Does ordinary language exist ? (1997)

(Written by Georg Boomgaarden, September 1, 1997 as a contribution to the Analytical Philosophy Forum)

Ordinary language philosophy has been a powerful paradigm of contemporary thinking. Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations“(PI) have shown that this kind of philosophical reasoning leads to the dissolution of social communication into a loosely coupled set of „language games“ that show some „family similarities“.

I want to show that the very concept of „ordinary language“ is not a very helpful means of thought although many fruitful ideas are based on it. There is in fact a broad field of more or less „ordinary“ languages, as pointed out by Tom Wetzel in posting [3333]. Language is much too complex to allow separating part of it as something „ordinary“.

If Ron Villegas asks Philip about the meaning of the borders of OL claimed to be surpassed (posting [3333]), he said that there is a continuum of OL to PL. I believe this continuum is going into a lot of different directions. The „non- ordinary“ part of language can be philosophical, physical or the language of love and so on.

Wittgenstein could claim that the intent to create an artificial language out of logistic symbols failed. The Vienna circle and philosophers like Carnap tried this several times and Wittgenstein’s „Tractatus logico-philosophicus“ owes a lot to the failed idea of constructing language in an axiomatic way.

However I would say that the very artificial mathematical symbolism for addition of numbers (e.g. 2+3=5) is part of the most ordinary language, whereas the particle „is“ does not necessarily belong to ordinary language for a Russian speaker, because it is not a necessary particle in the Russian language.

My concept of  language is holistic in one aspect: for me there is only one language, the human language, with all it’s different forms and „languages“. This is an open concept, because language as a whole as well as each subset of language that a single person is able to handle, is subject to permanent change.

One should not overestimate the differences between national or tribal languages. The real wonder is, that people who share a certain set of experiences can learn to speak with each other perfectly well even from zero basis, that is not having even a word of common vocabulary at the beginning of this process. We call this learning a language. And it is during all our lifetime that we are permanently learning languages.

Even in a globalizing world the first language to learn is the tongue of our mother or our next relatives. The language base is then growing to the segments of the society in which we are moving first. Children born from parents with two languages living in an environment of a society having a third language normally do learn three languages without bigger problems.

But learning a language never ends. At school we learn a lot of useful and useless things, all of them together with a whole terminology, that is additional subsets of language. Why should we call our language learnt up to a certain cut-off-date „ordinary“ ? – Depending on country, state and school this additional terminology may be quite different.

Being socialized by friends and peer groups our language gets differentiated even more, because young people want to be different. This is the age where the experience of the world around us lets us easily take up elements of whatever other language is there to be incorporated in our own language and the language of our peer group.

Our language is differentiating more and more from that of our family members, friends or inside our age group because we make different experiences, learn different professions with it’s terminologies, confess different god’s and like different forms of life. The specialization of our way of life and way of thinking makes our language become very specific and as different from the language of others like fingerprints.

This is a lifelong process. So every individual develops his own language. This does not contradict the view that language is a social phenomenon. The fact that men live in societies does not contradict the fact that individuals are different from each other, so the common social basis of language does not mean that individual languages cannot exist.

Language is used to communicate. Communication always implies at least two poles: sender and receiver , those roles being normally reciprocate. I do not include communication within oneself in the meaning of communication because typical elements of a sender-receiver-system are not present in such „internal dialogue“. So communication always takes place between non-identical persons with non-identical subsets of language.

Understanding means that the receiver can interpret what the sender means in a way the sender has anticipated in trying to make himself understood. A common subset of language is helpful in this process of understanding, but it is not the only way of finding the common ground of understanding.

First the understanding of the receiver cannot be measured by the sender if not by a very limited set of reactions. Nobody can be 100% sure that what his counterpart understood is really the same the sender meant. Secondly even if the language is not identical there are mechanisms of matching the two language-sets to facilitate understanding: asking back, negotiating meaning, explaining, etc. Since language is learnt from other human beings, it is social from the beginning.

Each contact with other people that implies communication does also imply continuing learning language may it only be to associate another face with words used up to now linked to another facial context. But it is not only language as an instrument of communication that is learnt but also the use of language to conduct life. Both are learnt at the same time, but separately.

Understanding language means understanding it’s use – that is correct, but both are not identical but only overlapping: learning the use of the same element of language does never end. Potentially -if not actually- we add some meaning or some new forms of use to our words whenever we communicate. So communication itself is a process by which we add piecemeal new elements to our individual language.

At the same time, communication is a feedback process that is leading to convergence in the meaning of our language inside the circle of the regularly communicating persons. Experience is more than language but language is a reflection of our experience. In our own profession we normally use a terminology that sounds strange to outsiders sometimes like a different language.

