Language and Communication

Communication, language and understanding

C.P. van der Velde.

[First text version 01 14th, 1993;
first website version 05 06th, 2020]



What is communication

Exchange of information

In the broadest sense communication means 'exchange'. Take e.g. the exchange of fluids according to the law of communicating containers in physics. More specifically, we have communication between living organisms, whereby information is exchanged. Information is of vital importance for humans - and in general, all living organisms. They need it in order to survive and to function in the world. An important part of that information they derive from others.
The first purpose of communication generally concerns the exchange of information or experiences, such as thoughts and feelings, between two or more individuals. It is often supposed that thereby somse sort of ' transfer' takes places of information, meaning or subjective experience, from one individual's world of experience (the transmitter) to an other one's (the receiver).



The workings of communication

Unobservable information

One problem is, however, that the information which is kept by an other person is not directly observable in the generally accessible, empiricalreality. The only thing we perceive of others is the outside: externally perceptible aspects such as appearance and movement, voice, smell and taste, etc.. Therefore, information and experiences, like thoughts and feelings, can not be transferred directly between people.
{Nb. Most of us are no impeccable or extremely talented paragnostics, capable of perfect telepathy or 'mind reading'}.
Strictly speaking we can't even assume that others have a similar inner spiritual life or have consciousness as we do.
{Nb. In the philosophy of consciousness this is known as the 'Other Mind problem}.
When this cannot be solved we're doomed to absolute solitude, according to solipsism}.
Communication offers a solution for this.

Signs and meanings

We pre-eminently use communication to understand the external manifestations of others as expressions of their unobservable, subjective experiences.
The exchange of information typically takes place indirectly, through the exchange - sending and receiving - of various kinds of indications, like chemical substances, signals, symbols or other clues.
In this sense, communication can be described more precisely as: The offering and receiving of (unobservable) meanings between two or more individuals, which takes place by means of observable signs (such as words, gestures, symbols and the like).

Object, sign and meaning

There is therefore a distinction between the three things:


The thing referred to: object, extension, referent.
In principle, almost anything can be referred to, and almost anything can be indicated by anything else. Therefore almost anything can constitute the base or 'raw material' for a meaning that is (to be) communicated. Broadly speaking, there are two types of these:
(a) A phenomenon in the generally accessible, physical world (or empiry).
(b) A phenomenon within the individual, 'inner' subjective world of experience of one or more persons.


The thing with which is refered to to something else, and thus 'bears' meaning - the sign, signal, symbol, code, or signe. This is part of externally visible behaviors or products: a gesture, utterance, or symbolic object. It is of physical (material) nature, perceivable by the senses, and thus empirically verifiable.


The meaning of a thing: the intension, reference, sense, signifié. The term meaning means "indication", or "reference to a state of affairs" (Peursen, Bertels & Nauta, 1968, p.21). Meaning can therefore be understood as: 'the way something refers to something else'; or: 'the reference of a thing to another thing'. In other words, it is a reference to certain circumstances, which implies a representation; and thus information. That is the subjective representation of the object, which is intended to be transmitted. It therefore exists within an (inter)subjective world of experience, and can basically encompass anything that can occur within that world of experience: perception data, ideas ( cognitions), reasoning, fantasies, emotions and dreams.
Meaning requires that some subjective consciousness exists to which something refers to something else. Meaning is in principle always exclusive for the individual's subjective consciousness, it is mental in nature.

Active assigning of meaning

Through cmmunication, the general opinion is, we can find out that there is something 'going on' in others, and what that might be. We know that verbal and non-verbal expressions may be a reflection of an internal physiological or emotional state, that in many cases can be understood as such by others.
First question is, of course, how we can determine whether something of somebody behaves in a way "as if" this expresses certain unobservable contents or processes. Now we know from the philosophy of science that we only know the outside world through our own interpretations and (re)constructions. Accordingly, the signs which we observe from others have only meaning insofar as we recognize them as such and actively assign meaning to them.

The basic form of communication

In communication between two or more individuals at least two events are taking place:


One individual, in the capacity of sender or transmitter, brings certain signs into expression (Eg gestures, speech sounds, symbols, etc., be it through natural of technological way).


