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Language and Life

On the Ball
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

After I was grown, my father and stepmother gave me not only the little sister I had always wanted, but two of them! Once when I was visiting at home, I was throwing a large ball to my three-year old sister Julia while all the family were sitting around the living room.

I remember that someone made reference to something printed on the ball. Perhaps it was her name. I told her, "Look at the top of the ball, Julia." She looked at it and back at me, then back at the ball, which she began slowly turning over and over.

We could not figure out what was happening, then suddenly we all burst out laughing. She was looking for the top of the ball! But can something round have a top? Of course, when I am holding a ball, it seems logical to me that the top is the part opposite the ground. But it did not seem obvious to a three-year old.

Natural Meanings?
We often use language in strange ways. Within a certain group, we learn to use words and phrases in a certain pattern. Members of the group know what those usages mean. But these "natural" meanings may be alien to a person from outside that group. A child has to learn the patterns of thought behind the words used by those around him or her. There are assumptions that we incorporate into our view of the world, of which we are not often consciously aware.

Fix it Well
The varying ways native speakers of English use their language may create misunderstandings or conflicts between people of different backgrounds. I was watching "People's Court" on TV once. One of the litigants was a woman from Tennessee, and of course the judge was a Californian. As the lady was telling her story, the judge interrupted with a question. She impatiently retorted, "Well, I'm fixin' to tell you!" The judge ungraciously answered, "Well, while you are at it, fix it well, then!"

The Tennessean usage of "fixing" was new to the Californian, and he made fun of the lady, who was using the word the way literally millions of Americans use it. (I grew up where that colorful use of the word was considered appropriate!) Differences in word usage may detract from what is being communicated.

Slippery Cultural Forms
Now apply that same principle to totally separate languages representing widely varying cultural worldviews. Language is as slippery as a ball without a top. It may be hard to get it right side up! It is the responsibility of the communicator to know the frame of reference of the one to whom he/she wishes to communicate. Otherwise the form of your message may detract from the content of the message.

Know Your Target
It is important to know the language of your "target" person, audience or cultural group. You need to know the communication patterns of that language, that ethnic group, that culture. You need to know the thought patterns, and use them well. This cannot be done without awareness of the culture, gained through experience in relationships with people in their cultural setting.

This type of deep personal contact cannot be gained without experience in the language of the people. The language of a people not only offers insights into their psyche, into their inner world, but allows you and requires you to enter into the same inner-world experience with them, at least to some extent.

The language of the people (or a representative people, in the many multi-ethnic settings, such as in Africa, or the urban North American setting.) is crucial to true communication. In its most general terms, we might refer to this as identification. The communicator has to identify with the hearer on the hearer's own grounds.

In Context
To make sense, the communicator must fit into the hearer's context. Every individual you address is a unique, particular person, in a particular language group with a particular history. To some extent, the communicator must take on the language and thought of a particular people to whom they wish to communicate.

The Obligation to Make Sense
It is not up to the hearers to make the shift. The hearer is under no obligation to listen or understand. If the communicator wants the hearers to hear, it is the communicator's responsibility to make that worldview shift -- to make sense in terms that "make sensee" to the context.

Thus it is the Communicator's job to be on the ball.


Original version of this article published in Afri-Com, July 1988
Also published in Language and Life (Limuru, Kenya: Communication Press, 1989)
This version posted 4 May 2002, on Orville Jenkins Thoughts and Resources

Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.

Copyright © Orville Boyd Jenkins 1988, 1989, 2002
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.

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