The Collapse of Meaning in a Post-Truth World

Murió la Verdad (The Death of Truth)
Murió la Verdad (The Death of Truth)

The annus horribilis of 2016 is finally drawing to a close, having closed several times before its close, “so huge, so hopeless to conceive,” as Emily Dickinson might have it. It’ll certainly be remembered in the history books for some major global shocks to our collective systems. By mid-year, it was already being referred to as “disastrous” and “the worst year in history” as we witnessed monumental events of social upheaval, from horrifying acts of terrorism around the world (seemingly in a domino effect), disturbing record-breaking climate change disasters, societal instability and even collapse in the formerly prosperous Venezuela. This is not to mention the unsettlingly high number of famous deaths this year. Many of the artists and cultural shapers who spoke truth to power, whose works often helped set the milestones of how modern society progresses, are gone: Harper Lee, Muhammad Ali, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, and Prince to name a few. This all seems to mark the passing of an older era as we venture, hurriedly and carelessly, into an newer unknown.

Chi Luu

Chi Luu is a peripatetic linguist who speaks Australian English and studies dead languages. Each month, she’ll uncover curious stories about language from around the globe for Lingua Obscura.

Worst year or not, this is certainly an unstable time in history—and it seems even the way we use language to convey our collective fears and anxieties about the state of society seems fractured. Each of these accumulated shocks have become a kind of touchpoint for some of the cultural, social, and political trends that have emerged. For many, trust in certain public institutions—the media, the police, the government—is broken. Who can you really trust when every day there are so many wild stories—believable fake news, unbelievable true stories—of police brutality and abuse, media machinations, and propaganda as the rusty old gears of government creak onward? In the face of such uncertainty, if you can’t be sure what facts are real, it’s hardly any wonder that many have rejected objective facts and choose to believe what feels right, and real, to them.

Welcome to the so-called post-truth era, a scary kind of world where facts, truth, and the meaning of words may not really matter much anymore. It’s not exactly a euphemism for old-fashioned lies, as some might think, or another way of saying “truthiness.” It’s actually that facts are now somehow sidestepped as irrelevant, and there are fewer social or political consequences for public figures who blatantly mislead the public. Despite Donald Trump repeating numerous dubious statements throughout his presidential campaign, 70% of which were apparently rated untrue, he still managed to be voted into office. Like hiding a book in plain sight among other books, the cumulative effect of so many obvious falsehoods, one after another, seems to have watered down any serious consequences they might have once had for anyone daring to lie in public life.

So this raises some questions. How did we get to this worrying point in history, where truth and meaning seem meaningless? How have the semantics of public life and public language shifted? Even if both sides of a political divide ultimately want to solve the same big problems in society, though they may use the same words, those words sometimes seem to mean entirely different things. When it comes to hotly-debated concepts that trigger emotional or ideological reactions, such as “climate change,” the same words can be received completely differently by different people. The common semantic ground we normally depend on suddenly seems shaky. So here’s a rather frightening thought: in parallel to the great upheavals we see in the world, as complex societies juggle hopelessly with increasingly more complex problems, could it be that we’re witnessing the start of a kind of collapse in truth and meaning, as language evolves rapidly to deal with these emerging linguistic complexities?

Certainly George Orwell seemed to think so, believing that “our civilization is decadent and our language—so the argument runs—must inevitably share in the general collapse.” For Orwell however, this “collapse” surfaces in a version of the English language that’s simply become “ugly and inaccurate” and “full of bad habits.” In a post-truth world, Orwell’s earnest prescriptive opinions and solutions to these problems might seem quaint, given how unnecessary objective facts seem to be to the public discourse these days. The trouble now is not that we aren’t using language clearly enough, but that words and the truths they convey are no longer as stable as they used to be.

It isn’t unusual for meanings of words to change over time. Take the treacherous image of a pipe for instancececi n’est pas une pipe says it all. Originally pipes only referred to musical instruments before their meaning broadened to apply to anything vaguely resembling a pipe. Naturally, languages are constantly in flux and semantic shifts are inevitable, though at any given point in time, we may not always be able to see or predict what changes are taking place. New words and terms are introduced, old expressions gain, lose, broaden, narrow and change their word senses, sometimes in remarkable ways. Good words (such as idiot, which used to mean “a private person”) can become bad (pejoration), and bad words can become wicked good (amelioration). A mouse used to only be a small, furry creature, but now it’s more often something you have on the side of your computer as you may (or may not use) Windows that have never faced the outdoors. Linguistic change occurs as speakers innovate and lead their social networks into disseminating those changes widely. With the accumulation of new meanings, have words become more and more complex, carrying more baggage in their sense and nuance than they did in an earlier generation? Languages seem stable because semantic change generally happens slowly and steadily, but what happens if meaning changes too fast for its speakers to keep up with?

tower-of-babel

Tower of Babel, via NYPL Digital Collections

Thanks to the all-consuming culture of the internet and social media, the English language is changing at a faster rate than any other time in history. New words and new meanings are introduced at the drop of a digital hat, increasing the semantic complexity of words almost overnight thanks to the rapid-fire sharing and repetition of news and ideas. Even within a single generation, popular neologisms, puzzling to older generations, like “FOMO“, “bae” and “fleek” can quickly rise and fall out of favor. Concrete words like “anchor” and “baby” suddenly form a pejorative when used together. “Sandy” goes from being just a name to weathering a different connotation altogether. What we think of as the English language turns out to be merely a snapshot of the language at a certain point in time.