Next, another individual, in the capacity of recipient or receiver, assigns certain meanings to to these signs (in particular thoughts and feelings).
These are two chronological steps which must always be present for communication to really occur. Of course, the first event can occur without the second one following: a message may not be received. In that case, it remains an attempt at communication.
Further there are other possible components of the communication process. For example, beforehand there may be a certain purpose (intent, motive) on the side of the transmitter; afterwards there may be a specific effect (outcome, result) on the side of the recipient.
The most general aim of communcation is to reach a certain similarity between the intended meaning of the transmitter on the one hand, and the received meaning of the recipient on the other hand. Communication leads - provided it is in some way 'functional' - to a certain degree of understanding with at least two of the participants regarding the message from another. As soon as the transmitter can notice that his message has 'arrived', as was intended, the communication loop has completed with respect to that message.

The Travelling Meaning illusion

Through communication, "packets" of information can incrementally be transferred by "coupling" them, as it were, to observable signs. Of course, we have to take this figuratively: the mental meaning isn't really "packaged" on, or "attached" to, a message that is sent between the participants in the communication: not in the physical signals, not in the empirical signs, not in the grammar of linguistic expressions. Meanings are not literally "between" the participants. The intended meaning stays on the transmitter side, separated from the received meaning on the reciepient's side.
Signs and expressions "are" not the meaning they indicate, they "contain" no meaning, nor do they "have" a fixed corresponding meaning.
{Nb. See the principle of Non-identity, in the familiar metaphor: "The Map is not the Territory" (Alfred Korzybski, 1933).}
They refer to meaning, in the perception of one or more individuals. We may consider them to be indicators .

Mutual understanding

The result of communication may consist of a certain degree of "overlap" between the intended meaning and the received meaning. Thanks to this overlap of meaning, a certain degree of "mutual understanding" can arise between the communication partners on mutually available information or experience. This is often called "shared", "common", or intersubjective meaning (this includes collective conventions, sensus communis, communis opinio, etc.).

The Shared Meaning illusion

It's a misconception that mutual understanding consists of some sort of "fusion" or "substrate" of the intended and the received meaning. Although mutual understanding can actually apply on a certain moment between people, like transmitted meaning it's not literally located somewere "between" the persons involved. These are only abstract concepts, referring to certain subjective experiences of those involved.

Symmetry of meanings

What happens in such a case is that een certain correspondence, or symmetry has emerged between the meanings attached and assigned by the individual participants. This can more or less be experienced as a "click" or "connection" in such a way that the persons concerned may feel that they really are directly in "contact" with each other, mentally - intellectually and/or emotionally - regardless of physical distance.
The question remains if such an experience is really only illusion. The answer of this is largely dependent on definitions or beliefs that are to high degree arbitrary, like: "contact exists in symmetry of mutually assigned meanings", or "invisible ties and threads between people exist".
But in practice this need not be that relevant. When the degree of intersubjective symmetry is strong enough, the illusionary nature of the 'connection' need not undermine the perceived quality of the content of communication, or, the experience of 'having contact'.



Direct and indirect signaling

The problem of miscommunication

Nevertheless, it's obvious that confusion and misunderstandings in communication occur frequently, and this often unintionaly. Apparently, communication does not automatically work out effectively.
Why is this, and is it preventable? Can communication be made more reliable, accurate, precise? is there a kind of optimal communication possible, which is purposeful, efficient and effective?
In general, there are two major problems:
(·) The same information may include using very different statements are transferred (synonymia).
(·) On the other hand, the same expression can convey very different meanings (ambiguity).

The Interpretation problem

So the question is more how to determine the degree of symmetry of meaning assignment, and if wished for, how to improve it.
The underlying problem remains that - most of the time - neither the transmitter nor the receiver has a way to directly observe, check or test whether the other assigns the same meanings to the same signs. Consequently, it is neither possible to check directly to what extent the intended symmetry is achieved.
The participants therefore are each confronted with a challenge:
(·) The sender has the task to predict an internal response within the recipient.
(·) The recipient on the other side explains thereafter a behavior of the transmitter as an expression of an intended message.
Both have to speculate on a certain degree of symmetry between meaning as received and meaning as intended. Preferably considerably better than random.
People aren't checking all the time if their message got through properly. Apparently, communication works, i.e., the mutual predictions and expectations about intended and understood meanings very often turn out to be sufficient for a good mutual understanding.
How can this work? How can the sender know in advance that his/her message is likely to be understood, and how can the recipient know he/she has understood the message as beforehand intended by the sender?

