A Case to Be Made: Language, by Its Nature, Is Generic


I hope to make a case over the next few posts to this blog that language, by its nature, is generic.  With respect to general semantics, this is a rival perspective to the notion that language, by its nature, is abstract.  I aim to show that “generic” is a better, more constructive term than “abstract” when talking about language in general semantics.

Some points I aim to discuss:

  • Language is generic.  Its referent is always specific (relative to language).
  • To understand what it means to be generic, look to prescription drugs and their counterpart generic drugs.  What does “generic” mean in this case?  Generic means “lacking a quality,” in this case, a name brand. 
  • Language never represents as many qualities as its referent has.  More specifically, never does all of the referent’s qualities come to mind when its language is invoked.  The word “circle” stands for a specific figure, and with that figure comes a lot of qualities, but the word is less specific than the actual figure.
  • “Generic” is a better descriptor of language than “abstract” because “abstract” has a number of meanings that can make the concept of abstraction somewhat confusing.  Sometimes the word “abstraction” is used almost like a synonym for “extraction,” or perhaps should be.  But with Korzybski’s emphasis on the reduction of characteristics represented by each stage of the abstracting process as shown in his model, the Structural Differential, language is shown not so much to become more abstract but more generic.
  • “Generic” may also apply in Hayakawa’s model, the Abstraction Ladder.  In that model, words can be seen in some respect as collections, and as a result, more abstract than the items in those collections, which are less abstract words.
  • Truth and being generic are related.  Truthful statements maintain their truth insofar as they are generic.  Some statements, when made more specific, become untrue.  Take for instance, the statement “He was killed.”  That is a (relatively) generic statement.  You might call out the passive formulation of that sentence, and attempt to reformulate it into an active voice.  You might try to write, “She killed him,” but then, by assuming someone killed him, you may make an untrue statement, especially if it wasn’t a person that killed him, but a rolling boulder.
  • In order to become specific, we use terms.  Terms are means for improving specificity.  “Are you happy?”  “Happy how?”  “Happy in terms of your relationship.”
  • We consciously or unconsciously select our terms.  That is, there is choice involved in selecting terms.  We can tip a discussion in different ways based on how we define our generic language.  We can talk of freedom “in terms of speech,” freedom in terms of “privacy,” freedom in terms of “the press,” etc.  Each of those is a different discussion; however, generically, they are all discussions about freedom.
  • In terms of critical thinking, we need to become aware that people can focus generic conversation around a selection of terms which may limit conversation needlessly and persuasively.  A political party may force conversation about marriage (generic term) in terms of sanctity (more specific term), and sanctity (now a relatively generic term) in terms of Western religion.  But another political party may focus the conversation about marriage (generic term) in terms of rights (more specific), and rights (now a relatively generic terms) in terms of what’s-outlined-in-the-Constitution.  Terms specify discussion, but there potentially is no absolute way of specifying a discussion.

Those are the sketches.

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