Entering deeply into a science means entering into a new world of words and concepts. Some of these words enter the sphere of our communication with outsiders of that science but it almost sure that sender and receiver have quite different concepts of what they understand – even more so the meaning of scientific words changes it’s content when two persons communicate about it both not being initiated into the „exact“ scientific language.

Learning a language means getting used to use it by using it together with another person or a group of persons already using it. So you learn about the world and about God or gods whatever terminology is used by your reference group or reference person. Only that part of language is learnt that is needed for actual or expected communications. That means that concepts do not have to be exact. Generally speaking the opposite might be the rule: we are all using words and concepts that are quite vague and absolutely not thoroughly reflected.

For our day-to-day communications this is normally enough, but even in the most ordinary circumstances there may arise a situation where the concept used need more precision. Then two kinds of processes get started: one is self-reflection the other asserting the concept by feedback from other sources. Self-reflection means that I am using my brain for finding additional elements that could fit better into the context of the concept, for trying out new combinations of concepts that could get me to a more precise concept or for changing the scope of meaning of a certain concept.

The most direct way of getting feedback from other sources is asking questions around the concept to persons involved or to neutral referees. Normally we use more indirect forms to get feedback, trying to use the concept in a slightly different manner and trying out – sometimes repeatedly – if we got nearer to what may be a common concept useful for continuing the communication.

Artificial languages like the mathematical symbolism and meta-languages to talk about languages are as ordinary as any others elements of communication. They only make use of the explaining method of negotiating common understanding. This may facilitate understanding by avoiding ambiguous meanings as far as this is avoidable. So mathematics is an example of an artificial language where ambiguities are normally avoidable such that an initiate is perfectly able to communicate with other initiates throughout the world.

Coming back to the convergence of language to reach common understanding – I believe that feedback processes are the factor that solves the problem how to construct the common basis on which all communications rest. However there is no guarantee that this common basis can always be found. If we speak about common experiences, common tools to work with, common experiments in physics or car design, this convergence is very probable.

If we talk about logical thinking things get complicated because we believe it should be based on common human structures of thinking, but we always find people not willing or not knowing how to grasp this: are they dumb or are they different ?

If we talk about God or angels, about Saints or UFOs, things get out of control – no convergence is guaranteed if not by social pressure. So convergence can be made by forming a religious community – immunizing itself against heretical thinking – or introducing this form of thought very early in child education and blocking off whatever could challenge this convergence of thinking (a way of life becoming less and less possible in a modern globalized world).


These idas are the result of discussions in the Internet Forum “Analytical Philosophy” where I took part in 1996/1997

Here one of my contributions – reacting also to ideas of other participants in the Forum.


Reflecting on the current discussion on Ordinary Language I would like to put some ideas to critical examination. I will only use very few citations to keep the text readable. This does not mean that I did not take into account most of the contributions that came up after the interesting posting of Philip Thonemann on 12 Aug 1997.

My thesis:

  1. The division of language into Ordinary Language and Extra-Ordinary Language (like philosophical or physical language, language of love or poetry) is not a very helpful division, because it suggests a division line where there is a continuous transition of different levels of language. The later Ludwig Wittgenstein identified of a lot of language games and warns us not to mix them up to avoid confusion. I doubt (but I will not elaborate on that here) if the concept of distinct „language games“ is more helpful, because they also lack clear and distinct division lines between each other.

    Philip Thonemann said (04 Sep 1997):

    There is no precise dividing line between ordinary and technical language.
    There is a continuum, along which particular words can, roughly, be
    located. We can work with that; we know about fuzzy logic.

    The dividing line is not only imprecise but is is really diluted in a whole field of forms of language, each of them similar to the genetic code in their simultaneous similarity and variety.

    Tom Wetzel said (09 Sep 1997):

    Speaking for myself, I have no objection to departures from „ordinary
    language“ in itself. Natural language is continually evolving in
    response to practical aims of humans, including scientific activities
    that find it necessary to introduce terms to more clearly chart
    out particular subject matters. The „ordinariness“ of bits of
    the language also varies depending upon which subgroup of speakers
    of the language you choose to pick. We presumably start with the
    language that is „ordinary“ to the particular subgroup amongst
    whom the discussion is occurring. Departures from that do need to
    be motivated since they can impede understanding otherwise, i.e.
    there is a certain „cost“ associated with such departures.


    I could not agree more. It does mean for me that I would not use the term Ordinary Language for more than heuristic purposes to describe the fuzzy subset of language with the greatest common denominator within a community comprising all kinds of people and professions speaking „the same language“. In fact I think that every language is „ordinary“ if two persons communicating inside a certain subgroup can normally rely on understanding each other without additional clarification. If Wittgenstein insists in his Tractatus that what can be said in ordinary language can be said in a clear way, then I insist this is true for all forms of language.