Though once the internet was thought of as a virtual space apart from the real world, the two spaces are actually inextricably linked, especially in how information is shared. As Wilson and Peterson point out, “by 2002 […] the same powerful corporations that control offline news content dominated Internet-based news sources, and they accounted for the vast majority of news-related pages served.” This means that language innovations, now on a large scale, accessible to millions, can be a disturbingly powerful force in influencing the outcomes of certain events out in the real world. High levels of media consumption couple with a distrust of the media corporations that dominate in and out of the internet, and soon our minds are ripe for virally shared fake news that panders to all kinds of ideological beliefs and feelings, that can be hard for some to identify as false.

So, some linguistic changes happen faster than ever, new meanings barely have time to take root before foundations start shifting beneath our feet again. We can’t be sure that the same words mean the same things to everyone. The final piece of the puzzle to all this linguistic uncertainty is what we mean pragmatically when we use language, and what we expect our listeners to read between the lines. We can’t always use language in direct, “accurate” ways as Orwell suggests, because sometimes, oddly, it’s more efficient to be indirect.

Mialon and Mialon discuss how using indirect or figurative speech can convey a lot of the necessary information between two people who can figure out the hidden messages from context. By gauging and gaming the conversational implicatures and presuppositions that listeners are likely to make about the speech context, such as when you try and engage in such pleasantries as lying, bribery, or satire (hopefully one of those more than the others), figurative and indirect speech can be more effective than direct speech in persuading others. If your friend wants to buy beer and you say, “There’s a store on Third Street,” it implies there’s beer to be had there. And yet if your friend comes back and accuses you of sending him where there was no beer, you could truthfully say you never said there was.

It all depends on how the framework is set up to induce listeners, grounded in a particular group’s culture, to read into the context what they reasonably believe or feel to be true, whether it’s empty slogans like “make America great again,” “fighting for us,” or “a future to believe in.” Unpacking these phrases can inspire a myriad of different interpretations for different people, in which truth hardly has to do a thing. In the political arena, drawing on cultural and contextual implicatures to make an audience believe something is a common way to plausibly deny and breezily wave off accusations of lying. So, it doesn’t matter exactly what is said, it only matters what listeners think you said or meant. It’s sadly unsurprising that, done on a large scale, it can be easy to confuse, normalize, and legitimize this kind of misbehavior. Plausible deniability has never been easier thanks to a fast shifting language and cleverly worded implicatures.

In a post-truth era, public discourse can become muddled as words rapidly develop new meanings and connotations for different groups, increasing in unwieldy complexity. Thanks to contexts in which implicatures are key, listeners are always reading between the lines and filling in blanks for themselves, usually with their own beliefs and ideologies. And so, the gaps in understanding one another can be as wide as if we were speaking completely different languages.


JSTOR Citations

Linguistic Change and the History of Events

By: Reinhart Koselleck

The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 61, No. 4 (Dec., 1989), pp. 649-666

The University of Chicago Press

Semantics. The Ups and Downs

By: J. D. Sadler

The Classical Journal, Vol. 68, No. 3 (Feb. - Mar., 1973), pp. 262-267

The Classical Association of the Middle West and South, Inc. (CAMWS)

Linguistic Change, Social Network and Speaker Innovation

By: James Milroy and Lesley Milroy

Journal of Linguistics, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Sep., 1985), pp. 339-384

Cambridge University Press

Beyond Nature versus Culture: Cultural Variation as an Evolved Characteristic

By: Daniel Nettle

The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Jun., 2009), pp. 223-240

Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland

Problem Solving: Complexity, History, Sustainability

By: Joseph A. Tainter

Population and Environment, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Sep., 2000), pp. 3-41

Springer

The Anthropology of Online Communities

By: Samuel M. Wilson and Leighton C. Peterson

Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 31 (2002), pp. 449-467

Annual Reviews

Semantic Changes

By: Edward L. Thorndike

The American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 60, No. 4 (Oct., 1947), pp. 588-597

University of Illinois Press

Go Figure: The Strategy of Nonliteral Speech

By: Hugo M. Mialon and Sue H. Mialon

American Economic Journal: Microeconomics, Vol. 5, No. 2 (May 2013), pp. 186-212

American Economic Association

Chi Luu

Chi Luu is a computational linguist and NLP researcher who tinkers with tiny models and machines to uncover curious mysteries in human language. She has degrees in Theoretical Linguistics and Literature, with a morbid focus on dead and dying languages. She has worked on dictionaries, multi-language search engines, and question answering applications.

Comments are closed.