Art Marmorstein: Clearer language would generate more understanding

Ludwig Wittgenstein and his fellow analytic philosophers claimed that most philosophical debates stem from sloppy use of language. Get the words right (or, better yet, replace words with mathematical truth-tables) and difficulties disappear as if by magic.

Outside the academic world, too, debates get unnecessarily complicated when vague and inexact terminology replaces clearer and more precise language. One example of the problem: the blurring of the distinction between “sex” and “gender.”

Sex, the anthropologists and sociologists insisted, referred to biological fact, something inherent in the natural order. Gender, on the other hand, was a human construction, artificial and sometimes rather arbitrary. When it comes to language, for instance, gender is often unpredictable. The word “sun” is masculine in some languages, feminine in others.

Gender roles, too, tend to vary from society to society, and they might change over time. Secretarial work, for instance, was once dominated by men, and women once dominated computer programming.

Around 30 years ago, perhaps because of a prudish avoidance of the word sex, many people began to use “gender” in its place. Eventually, surveys and government forms started asking you to indicate your gender rather than your sex.

Many of my colleagues resisted the sloppiness. “Nouns have gender, people have sex,” they admonished their students.

It was a losing fight. Sloppy language won and left us, well, gender-confused.

During the last presidential campaign, a reporter asked Joe Biden how many genders there were. “At least three,” he snapped. Using the traditional idea of gender (especially as it applies to language), that’s absolutely right. But if the questioner was asking about biology, the answer should have been two.

Now going back to the old linguistic distinction between “sex” and “gender” won’t automatically resolve differences about who gets to use what bathrooms or who is eligible for which sports competitions. It won’t end the debates about whether or not gender distinctions based on biology are reasonable (i.e., whether or not women should be subject to the draft). However, we’ll at least get a clearer understanding of what the arguments are about.

In other societal debates too, clearer language would generate more understanding and less heat. But how do we work toward clearer language?

Well, how about by spending more time actually studying language?

Forty years of education “reform” has really hurt instruction in social science, fine arts and humanities in general. Foreign language study has been especially hard hit at every level. While in most countries students start foreign language instruction as soon as they start school, American elementary school students typically get little or no language study. Most high schools require no foreign language, and few colleges include language study as part of entrance requirements. Most Ph.D. programs likewise, have dropped their foreign language requirements.

The trouble is that, without at least some foreign language study, it’s very difficult to understand and use your own language well. Most proficient writers will tell you that they only understood English grammar after they took a class in, say, French or Spanish. Languages with lots of English cognates (like Latin and German) are especially useful. Recent research suggests that knowing the etymology of words is an important key to reading success, and there’s nothing quite as efficient as foreign language study in helping students understand word origins and the way words are put together from their roots.

Further, if you want students to understand cultures other than their own (and therefore understand better their own culture!) there is nothing quite as effective as studying language, the chief vehicle for the transmission of culture.

But most importantly, translation practice and the study of language is the best and easiest way to teach students to be careful and precise in the use of their own language.

“Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language,” said Wittgenstein.

He might have said something similar about the language of our modern political debates where language also seems to be bewitching our intelligence.

Just maybe a renewed emphasis on foreign language instruction can break the spell and make our discussions of political and social issues a little more civil.

Art Marmorstein, Aberdeen, is a professor of history at Northern State University.

This article originally appeared on Aberdeen News: art marmorstein column clear language generates understanding