© 27 Mar 2012 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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How changing language can make understanding hard.


When I look at words I like to pretend they used to be logical. I willingly suspend my knowledge the world is messy in many other areas too… “‍‘‍Shall‍’‍”, I pretend, “‍was once merely a tense of ‘‍should‍’, with none of the predictive meaning of ‘‍will‍’ it has since acquired.‍” I frankly have no idea if this pretension is correct, but it is comfortable to think of the world in these simple terms.

And then I read a passage like “‍every knee shall bow‍” Isaiah, I think, coined this phrase, though it is more often quoted in my hearing as Alma and Paul reworded it: “‍every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess.‍” and I think to myself, “‍self, this passage is pretty weak if you think of it in terms of the ought and not the will be.‍” So I pull out my parallel translation and review many other translations of the passage and end up unable to decide if “‍will‍” or “‍shall‍” is more correct.

I suppose this really matters little if at all. The “‍ought‍” is almost trivially true, and the “‍will be‍” will be clear enough in the moment one way or the other. The resolution of this question doesn’t directly impact my daily life nor my contextualized understanding of the passages using this phrase. Yet I am still bothered by it. How could language become so messy that I can’t tell a prophesy from an injunction?

While on the subject, there are other nuances to the word “‍shall‍” I sometimes consider. For example, “‍eventually I shall understand‍” and “‍I shall eventually understand‍” are, in my idealized world, very different statements. The first means “‍in the future it will be true that I ought to seek complete understanding‍”; the second “‍it is currently true that I ought to seek to complete my understanding by some future date‍”. How many of my readers consider my explanations distinct? But I strongly suspect that very few other people consider these as distinct.

I wonder if these looseness of interpretation is of social benefit, allowing people to more easily understand each other. With looser definitions it is easier to hit a mark, if harder to hit it precisely.

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