  2. Language is social: Parents, relatives, friends, other members of society relevant to us teach us to communicate with them. Each communication eliminates part of individual language in favour of common language. School or TV are mighty powers to standardise language for a whole society, but individual patterns will normally persist. Several dividing lines define languages of subgroups (dialect users, young people’s jargon, different scientists, lawyers etc.) – some individuals being members of several subgroups. This is blurring the difference between all those different „ordinary“ or „non-ordinary“ languages.
  3. Language is dynamic: Each act of communication contributes to a specific pattern of language owned only by the individual concerned, reflecting in a way the communication record of this individual. All acts of communication in a group or subgroup redefine the set of language elements of this group.
  4. Language is individual: Nobody is just communicating with an abstract entity called society, but with other individuals, everybody has his own set of individuals that interactively took part in the forming of his individual language-fingerprint.
  5. Language is fuzzy: We do not base our language on clear and distinct concepts. The opposite is the case. When we learn our mother’s language we use words first in a very general and fuzzy sense. Our activities, our experience, our daily use of language gets us to form the field of meaning of a concept.
  6. Language obeys to the principle of sufficiency: We try to get a more clear and distinct concept only when it seems necessary. We stop our efforts in the moment we have the impression that we reached sufficient understanding. For daily life more or less fuzzy concepts are absolutely sufficient. Vital aspects of life need deeper inspection and knowledge, so we need more distinct and clearer concepts: A group of nomads living on the horseback have a lot more words for horses that a city-dweller in New York or Berlin. A punk in London has a much more detailed and distinct view on different kinds of punk music than his parents may even imagine.
  7. The principle of sufficiency is also valid for scientific language: To explain facts in a deeper – scientific – way more details, more distinctions, clearer and well-defined concepts are necessary.

    Philip Thonemann said (12 Aug 1997):

    Do you agree that ideas (concepts) are independent of the the words
    that we use to refer to them – so that I can have an idea, and then
    invent a new phrase to refer to it? As you know, as a physicist, I
    regard this is apparent, because investigators of nature have repeatedly
    had new ideas, and invented words for them.

    New ideas are normally not yet very clear. When physicists like Nils Bohr spoke about their first model
    of the atom, they had a certain model in their minds, a model far away from today’s understanding of the
    atom. During the last decades the concept of the atom at the frontier of nuclear and theoretical physics has
    changed in favour of a more detailed, more distinct and clearer model. The changing of the meaning of
    atom did not come without vascillations. Sometimes the change took the form of a scientific revolution
    by change of paradigm as Kuhn described it. At least the absorption of neologisms into the „ordinary“
    language of a group or subgroup seems to obey similar rules.
    Even at the same time the meaning of atom has a different meaning for different subgroups of the
    community using this word. A theoretical physicist may think of the atom as described by a certain set
    of formulas identifying abstract properties. A nuclear physicist deeply involved into the newest results of
    scientific investigation may see the atom represented in the results of his experiments, the analytical
    chemist may need a much less detailed concept of the atom for his structural models. A journalist informing
    his public about the dangers of an atomic holocaust if world peace is not preserved, may rely on the concept
    he preserved from his school-time, a concept that had never been very clear, but sufficient to appeal to
    emotions of his readers whose concept of the atom is by no ways clearer.
  8. The principle of sufficiency is true for philosophical language: a good example is the fact, that the concept of „God“ gets problematic and needs more clarification at the very moment when old beliefs become problematic. Xenophanes was questioning the system of the old Greek gods when the religious community broke up. Thomas of Aquino needed to explain theology by rational reasoning when the western church did no longer rely on the spiritual community still enlightening Eastern Orthodox Christianity up to today. Feuerbach and Strauss questioned about religion or the life of Jesus when the naive belief of the middle ages was no longer tenable.
    Occams razor seems to me a reflex of this linguistic principle of sufficiency allied to scientific concepts in
    general. My point is, that our language is developing in each individual as well as in subgroups and society
    as a whole along this principle – and this is an empirical fact (to be further studied in it’s details) whereas
    Occam makes it a postulate that should rule the invention of scientific concepts.
  9. Ludwig Wittgenstein warns philosophers to stretch language beyond it’s borders. This remains a very valid point. But it is questionable where this borders are. Reaching the borders means reaching the „finis“ where a „de-finition“ becomes questionable and eventually needs enlargement, more differentiated concepts or a clearly marked border. In normal life we stay far inside the borders without clear and distinct ideas, even without necessity of such ideas. Descartes postulates that we should develop clear and distinct ideas – but this is valid for those who reach the borderline – which is typical for philosophical reasoning.
  10. To get to new innovative ideas we need a process of trial and error also involving our concepts and language itself. Poetry would be impossible without a creative attitude towards language. Science would be very poor if it would not allow new words for new ideas being tried out. Ordinary languages like everyday German or English would be dead without changes like the dynamic development of neologisms. As in politics both lines are pragmatically needed: the conservative who draws excessive ideas from the clouds back to earth as well as the progressive always testing new ideas. When Icarus is flying too near to the sun Daedalus should warn him that his wax is melting – even if he is not heard by Icarus. The dream of flying must persist as well as the warning example of the consequences of flying too high. So the borders of language should be tested out and consolidated in a kind of a permanent dialectical process.

