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Why Words Often Fail Us

November 10, 2015

If you have a cat or a dog, you've probably learned the meaning of their vocal signals. After all, animal sounds are typically very reliable. When a cat purrs with contentment or a dog growls in anger, it is very easy to assign those corresponding meanings. Even with a very limited number of sounds from which to choose, animal signals constitute direct evidence as to their state of mind. In fact, there is very little concern as to whether the animal is communicating honestly since it is virtually impossible for them to fake the noises they make.

For the most part, communication in nature is not mechanistic. In the animal world, the best way to guard against deception is to ignore any signal that is not an instantly verifiable sound. This can be witnessed in monkeys and apes where vocal signaling evolved into a much broader range of sounds but failed to become a language due to their perceived need to guard against becoming a victim of deception. Although social intelligence is obvious in these primates, the animals sense that more advanced vocal signals are Machiavellian and self-serving in nature. In other words, words fail their honesty test.

So how did primitive vocal signaling evolve into languages? It required a much higher level of social gullibility on the part of the listeners. Yes, that's right. Without the intriguing flaw in our social intelligence that allows individuals to be easily tricked or manipulated into an ill-advised course of action, language would have never evolved. So for language to work, the listener must be confident that the person speaking is likely to be honest. In fact, language as a communication strategy presupposes high levels of mutual trust.

The complexity of signaling theory when multiple languages are spoken at a gathering makes it easy to understand why proper interpretation of inflections and inferences are absolutely crucial to accurate translation of underlying meanings. To ensure your multilingual meeting, conference or event is an effective vehicle for accurate communication of ideas; contact our language specialists at ProLingo. Your attendees will appreciate your honest efforts.

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