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11.6.13

Word War One

How important is language?

No, the title of this piece is not a typo.  Bear with me.

I recently read a paper by social anthropologist Mary Douglas, published in 1966, called, "Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo."  It is an absolutely fascinating study of the limits of human thinking and society based on language.  It got me to thinking.

For further context, the aware reader will want to absorb Margaret Wertheim's exceptional piece for Aeon Magazine called, "Physics's Pangolin."

Part of Douglas' thesis is that those things we can not classify in our language get ignored, possibly become taboo and even get relegated to religious objects and subjects.

It is an interesting idea, and certainly one worth exploring.  Having learned all or part of 17 languages, I have become acutely aware of how language and culture go hand-in-hand.  What is especially intriguing are the things which other languages can or can not express compared to English (my mother tongue).  One simple example is my ongoing battle with the gardener at the Far Side Global Headquarters.  In Indonesian, rumput can mean 'weed' and 'grass'.  As a result, he is hell-bent on destroying my lawn (such as it is) because the thing I call 'grass' is nothing more than a nuisance plant to him.  As a consequence, he can not comprehend why I get so hopping mad when he paves over my grass, nor when I jack-hammer it up and replace the grass.

It's a simple example, but a telling one.

German is a fascinating language.  It is classified as 'glutenous' by linguists because it has a limited base vocabulary that is recombined to make new words.  Its grammar leads to a certain amount of clarity and precision in thinking by its native speakers.  For instance, to create the concept of submarine, one need only join the words unter, wasser and boot to create 'under-water-boat'.  Very clear and concise meaning.

To get the same clarity and conciseness from English, you must have a good understanding of Latin, Greek, French, and of course, German (the base language of English).  Only then could you tease out the meaning sub (under), mare (sea), and the suffix -ine meaning "of or related to."  Nowhere in the dissection of the word submarine does one find the meaning "boat", so it is an imprecise word.

Of course, German does have its drawbacks.  One can end up with job titles like "Rhinefarhtsgesellschaftkapitan," but there is no ambiguity about "goes on the Rhine joined vessel captain."

As a consequence of its language, German society is clear and precise.  No one can argue that the country is spotlessly clean, or that the Germans are not precision-driven.  Just take a look at some of their biggest corporations, like Siemens or Zeiss.

On the other hand, English is perfectly adapted to being an international language.  It easily assimilates words and grammar from other languages.  Its syntax is flexible enough to allow a wide variety of dialects.  And English is very good at classifying and categorizing things, which is what Douglas says is the key to the language/culture connection.

It behooves us to expand our language as far as we can to push back the boundaries of fear and superstition.  That which we can categorize can not hurt us and can be dealt with clearly.  Reading and learning a new word every day will dispel darkness.  Learning new languages further expands those horizons and adds concepts not available in our native tongues.  Witness German words like gemuetlicheit or the Indonesian selamat.  You might also learn that the Thai greeting sawasdeekra is the root of swastika, and find old ghosts expelled in such a way.

How important is language?  Imagine someone without a name.  How would you call them?  How would you refer to them?  Recall when the singer (I won't use the word artist) Prince changed his name to a graphic with no sounds attached?  His career quickly tanked and he became irrelevant because no one could talk about him.  There was no hook on which to hang ideas.

In Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four, people often gloss over one of the most important warnings of the book. The power and control of Big Brother was the manipulation of language.  Words were constantly being redefined or disappeared.  The Newspeak dictionary grew thinner with each edition.  People were incapable of having subversive thoughts because they no longer had names for them, and so feared and reviled those subjects which could not be articulated.

Words bring light to the darkness.

Look at old maps and notice that dire warnings and monsters populated those regions where no one had hung titles.  Look at modern cosmology.  Fear and quasi-religious trappings gird the unknown, such as the first second of time after the supposed Big Bang.  Even the term Big Bang conjures violence and destruction, thus fear, in the very act of creation.  How can we make sense of a Universe in which creation is a violently destructive act?  And what does that say about moral relativism when we can point to the moment of creation and say that good came from bad, so the ends justify the means?

Language is the most vital weapon we have against authoritarianism and fascism.  There is a reason why the ruling class always attack language.  The first casualty of war is truth, and truth is expressed with language.  Without it, we are helplessly ensnared by those who would dominate for personal gain.

They know it.  And so should we.

Look at our current situation.  All the scandals involving leaks and surveillance have one thing in common: the control of language.  Some future historian may well record this time as Word War One.  If the ruling class is so afraid of language, then we must use that fear to our advantage.

The Bible clearly states in the opening lines that all of Creation began with a Word.  If words are so powerful as to create Universes, then take heed!  It is axiomatic that knowledge is power, and knowledge is predicated on language.  Clear, concise and unsullied language is the key to creating the world in which we want to live.  Adam's first act was to name the world.

When we allow others to control the words by which we think, then we allow them to implant templates in our minds, outside of which we can not stray.  Word War One will not be fought with guns and swords, but with words and definitions.  Like they used to say in the 60s (and so readily forgot), question everything.

To that I would add: and guard your answers.