A few years ago, I set up a photo album on Facebook called The Cheese Toast Project. On its surface, it appeared to be little more than photos of cheese toast I’d had for breakfast each morning, but my intent was for it to be an experiment in language. Specifically, I wanted to demonstrate the limitations of language in conveying an idea, and used “cheese toast” as an illustration. Most people understand the concept, but simply requesting a slice of cheese toast can lead to many different results, depending on one’s definition of “cheese,” “bread,” and “toast.”
Most will agree, that to create a slice of cheese toast, one must start with bread, then add some sort of cheese to it, then put it all into a toaster for a given amount of time. Nothing could be simpler, until one considers the many types of bread, and cheese, and the varied definitions of what constitutes toast. For instance, a slice of cheese toast could consist of Wonder bread with Velveta cheese; or wheat bread with crumpled Gorgonzola; or rye bread with Swiss cheese; or a pita with grated Asiago.
It would seem, then, that to successfully comply with someone’s request for a slice of cheese toast, the person fulfilling the request must understand what the other individual means by “cheese” and “bread.” The process is further complicated by the different ways one can make toast. For some, “toast” is simply a slice of bread browned in some type of oven. For others, though, making toast means adding margarine or butter, herbs and/or spices, and sometimes even onions, tomatoes, or mushrooms.
Ask a group of people to make a slice of cheese toast, and one could end up with as many varieties as there are people in the group. Thus the disparity between the general and the specific. Almost anyone tasked with preparing a slice of cheese toast can certainly comply with the request, but will the result be what the person making the request really wanted? Wouldn’t cottage cheese on a toasted baguette qualify? Cream cheese on a toasted bagel contains the basic elements of cheese and bread, but most don’t refer to that as cheese toast. While there may exist a consensus on what isn’t cheese toast, that doesn’t bring us closer to knowing exactly what an individual’s specific definition is.
Expanding on that notion, how can we be certain what someone means when he or she says “car,” or “house,” or “dog”? While there are commonly agreed upon generalities, there is a vast difference between a Honda Civic and a Lamborghini, a cabin and a mansion, or a chihuahua and a Doberman. Personal experience goes a long way toward determining the mental picture one draws when hearing each term. Just imagine the problems that can arise when one person’s definition of “large” or “warm” doesn’t match that of another.
This is the problem with language. Most regard it as the single factor that separates humans from other inhabitants of the earth, but when a concept as simple as “cheese toast” can yield such vastly different examples, what hope does that give for conveying more abstract notions, such as love, truth, or beauty. Perhaps the genius of language is that it allows us to communicate ideas without fully comprehending what each other is actually saying. In the exacting field of science, definitions are very important and usually agreed upon from the beginning, but lacking a common frame of reference, the rest of us can only hope we’ll be understood. Problems can arise when one assumes a common understanding, such as when telling someone, “You know what must be done.”
In conclusion, the ability to communicate has yielded amazing advancements for the human race, but it can also be an impediment, when people fail to agree on basic definitions for common concepts. We should never assume we’re being understood when language provides us with the mechanism for clarification. Whether insisting on rights and privileges, or simply asking for some cheese toast, it helps to be certain we’re conveying what we truly mean, rather than assuming we’re all speaking the same language, even when we are.