So far some ideas of a newcomer in your discussion.


Now some more comments on the ongoing discussion on Ordinary Language:

Steven Bayne said (13 Aug 1997):
…, but suffice it to say that for Wittgenstein problems surface when we take
terms and expressions from their natural „home“ and attach our own
interpretations and put them in some other non-natural home.

But this is what happens in every communication outside a sterile laboratory
environment. The „natural home“ of language could be translated into
„traditional use“ or „use before the last communication I had with my partner“.
The world and ourselves are changing and all terms and expressions are taken
into the new wilderness and permanently tested. Most are approved, because
they help communicating, others drop out, others are changing their meaning,
others slowly changig their range of application. What we can reach is a
temporary quasi-stability – not more. And we should not try to reach more.
„Anything goes“ is the best way to innovation (not to truth !).
From time to time we should have a Renaissance or even Reaction in the
old counterrevolutionary sense – trying to get back to the principles and roots
of our words and concepts, cutting off the paths that lead us astray and trying
a new start from a point on more stable ground (this is mostly linked to the
illusion that we really came back to the roots, in fact this is not true because
circumstances are absolutely not „ceteris paribus“ – this scheme happened
in several historical renaissances).

Concerning the alledged arrogance of L.Wittgenstein (and R.Popper):
This is not very uncommon. Leibniz and Newton got mad about their
quarrel about priority for differential calculus, Karl Marx and Lenin
were extremely intolerant with other opinions. The Christian, Jewish and
Islamic religions do not have a good record as far as tolerance is concerned.
Whenever somebody thinks he has found a way out of error and sin,
whenever he feels obliged to save others from those scourges, he may
fulfil the old proverb that the way to hell is plastered by good intentions.
But I fully agree with Rodrigo Vanegas that this should not distract us.
However the dead get more tolerant (maybe their apostles get less tolerant):
so let us read Luther and Marx, Heidegger and Popper, Nietzsche and
Wittgenstein disregarding any moral shortcomings concentrating on
their thoughts, critizising it, learning from their ideas as well as from
their faults.

Rodrigo Vanegas (14 Aug 1997) cites Clavell:

Wittgenstein’s having said that:
a reform of ordinary language for
particular purposes, an improvement in our
terminology designed to prevent
misunderstandings in practice, is perfectly
possible. But these are not the cases we
have to do with.


What the statement
means is that, though of course there are any number of
ways of changing ordinary language, philosophizing does
not change it.

My point is that all language, what sort of „ordinary“ it may be, is always changing. A deliberate „reform“ of language, in the extreme case the invention of an artificial formal language could possibly increase the chances of being understood in certain – generally also artificial – situations. But this contradicts the vitality of language.
I believe that communication does in fact change the language – first for the individuals involved, then for the group – and that philosophizing does not make an exception for that. It is not better that other forms of language in instigating change and innovation but it is also not worse.

Steven Bayne (16 Aug 1997) said:

Remember that the greatest seeker of definitions to ever live was Plato,
but also remember that these were reached toward the END of applying
his methodology („combination and division“).

And Plato ended up in aporetic dilemmas with that.

If we insist on definitions prior to undertaking the philosophical task, we
will never begin. Descartes was quite aware of this. I don’t believe that
the kind of analysis that interested the ordinary language philosophers
involved a search for definitions. Chisholm is probably among the last to
take definitions seriously, methodologically.

Very true. I think that definitions are part of the process of accretion of meaning to a concept that is fuzzy at the beginning and gets clearer by the time using it – a kind of implicit definition by learning a language.

I believe current linguistic theory is much
infected by an illicit preoccupation with definition

True. But explicit definition become necessary sometimes, e.g. when concepts already cleared to a certain degree need some differentiation towards neighbouring concepts. Chisholm shows in his works that he can perfectly communicate with us renouncing on definitions of most of his basic terms, but sometimes I would like to ask him: „how do you mean this“ and he would be obliged to some definition to satisfy my needs as a reader.