Overall guidelines for interpretation.

In order to be able to interpret people's expressions, in terms of mental content such as underlying intentions and meanings, we use various global guidelines and rules of thumb to get the necessary additional information.

Not everything is communication.

First of all, we can establish that every observable aspect of someone - like appearance, posture, movement, voice, smell, etc. - can be interpreted, that is, can be explained in terms of assumed underlying causes: so-called causal attribution. Thus we can always attribute "mental causes", i.e. motives, or reasons. We do that almost all the time in proximity, contact or interaction with others. This has led to the well-known view "You can't communicate" in systems theory (cf. Watzlawick et al., 1967, pp.48-51). For example, even not responding to someone else can be taken as a message, e.g. "I choose to neglect you".
The concept of communication is thus stretched here until it includes all social interaction, and even any perceivable behavior (after all, the acting individual needn't be aware of the observer). However, this seems to be a fallacy. The fact that an external characteristic or behaviour of someone - For example, showing a patellar reflex - can be understood as a manifestation of a motive or intended message, and thus can be awarded informative value, says nothing about the actual causes or drivers on the person's side, and it doesn't mean that there is a "message value" or communicative value. Therefore there is a real risk of overinterpretation, a notorious cause in misunderstandings, i.e. miscommunication, contrary to (real) communication. It seems more sensible to speak of communication only if there is not only a conceived message on the side of the observer, but also an intended message on the actor's side. So the question is, what kind of external behavioral traits are suitable to be recognized as indicators of intended messages.

Singular non-verbal signaling.

The most elementary forms of signalling consist - of course - of non-verbal expressions, which are a direct representation, a 'reflection' of a part of the sender (so called 'iconic' signs, or 'part for whole coding ', cf. G. Bateson, 1972).
In nature we see all kinds of examples of this. Many species of animals signal to scare off opponents or attackers: by showing their teeth, claws or antlers, blowing themselves up, making loud noises or ferocious movements, etc.. Lots of animals - mostly males - pull out all kinds of capers to enchant potential partners.
Many of these types of signing tactics are by and large rather universal in the animal kingdom. It's not the point now whether or not animals consciously and (even) deliberately send or receive messages. The behaviors apparently have the function to convey a specific message, and often turn out to be helpful to achieve a corresponding effect (which indicates their evolutionary value): in that sense they can rightfully be counted as communication.

Simultaneous non-verbal signaling.

A notorious problem in non-verbal communication is however ambiguity. For example, a frown may indicate anger, or deep thought, looking up in glare, or gazing a distant object. This lack of equivocality can often be solved in combination with simultaneous other behavioural traits.
With big eyes, frowning is more likely to indicate anger, with an inward-looking eye it rather points to deep thought, with eyes clenched one seems looking up in bright light, or watching something far away, etc..
Simultaneous or secondary signs can also be useful in 'borderline cases' of which it is unclear what part is behavior, and which part is signaling. When a bull bends his head and puts his horns forward, or a lion growls and shows its teeth, we can see this as mere behaviour - like preparing for an attack - but also as messaging - such as a warning, threat or announcement of an attack. The simultaneous scraping with a hoof on the ground of showing open claws may underline the latter function, but this does not constitute a conclusive clue concerning the intended meaning. And of course, a single behaviour can have multiple functions at the same time.

Content level and meta level.

Compared to verbal communication nonverbal communication often constitutes a more direct expression of inner psychic processes, such as motives, attitudes, emotions, desires and other non-rational content. That content is harder to deliberately camouflage or censor. In the case of a verbal expression, simultaneous non-verbal expressions may provide additional instructions for further determination of the 'full' or 'real' meaning behind it. The nonverbal communication may thereby supply "meta-comment" about the participants, the process of interaction and the relationship between the participants. For these reasons verbal communication is sometimes attributed to the 'content level' of communication, and nonverbal communication to the meta-level.
Of course, this does not mean that all non-verbal communication is necessarily metacomment (as suggested by Watzlawick, 1974).

Interpretation with help of context information.

