Language is more abstract than you think, or, why aren”t languages more iconic?

This page was written by John Friedlander, associate professor in the English department at SouthwestTennessee Community College. It is used here with his permission.

You are reading: Language is more abstract than you think, or, why aren”t languages more iconic?

IntroductionLanguage may be our most powerful tool. We use it to understand our world throughlistening and reading, and to communicate our own feelings, needs and desires throughspeaking and writing. With strong language skills, we have a much better chance ofunderstanding and being understood, and of getting what we want and need from those aroundus.

There are many ways to label or classify language as we learn to better controlit—by levels, such as formal, informal, colloquial or slang; by tones, such as stiff,pompous, conversational, friendly, direct, impersonal; even by functions, such as noun,verb, adjective. I want to introduce you to a powerful way of classifyinglanguage—by levels of abstraction or concreteness or generality or specificity (any oneof those four terms really implies the others).

Approaching language in these terms is valuable because it helps us recognize whatkinds of language are more likely to be understood and what kinds are more likely to bemisunderstood. The more abstract or general your language is, the more unclear and boringit will be. The more concrete and specific your language is, the more clear and vivid itwill be.

Let”s look at these different types of language. Abstract and Concrete TermsAbstract terms refer to ideas or concepts; they have no physical referents.

Examples of abstract terms include love, success, freedom, good, moral, democracy,and any -ism (chauvinism, Communism, feminism, racism, sexism). These terms arefairly common and familiar, and because we recognize them we may imagine that weunderstand them—but we really can”t, because the meanings won”t stay still.

Take love as an example. You”ve heard and used that word since you were threeor four years old. Does it mean to you now what it meant to you when you were five? whenyou were ten? when you were fourteen (!)? I”m sure you”ll share my certainty that the wordchanges meaning when we marry, when we divorce, when we have children, when we look backat lost parents or spouses or children. The word stays the same, but the meaning keepschanging.

If I say, “love is good,” you”ll probably assume that you understand, and beinclined to agree with me. You may change your mind, though, if you realize I mean that”prostitution should be legalized” .

How about freedom? The word is familiar enough, but when I say, “I wantfreedom,” what am I talking about? divorce? self-employment? summer vacation?paid-off debts? my own car? looser pants? The meaning of freedom won”t staystill. Look back at the other examples I gave you, and you”ll see the same sorts ofproblems.

Does this mean we shouldn”t use abstract terms? No—we need abstract terms. We need totalk about ideas and concepts, and we need terms that represent them. But we mustunderstand how imprecise their meanings are, how easily they can be differentlyunderstood, and how tiring and boring long chains of abstract terms can be. Abstract termsare useful and necessary when we want to name ideas (as we do in thesis statements andsome paragraph topic sentences), but they”re not likely to make points clear orinteresting by themselves.

Concrete termsrefer to objects or events that are available to the senses. abstract terms, which name things that are notavailable to the senses.> Examples of concrete terms include spoon, table, velvet eyepatch, nose ring, sinus mask, green, hot, walking. Because these terms refer toobjects or events we can see or hear or feel or taste or smell, their meanings are prettystable. If you ask me what I mean by the word spoon, I can pick up a spoon andshow it to you. freedom and show it to you, or point to asmall democracy crawling along a window sill. I can measure sand and oxygen byweight and volume, but I can”t collect a pound of responsibility or a liter of moraloutrage.>

While abstract terms like love change meaning with time and circumstances,concrete terms like spoon stay pretty much the same. Spoon and hotand puppy mean pretty much the same to you now as they did when you were four.

You may think you understand and agree with me when I say, “We all wantsuccess.” But surely we don”t all want the same things. Success means differentthings to each of us, and you can”t be sure of what I mean by that abstract term. On theother hand, if I say “I want a gold Rolex on my wrist and a Mercedes in mydriveway,” you know exactly what I mean (and you know whether you want the samethings or different things). Can you see that concrete terms are clearer and moreinteresting than abstract terms?

If you were a politician, you might prefer abstract terms to concrete terms.”We”ll direct all our considerable resources to satisfying the needs of ourconstituents” sounds much better than “I”ll spend $10 million of your taxes on anew highway that will help my biggest campaign contributor.” But your goal as awriter is not to hide your real meanings, but to make them clear, so you”ll work to usefewer abstract terms and more concrete terms.

General and Specific TermsGeneral terms and specific terms are not opposites, as abstract and concrete terms are;instead, they are the different ends of a range of terms. Generalterms refer to groups; specificterms refer to individuals—but there”s room in between. Let”s lookat an example.

Furniture is a general term; it includes within it many different items. If Iask you to form an image of furniture, it won”t be easy to do. Do you see a departmentstore display room? a dining room? an office? Even if you can produce a distinct image inyour mind, how likely is it that another reader will form a very similar image? Furnitureis a concrete term (it refers to something we can see and feel), but its meaning is stillhard to pin down, because the group is so large. Do you have positive or negative feelingstoward furniture? Again, it”s hard to develop much of a response, because thegroup represented by this general term is just too large.

We can make the group smaller with the less general term, chair. This is stillpretty general (that is, it still refers to a group rather than an individual), but it”seasier to picture a chair than it is to picture furniture.

Shift next to rocking chair.

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Now the image is getting clearer, and it”s easierto form an attitude toward the thing. The images we form are likely to be fairly similar,and we”re all likely to have some similar associations (comfort, relaxation, calm), sothis less general or more specific term communicates more clearly than the more general orless specific terms before it.

