You mean more than you mean

When I used to teach college writing at SUNY New Paltz, I found that many students harbored a naïve and mechanistic idea about meaning in language and how it gets there. They believed that whatever meaning there is to be found in an utterance is there only because the speaker or writer put it there. “On purpose.” If the speaker or writer didn’t consciously mean it, then that ain’t what it meant.

I would point to a moment in a student’s writing where language, up to its old volatile, interactive shenanigans, was going ahead and offering rich themes and suggestions without the writer’s endorsement. And they would say, “I didn’t mean that,” as though that settled the matter.

Well, of course that’s an easy bubble to burst. Words and the syntactical units of language are wildfire, raging beyond authorial intention and control , oftentimes (if you’re a deconstructionist, every time) undermining the author’s intended meanings.


It’s just the viral, living nature of language and its untraceably complex interactions. And it’s also, like, the best thing that can happen when you write — a wild, enriching dialogue between your purpose when you started — a design that you, child God, attempt to force upon your rows of assembled words — and all the fluid, wild surprises, epiphanies, and sabotages that living language has in store for you if you’re listening. Next thing you know you start to believe that language writes you, not the other way around.

That’s a Romantic view. I’m a Romantic.

Our discourse is an ecosystem of interdependencies, assumed roles and rights, invocations of privileges and licenses, and narratives of domination and rebellion, informing every moment of communication, whether we want to see them or not. Bad example, but you can say, “Hey, you want some help with that?” And your friend says, “I think I got it.” Now put on your gender glasses, and how does the meaning change? Put on your race glasses, the ones we are all rightly wearing now, and what features of this transaction are thrown into relief? How about the economic lens? On and on.

You always mean a hell of a lot more than you mean.

We live in age when the revelations of critical theory have reached popular consciousness and critical mass. People, especially young people, are hyper-attentive to language and the power structures, biases and values nesting in it, transmitting the culture’s dominant narratives and identities on the granular level.

I can hear the PCphobes scoffing as they get off this bus. Don’t we have better things to do than this endless, micro-policing of names and terms and syntax?

No, I think it is pretty important work, though I also think it is vital that we conduct it with a sense of experiment and empathy, without arrogance, mindful that our own linguistic comeuppance is soon to come up, and that nobody really has this problem knocked yet.

The  tweaks that we make in our tongue, these fine calibrations, are never really for the benefit of the first users, the early adopters, to whom they may always feel unnatural — and for whom, in any case, it may be too late. The adjustments are our little gift to the future: a re-biasing of the language that we pass along, in hopes that it might rewire future brains and restructure future relationships, so that our own sluggish and partial awakenings to each other might be the start of something cumulative and lasting.

Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.