In non-verbal expressions there are large variations between individuals within one species, but also between groups and cultures. Therefore, 'reading' of non-verbal expressions remains quite prone to misinterpretation.
Also there are very large differences between individuals of different species. A notorious misunderstanding is the 'grinning' of great apes with bare teeth such as chimpanzees and gorillas that may seem like laughter, relaxation and kindness to us while it may actually be meant to be fear, complience or even hostility.
In the end, we can only estimate the intended meaning of expressions which we usually do using a lot of additional information. This may originate from innate reaction patterns, but also from learning experiences in memory, such as knowledge of cultural conventions and previous social situations, observations of the present situation, and finally from cognitive processes like associations, inferences, estimates and so-called 'intuitions' which we apply ad hoc on the basis of indications from various sources available to us. All this information is counting as the context of communication.

Previous communication as context.

The context of communication includes all data which we use - and need - for that communication. In fact, without context we can't speak of communication. Contextual information may refer to physical, abstract and subjective matters. Because all meaning is associated directly or indirectly with other meanings, the context cannot be delimited unequivocally and is thus, in principle, infinitely expanded. Seen in this light, the context therefore encompasses the entire knowable reality.
But just as in general reality there are relative differences, or gradations, in relevance of context data. Relevant for any communication is in any case the communication that is immediately preceding in that situation.
For instance, this information may be utilized to decide whether a response originates from of a congenital reaction - and thus primarily is behavioural - or constitutes a learned response - and therefore can also be communicative. When a dominant animal growls at a congener, it can sometimes have this followed by a bite or a pull with its claw. Next, another animal can on only hearing such growling react with defense, subservience or flight. Does the growling in such a situation constitute a common signal among peers, e.g. of threat or aggression, and the reaction of the 'recipient' thus an inborn reflex? Or was the response learned 'with damage and shame' through simple stimulus-response conditioning? In both cases we can say that at least for the recipient, the growling has a communicative meaning.

Indirect signaling, over longer time and distance.

Through combinations of signals also more complex messages can be coded. Such 'tactics' of communication are typically used for transmission over longer distance or a longer time span.
For example, flowers spread sweet scents that associates with the smell of their nectar, attracting insects so these can spread their pollen - or can be digested in their chalices - in the case of carnivorous vegetables. Many animal species leave various kinds of body smells in their habitat to sent messages, often to others of their kind, e.g. to mark their territories, to ward off opponents, or to attrack mates.
Sometimes also the leaving of foot marks are considerd to be messaging of some sort, because they can be recognized by others. However, since these are in general not at all functional or 'intended' as messages on the side of the actor, they mostly do not qualify as acts of communication.

Communication by direct reference.

Another type of messaging uses combinations of several simultaneous signals that are not solely a direct reflection of the sender's physical or emotional state. In particular, this happens through simple, non-verbal directions, gestures, and hints, to external objects and events in the immediate surroundings: so-called deictic references, or "deiksis" (cq "deixis").
The function of this is first and foremost to attrackt and focus attention, and point it at the object in question. These references are typically spatial and visually. They are often accompanied by simultaneous expressions to indicate an additional meaning or characterization of the object. For example, a dog barks and moves at a stick or a prey to lure his owner. A toddler points at a ball, takes turns in looking at the ball and the parent, and makes busy gestures of grabbing or grabbing, thus non-verbally asking to give her the ball. A little further in her development she will try to name the object verbally: "that, that ..?", or somewhat later in time, "ball?". By this labelling the child makes a first, rudimentary beginning of language use.
People also know all kinds of expressions that are a direct expression of what they want to convey. From early prehistoric times, people made (cave) drawings, clay puppets and woodcuts to depict their world of experience and make it known to others in a relatively direct manner.

Use of sign-meaningrelations.

