“Wait, what did you mean?” Language as ambiguous, abstract, and arbitrary

Texting is an art form, requiring skill, nuance, attention to detail, and a very solid knowledge of your audience. Take for instance, the classic but annoying response:


As in, “okay, no problem, got it, I understand.” Now, add a period:


What’s the difference, you ask? According to my students, my source of millennial expertise on all things slang and social media, that simple dot on the end now signals “FINE. I AM RESPONDING, BUT YOU SHOULD KNOW THAT I’M DEEPLY ANNOYED.” I imagine this typed with a furrowed brow, tense jaw, and pointed jabs at the phone screen.

But how can a single letter say so much, and that same letter + punctuation mark say something different and potentially more loaded?

Because language is symbolic – composed of symbols – and all symbols are abstract, ambiguous, and arbitrary, and that inherently means there’s miles of room for interpretation.

A symbol is anything that represents something else, including company logos, national flags, the traffic light colors, the middle finger from the car next to you at said traffic light, letters, words, numbers, and punctuation. Each of these stands in for something else in an effort to convey meaning to you.

That symbols are abstract simply means that what they stand in for may not be tangible. Consider words like pride, love, fear, politics, religion, belief. Each of these is a heavy, weighted word that would require so many more words to describe it. We select a word or phrase as a short hand for a much bigger idea that we simply cannot explain in all its depth every time. A fantastic example of the power of language and how a word can carry so much meaning is when news source Al Jazeera announced it would no longer use the term “migrants” to refer to refugees fleeing conflict, because “The umbrella term migrant is no longer fit for purpose when it comes to describing the horror unfolding in the Mediterranean.”

The ambiguity of a symbol, such as one word, means that it can carry many meanings. I had a conversation just last night that my version of “outdoor life” is very different than a friend’s— I meant the camping, climbing, skiing, playing in the mountains in self-powered ways kind of outdoorsy, whereas he was picturing “Bubba, with one tooth, on an ATV with Bud Light in hand.”  Basically, any time you’ve said the words, “OOOOhhhhhh, I thought you meant ….” it’s because you’ve been experiencing the ambiguity of language. Our education, perceptions, and experiences shape what words mean to us, which is why clearly communicating can be so difficult at times.

Symbols as arbitrary means that, at some point, someone picked what word (or other symbol) would mean what other thing. Sometimes this happened hundreds or thousands of years ago or in another language, which is why etymology is so cool. (Yes, I’m geeky enough to consider looking up where words come from to be “cool”.) For instance, consider inside jokes with your friends—how did that seemingly random thing come to mean so much to all of you, signaling your connection to one another? The answer is that it happened because one of you decided it would and everyone ran with it. For instance, in one of our weirder habits, my sister and I now send a police-car emoji or the words “woop woop” back and forth in place of “I love you.” I can tell you exactly when this started – we re-watched the first episode of the Walking Dead together, and as the main character Rick takes leave of the man who’s just saved him, he “woops” the siren of the police car he’s driving, at which point we both immediately wished we could do the same. In a more global example, much of the world refers to ISIS/ISIL as Daesh, a deliberate language choice that rejects the terror group’s self-proclaimed Islamic State  and “actively undercuts the power these militants wish to convey.”  There are SO MANY examples of how we pick a word to mean something, and in fact entire careers devoted to it (*cough* PR and Marketing *cough*).

Particularly in the case of my examples for the arbitrariness of symbols (and therefore language), it’s apparent that some of these ideas overlap. “Woop woop” and “Daesh” demonstrate how people pick a word to mean something, but are also good examples for how terms are abstract, carrying complex meanings.

Now back to that infamous text message, “K”, and its angry cousin, “K.”

That simple period, a grammatical mark generally used in the English language to indicate the end of a written thought (a sentence), or a long pause as you move on to the next one, has taken on a new meaning in the world of text messaging. But only sometimes. (See, told you it was complicated.) At the end of a complete sentence, the period is just that, a period. In the case of “K.” that period indicates not only a pause, but implies a quick, snippy tone, with a full stop that marks annoyance – basically, it’s being used to fill in for the terse vocal hints we’d give someone if annoyed. Don’t believe me? Check it out: Study confirms that ending your texts with a period is terrible. No really, that’s the name of the article. In the study, the researchers found that “the text message period has taken on a life of its own. It is no longer just the correct way to end a sentence. It’s an act of psychological warfare against your friends.” In other words, the meaning behind the symbol of “.” has changed, but only in some circumstances.

However, there is hope! In forth-coming research, the same study indicates “that exclamation points — once a rather uncouth punctuation mark — may make your messages seem more sincere than no punctuation at all.” Just don’t overuse them, or you may be perceived as unprofessional.

Good luck!(!!)





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