We can become more and more specific. It can be a La-Z-Boy rocker-recliner. Itcan be a green velvet La-Z-Boy rocker recliner. It can be a lime green velvetLa-Z-Boy rocker recliner with a cigarette burn on the left arm and a crushed jellydoughnut pressed into the back edge of the seat cushion. By the time we get to thelast description, we have surely reached the individual, a single chair. Note how easy itis to visualize this chair, and how much attitude we can form about it.

The more you rely on general terms, the more your writing is likely to be vague anddull. As your language becomes more specific, though, your meanings become clearer andyour writing becomes more interesting.

Does this mean you have to cram your writing with loads of detailed description? No.First, you don”t always need modifiers to identify an individual: Bill Clintonand Mother Teresa are specifics; so are Bob”s Camaro and the wart onZelda”s chin. Second, not everything needs to be individual: sometimes we need toknow that Fred sat in a chair, but we don”t care what the chair looked like.

Summing UpIf you think back to what you”ve just read, chances are you”ll most easily remember andmost certainly understand the gold Rolex, the Mercedes, and the lime green La-Z-Boyrocker-recliner. Their meanings are clear and they bring images with them (we more easilyrecall things that are linked with a sense impression, which is why it”s easier toremember learning how to ride a bike or swim than it is to remember learning about thecauses of the Civil War).

We experience the world first and most vividly through our senses. From the beginning,we sense hot, cold, soft, rough, loud. Our early words are all concrete: nose, hand, ear,cup, Mommy. We teach concrete terms: “Where”s baby”s mouth?” “Where”sbaby”s foot?”—not, “Where”s baby”s democracy?” Why is it that we turn toabstractions and generalizations when we write?

I think part of it is that we”re trying to offer ideas or conclusions. We”ve workedhard for them, we”re proud of them, they”re what we want to share. After Mary tells youthat you”re her best friend, you hear her tell Margaret that she really hates you. Mrs.Warner promises to pay you extra for raking her lawn after cutting it, but when you”refinished she says it should be part of the original price, and she won”t give you thepromised money. Your dad promises to pick you up at four o”clock, but leaves you standinglike a fool on the corner until after six. Your boss promises you a promotion, then givesit instead to his boss”s nephew. From these and more specific experiences, you learn thatyou can”t always trust everybody. Do you tell your child those stories? More probably youjust tell your child, “You can”t always trust everybody.”

It took a lot of concrete, specific experiences to teach you that lesson, but you tryto pass it on with a few general words. You may think you”re doing it right, giving yourchild the lesson without the hurt you went through. But the hurts teach the lesson, notthe general terms. “You can”t always trust everybody” may be a fine main ideafor an essay or paragraph, and it may be all that you want your child or your reader tograsp—but if you want to make that lesson clear, you”ll have to give your child or yourreader the concrete, specific experiences.

What principles discussed on this page are at work in the following excerpt from Jeff Bigger”s essay, Searching for El Chapareke?


HIS WAS THE DAY the canyon walls of Cusarare, a Tarahumara Indian village tucked into the Sierra Madres of Chihuahua in northern Mexico, bloomed with women in colorful skirts, legions of children trailed by dogs, men in their white shirts and sombreros, all cascading down the pencil-thin trails toward the plaza. The women — shifting babies saddled on their backs in rebozos — sat in groups by the mission walls, wordless for hours, drinking the weekly Coke, watching as the faithful went to attend mass, young men shot hoops, and the older men hovered around benches at the back of the plaza, waiting for the weekly outdoor meeting of the community cooperative. Pigs wandered down the road in idle joy, and the dogs fought on cue outside the small shop.

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You can check out this principle in the textbooks you read and the lectures you listento. If you find yourself bored or confused, chances are you”re getting generalizations andabstractions. You”ll find your interest and your understanding increasewhen the author or teacher starts offering specifics. One of the most useful questions youcan ask of an unclear presentation (including your own) is, “Can you give mean example?”

Your writing (whether it”s in an essay, a letter, a memorandum, a report, anadvertisement, or a resume) will be clearer, more interesting, and better remembered if itis dominated by concrete and specific terms, and if it keeps abstract and general terms toa minimum. Go ahead and use abstract and general terms in your thesis statement and yourtopic sentences. But make the development concrete and specific.

A Final Note Pointing ElsewhereSometimes students think that this discussion of types of language is about vocabulary,but it”s not. You don”t need a fancy vocabulary to come up with bent spoon or limpingdog or Mary told Margaret she hates me. It”s not about imagination, either.If you have reached any kind of a reasoned conclusion, you must have had or read about orheard about relevant experiences. Finding concrete specifics doesn”t require a bigvocabulary or a vivid imagination, just the willingness to recall what you already know.If you really can”t find any examples or specifics to support your general conclusion,chances are you don”t really know what you”re talking about (and we are all guilty of thatmore than we care to admit).

Where do these concrete specifics emerge in the writing process? You should gathermany concrete specifics in the prewriting steps of invention and discovery. If youhave many concrete specifics at hand before you organize or draft, you”re likelyto think and write more easily and accurately. It”s easier to write well when you”recloser to knowing what you”re talking about.

You will certainly come up with more concrete specifics as you draft, and more as yourevise, and maybe still more as you edit. But you”ll be a better writer if you can gathersome concrete specifics at the very start.

After you have read and thought about this material, you should have a fairly clearidea of what concrete specifics are and why you want them. Your next step will be topractice.

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