So far we have mentioned signals that are associated in simple linear ways, directly or through a few intermediate steps, with their 'meanings'. In particular regarding cases in the animal and plant world, these concern series or sequences of some chronological events, being that common - i.e. systematically observable - that we can speak of rather stable patterns. In this respect, they resemble 'common' events in the general physical reality which are entirely determined by relationships, mechanisms and laws of causal nature. However, patterns of communcation are characterized by the indirect relations between trigger and outcome, and the intermediary and decisive role of interpretation. Because of this, they are not so much about causality or interaction of a mechanical kind. Instead, communication is based on sign-meaning relationships. In order to allow meanings to be communicated from one individual to another, to the effect that a fair degree of mutual understanding results, it's necessary that they both use the same rules for connecting meanings of signs.
These rules are not, as in the case of causal inference rules, derived from nature, where they are - supposedly - bound and inherent to a specific domain of (physical) reality, as regularities in a fixed and solid form. Instead they constitute "rules of the game", based on agreements or habits. The rules are essentially arbitrary. " The choice of the signifier .. has no natural connection with the signified.' ( Saussure, 1916).
Each participant can, at his or her own discretion deviate from the sign-meaning rules and freely create variations. Sometimes one person starts with an aberrant expression or an alternative interpretation, that first provokes surprise or confusion, but which subsequently spreads gradually in the group, (sub)culture or society, as a temporary fashion, trends and hypes or even a sustained tradition, a new convention as part of the sensus communis.

Types of meaning

In each information transmission through communication, three types of meaning play a role.

The incidental meaning.

The meaning that is assigned to an expression in a personal, subjective way: the unique incidental, associative, or idiosyncratic meaning.

The intended meaning.

This is the 'underlying' meaning, or referential meaning: the unique, incidental meaning, which the transmitter wants to transfer to the receiver - and therefore 'captures' or encodes in perceivable forms.

The recieved meaning.

This is the meaning as understood, or derived meaning: the unique, incidental meaning, which the receiver derives from, and assignes to the observable signals from the transmitter.

The conventional or standard meaning.

This is the commonly used or "normal" meaning, according to customary rules, semantic conventions, or the implicit dictionary of the social group, in general accrues to the assembly of signals with which the transmitter tries to put across his/her intention.
This meaning consists of:

The conceptual meaning.

Thsi is most generally most applicable.

The connotative meaning.

This consists of any less general meanings associated with the expression.
This meaning is described in the formal dictionary of the language.

The commonly assigned meaning.

De 'shared' or intersubjective meaning, meaning which is attributed to the same signals by transmitter as well as by receiver. It is thus the overlap of, - or rather, symmetry between, intended meaning (1a) and understood meaning (1b). As said, the nature of this concept is purely abstract and hypothetical. Yet, no real communication can do without it.
In the practice of communication the conventional meaning may offer clues to encode the meaning referred to and to derive the meaning understood, in order to achieve mutual understanding, but the context data are most decisive for that aim.

The dimensions of communication

Communication has the particular feature that multiple dimensions of reality play a key role in it.

Physical nature of carrier and transfer.

First of all, signs are represented (encoded) on a information carrier or in a medium, which is usually of material nature and thus belongs to the physical domain. The transfer of signs usually also takes place in the form of physical processes between the transmitter and the receiver. This transfer occures and is determined by cause-effect mechanisms or causal relationships that apply in the relevant medium.

Abstract pattern of encoding.

However, the signs themselves are not physical, but consist of certain order patterns, a syntactic structure. One of the characteristics of these is that they can basically be encoded into any kind of medium: they comply with ' multiple realizability'. Therefore, it belongs to the domain of information.

Mental nature of meaning and perception.

The meaning attributed to the signs on the other hand consists of certain impressions and perceptions, or mental content . These are located in the subjective world of experience of one or more participants in the communication, and thus belongs to the domain of psychic processes. In this 'virtual medium', the meaning has (like other psychic content) also a certain order, a semantic structure.
When the meaning is consciously perceived it also includes aspects of direct experience, especially so-called qualia which in a unique way are characteristic of subjective consciousness (cf. eg. C.S. Peirce, 1866; C.I. Lewis, 1929; D.J. Chalmers, 1995).

Intersubjective nature of mutual understanding.

Finally, through communication meaning can be 'shared' to a certain extent by multiple individuals based on agreement, or symmetry, between intended and received meaning. The mutual understanding that this makes possible, we can consider as intersubjective perception. Of course, everyone can determine for themselves, that he/she has a subjective experience, but that doesn't apply to intersubjective perception. We could therefore dismiss it as a fiction, arising from the mutual projections of the individuals involved. Intersubjective perception is, however, a special phenomenon in multiple ways. It is crucial for any society, where it's hardly ever considered a total illusion. It can only arise on the basis of of a combination of the three main dimensions of information: physical processes, abstract patterns and psychological processes. And finally, it cannot be created merely by the contribution of a single individual: "It takes two to tango".



