it has been found that the context of the conversation can provide much needed clues as to how someone may properly form a response. For example, if you’re having a conversation about the weather with someone and say that, “it’s wonderful outside” even though you’re in the middle of a hurricane, the other person should be able to pick up on the cue and conclude you are being sarcastic.
Basically, what was said and was meant can be two totally separate concepts depending on the specific circumstances surrounding the conversation. People use different methods to convey their thoughts, such as using sarcasm rather than simply being blunt and direct. Depending on the subject of the conversation and who it is with, these methods will vary and provide different results. Though we mean what we say, what we say may mean something different to someone else.


5 thoughts on “Language = Subjectivity

  1. Sarcasm is a great way to convey how someone feels…not really. Sadly though it is something that everyone at some point uses. I know I use sarcasm with specific people knowing that they will understand it’s sarcasm. I do not use sarcasm with people I do not know well enough because I know they will take it the wrong way. I would prefer to stay away from confrontation.


  2. I completely i agree that language is subjective. Everyone interprets tins differently and i think this idea ties into Jill’s article about sarcasm and how it changes the way people understand what someone is saying. Just the slightest change in pitch in your voice or if you have a “sarcastic tone” it can completely change the meaning of what someone is saying. This can also be connected to gesture and how it can also be interpreted differently based on the person receiving the gesture.


  3. Language is very subjective and that is why sarcasm is very tricky. For many people it is hard for them to pick up on sarcasm, making them confused or even having hurt feelings that is why it is better to know your audience when being sarcastic. I do not think that sarcasm is the best way to communicate and should be used limited.
    Your blog also made me think of another thing. I guess if language is subjective then I guess text messages are subjective. Text messaging is not the best way t communicate either it is just fast and convenient and sometimes texts can be misinterpreted based on someones understanding about it. For example, if I sent a text saying “whatever” the receiver would probably think I am being rude. But I know I didn’t mean whatever rude, I just meant it in a casual way. This is where text language can become subjective.


  4. Being a sarcastic person myself, this article stuck out to me and made me think aout the way I speak sometimes. If people don’t understand sarcasm or aren’t used to being around someone who frequently uses it, they’re going to think that I’m an extremely rude person. The paragraph where you mention yourself being sarcastic made me realize I need to be more careful. I should be aware of the people I am surrounded by and “break it down into a science”, as you say. I also enjoyed the images you used in this post. They were visuals of how language can be subjective.


  5. I agree that language is very subjective. In text messages, people think that they can determine your tone but none ever really knows for sure. Sarcasm is becoming more commonly used and I hate it! I hate it because I take words too literal. I believe that when people are being sarcastic that they are actually being mean to me. However, I do understand sarcasm as in the example provided. If there was a hurricane outside, and you said the weather was great, I would understand that you were being sarcastic. I think there is a time and place to be sarcastic, and not to be. This is similar to semiotics because everyone can understand the tone of words in a different way just as they can symbols.


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