Communication and language

Use of language.

As in communication more complex forms of (indirect) reference are applied, more complex sign-meaning relationships are used, and these often in more complex combinations. When a certain system can be detected in this, we usually speak of a language.
A language can be considered as a system of rules for signaling and interpretation. That is, a coherent system of rules, agreements or habits for selecting and combining signs, in such a way that with those signs or sign-combinations all kinds of things can be refered to.
Each set of sign-meaning-relations can be called a "language". In general, a language can be verbal or non-verbal.

When does communication use language?

Where communication in a general sense merges into the use of language is not at all clear-cut - except with arbitrary definition.

Verbal language.

In a very strict, very anthropocentric, cerebral and "digital" view, only the human verbal language, which uses spoken word and writing, is considered to be a "real" language. It has even taken a long period and much effort to have the sign language of the deaf be recognized as a real full-fledged language.

Human constructions.

Next, one usually considers only coding systems as language when they are human-developed and traceable to parts of human language. For example, the artificial systems of symbols and formulae of the exact sciences, computer languages, and the like.

Shifted reference.

Usually communication systems of animals are excluded from the language category. As an inclusion criterion the possibility is mentioned to exchange information (e.g. by speaking, writing, ...) about objects or things that are at that point not immediately observable. The ability to communicate about things outside immediate temporal and spatial contiguity, "relayed", "displaced" or "shifted" reference. (cf. L. Bloomfield, 1933/35) Such indirect reference 'over distance' however, also exist as aforementioned with a few examples, in the animal and plant world.

Relative complexity.

Further, the 'simplicity' of animal communication is often contrasted with the outstanding, rich productive and flexible expressive possibilities of human language. It appears that even primates appear to learn only with great effort a very limited set of symbols and expressive possibilities that resembles human language. On the other hand, we know that some species use language-like communication systems that have pretty subtle expressive possibilities.
A well-known example in the animal world is the so-called bee language. Bees are able to communicate through so-called 'bee dances': performing all kinds of movements in or near the hive, with which they indicate specific characteristics of food sources, such as location, value and accessibility. The movement patterns apparently function like codes that can, in complex combinations, express quite nuanced meanings, according to conventional rules.
Other animal species appear to use complex communication systems that man has hardly systematically studied, decrypted and understood. Ants for example leave complex chemical traces destined for their littermates, the operation and scope of which we have barely figured out.
What plays a role in the antropocentric preoccupation is undoubtedly that we tend to pay particular attention to what appears most familiar to us, humans, considering our kinship with peers of our own group or (sub)culture, and advantages we enjoy - on the short term - given mutual dependencies in our direct (human) social networks.

Relative flexibility.

Reference is also made to strongly stereotyped and rather rigid character of animal behaviour, including communication, unlike the large variation between individuals, groups and cultures, and the possibilities of learning and development of new variations among people. However, anyone who has kept animals knows that this is also very relative. Even young animals from the same litter often show their own characteristic forms of expression and reaction patterns in behavior, interaction and communication; also showing their own development in these, and turn out to be surprisingly capable of new learning moments. This said, people's abilities to learn and change are generally considerably larger.

The structure of language.

It turns out that a multitude of rules counts for all human languages. This 'universal' language structure is being studied in disciplines such as general linguistics (ATW) or linguistics, General Semantics (GS), psycholinguistics, etc.. Such studies show that the structure of every language consists of collections of different kinds of rules. We can distinguish the following language components:
(·) A collection of elementary elements such as (speech) sounds or (written) characters (the alphabet);
(·) A collection of terms composed of characters, or words (idiom, vocabulary);
(·) A collection of rules about meaningrelations for direct reference (the lexicon, dictionary);
(·) A collection of rules about sign-to-sign relations for indirect reference through sentence constructions (the grammar, syntax);
(·) A collection of rules about meaningrelationships between characters, terms, sentences, arguments and reasoning (semantics).

The scope of language variations.

Variations in use of the same language can be found at various levels of validity or scope. In general we can distinguish:

Universal human forms:

tied to the overall 'architecture' of the (human) brain, nervous, sensory and motor system.

Social-cultural, conventional variations:

linked to group, (sub)culture, ethnicity and period (or 'zeitgeist').

Individual-psychological variations:

tied to the - unique - personality and psychological development.

Complexity and grammar.

By means of human language an almost infinite variety of perceptions can be displayed with a limited variety of forms of expression. The latest can be brought together, in more or less complex assemblies, by means of the rules about sign-to-sign relationships for indirect reference, the grammar. In natural language one may for example form different sentences with the same set of words, that can express sometimes subtle, sometimes radically different meanings.



Prediction of meaning aspects.

The predictive force of language structure.

As said, the meaningrelationships, i.e. the rules of the lexicon, are highly arbitrary and depending on conventions, (sub)culture, fashion, trends and hypes. The other language rules however represent much more stable regularities in human language. As a result, they allow for making explanations and predictions with regard to specific linguistic expressions. In particular the grammar and semantics of a language offer a wealth of possibilities to illuminate the various aspects of a representation and differences in importance. Based on certain structural characteristics of language constructions, their 'meaning effects' can be predicted with quite high reliability.
Some examples:

Word order and sentence mode.

By varying word order, or putting a phrase in an active or passive form, differences can be indicated concerning main subject (topic), focal point (focus) and emphasis (accent).

Syntactic deletions.

Because verbs at a semantic level can have one or more "arguments", dependent constituents of the verb can be omitted in the surface structure that are of less importance, while the recipient may know that these are still present in the background. E.g., in "He's a generous giver", it's less important for the moment to mention in extension what and to whom the giving happens.


By bending verbs to nouns (nominalization) the underlying process may also be placed in the background. E.g., in "She was happy with all the gifts", it's less important for the moment to mention in extension what and by whom the giving happened.


The phenomenon of presupposition is a very powerful mechanism that enables predictions about implicit meanings. E.g., in the sentence "Jan went on holiday is the presupposition "There exists someone called John".
Many presuppositions can easily be recognised linguistically, by examining what remains true when the proverb of the sentence is either confirmed or denied. (compare in this case: "Jan didn't go on holiday").
Other presuppositions can be recognized as implicit causal statements. E.g., "While it's raining, the house can easily collapse", suggests a (physical) causal relationship between rainfall and the "easy collapse".
There are also presuppositions that can be recognized as psychological statements. E.g., "While drinking your tea, you can easily relax", suggests a (psychological) causal connection between drinking tea and the "easy to relax".
In logic any non-valid form of reasoning, i.e. a fallacy, can be reduced to an equivalent collection of conjuncte presuppositions which must be fulfilled to make the entire reasoning form valid. E.g.., "It is really important to adopt a right kind of mental hygiene" presupposes: "There may be someone here who is not exerting the right kind of mental hygiene".

Negative commands.

Some language forms - especially when they refer to generally sensory or physically perceptible phenomena - deliver pretty good predictability of a 'meaning effect'. This allows them to unconsciously conjure up associations that can already affect the psyche even before they can be consciously detected, let alone checked.
E.g.: "Don't think about (a red plane, ...)".
We know that the listener/reader will think of a red plane: even though we don't know what kind of red, and what type of aircraft exactly.

Counter-logical compositions.

Certain linguistic constructions elicit specific responses to to readers or listeners in a pretty predictable way. One example is the technique of the contralogical composition. Take e.g. a sentence like "The stone speaks". This contains a combination of logically contradictory meanings (violations of so-called semantic restrictions): the phenomena "stone" and "speaking" we usually don't know as compatible. The first problem such a sentence presents us is therefore that the displayed situation can't be realized in any field of ordinary, publicly accessible reality known to us. Faced with such an absurdity, we have to deal with a meaning vacuum, that may lead for a moment to mental stagnation. To understand the sentence as a meaningful communication our brain starts searching - unconsciously, involuntarily - for possible intended meanings. In doing so, they stand for a dilemma (or trilemma) which possible interpretation to choose. For example:
(1) "It's not really a stone that speaks" - but, for example, a harsh character; or
(2) "It's not really speaking what the stone does" - but it has, for example, a remarkable appearance or expressive colours; or
(3) "It's a different world than the everyday world in which the event described takes place" - for example, one in fantasy, fairy tale or fiction.
All these different interpretations are typically metaphorical, each of which is always possible in almost infinite variations. As long as the meaning is not unambiguously determinable - based in particular on context information - the alternatives remain oscillating and mental overload is imminent. Therefore, such techniques are frequently used for manipulative, demagogic and hypnotic goals.

Communication works on the basis of expectations.

(·) From learning experiences we form expectations about the meaning of behaviors of others in various situations: which ones express thoughts and feelings, and which refer to meanings and referred messages. Through this recognition information exchange and thus communication become possible.
(·) All communication works on basis of expectations. The expectations that people have of each other ensure that they are not anytime again total strangers to eachother. Without expectations there can really only be a physical interaction between people, a more or less intense but superficial contact in the here and now.
(·) Although human communication is very fallible, we can test our understanding of the other to new observations all the time, and thereby further expand, adjust and refine it. In the practice of everyday communication we test our sign meaning rules constantly to the responses and signals from others to improve them or ratify/sanction/endorse it. Very often it turns out/proves to have a predictive power that is far better than anything merely based on coincidence to would be expected. Indeed/Stronger, communication works largely thanks to guessing better-than-random.



The value of communication

Objectives of communication

Roughly three main goals of communication are to be mentioned:

Instrumental function: Exchange of information.

So far we are talking about the general basic form of communication, instrumental communication. The sharing of information may be used for all sorts of purposes; for example, knowledge acquisition and decision processes. planning our actions, or influencing an other person. Because of this, we are capable of all kinds of social processes and interactions, like cooperating, play together, learning and teaching, following or leading.
It is a minimum requirement for workable 'businesslike', or rather 'instrumental' contacts in social areas such as work, profession or company, but also politics, social life, sports, and so on. Such contacts are often based on a mutual exchange of services and interests because of various intended benefits. The return flow conditions usually stem from implicit or explicit 'rules of the game' about favors and quid pro quo returns (or penalties). Those are however flexible and are largely determined by the one with the most power or alternatively power resources. In such "contract relationships", some smart opportunistic manoeuvering may be convenient.

Subjective importance: the satisfaction of confirmation.

A successful transfer of information will generally be appreciated by the sender if he/she wanted to reach an understanding, and by the recipient if the latter values the information received. As the information communicated refers to the inner, personal perception of the participant(s), a good understanding is more important and the greater the satisfaction with a successful transfer.

Intersubjective importance: Interpersonal contact (surplus value):

Often we can experience the exchange and interaction of our experiences with others in itself, as a process, as pleasant - regardless of specific outcomes. In so-called 'sharing' of certain experiences, thoughts and feelings is the perception of contact we can experience with another.
In private contacts, communication takes place on a more affective or emotional level compared to the 'businesslike' contacts. For a better understanding of the subjective experience of the other, we may also pay attention to the emotional component in that experience. This means we try to some extent, to empathize with the feelings the other experiences and more or less expresses through his or her communication.
If we then demonstrate that understanding, this will enhance the mutual feeling of attention, acknowledgement, recognition and and connection. This creates a mutual understanding that is deeper and more personal: a greater degree of synchrony and symmetry between mutual worlds of experience. For that moment, the seclusion of the individual worlds of experience is sort of broken through. And this makes interpersonal confidentiality possible.
The intersubjective experience of the process of communication and mutual contact is added to the subjective experience of each of those involved. This can not be produced or created solely by the individual effort of a person. Therefore, it is often found that the intersubjective experience is more than (the sum of) the separate individual experiences. As a general principle may be adopted that inter-subjective experience can not be replaced by individual experience. In short: the quality of our communication is important for our happiness.
Naturally, there may be a combination of these objectives in communication.




By means of information, information - that is unobservable meaning - can be exchanged between different individuals.
(1) Communication provides the ability to acquire information about our environment, which others have; and is therefore indirectly a tool for control of our own behavior to achieve various life goals.
(2) Communication provides the ability of transmitting information what matters for interpersonal cooperation, social support and loyalty; and is therefore an essential factor in the survival, health, and continuous personal development of an individual.
(3) Communication allows for mutual understanding, the 'sharing' of experiences with others, i.e. intersubjective experience; and is therefore a key determinant of emotional reactions, mental balance and health, and subjective well-being of both individuals and social systems.
Human communication has a lot limitations and fallible aspects. Nevertheless it can work adequately in practice, so as to make pleasant social interaction and involvement possible.