Language

/ Thinking Tools / Language /
@ K. 2000 09 11

Philosophy is a battle against
the bewitchment of our intelligence
by means of language.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

The spirit of this file is also daughter to Knatz.com / Society files. It is likewise integral to Macroinformation. Further, it is, for the time being, unlike some of the modules here, merely a notebook, not a complete essay.

2004 08 04

At the top I have to insert a promise: to invite reflection on the recent theory that language evolved in human beings as a male tool to overcome the female’s newfound ability to say No once a series of other evolutions had occurred: birthing big headed humans had become dangerous, ovulation had become hidden, estrus had been replaced by near constant receptivity, and females, thanks to the rhythm of a newly blatant menses, had connected mating causally with birthing. Yes, it makes so much sense.

Men learned to speak in order to seduce unprecedentedly independent and suddenly cautious women. The mouth is for eating, but it can also speak: speech is for seduction, but it can also be used for other things — like reasoning. But it’s poor at the latter, good at the former.

Thinking, feeling, faith, philosophy, science … How much of any of that do we have apart from language? Epistemology: how we know the world: is expressed in language: it relates inextricably with perception (psychology …). All those relate inextricably with symbol use (semiotics, semantics …). Language is so ubiquitously a part of our mental environment that we’re in grave danger of believing too easily that we understand it. If I had started this folder thirty years ago, and worked on nothing else until I died, had I the resources common to those who went along with instead of opposing the
schools and universities, that is, had I colleagues and students, people who understood at least partly what I think and say, I, the gang of us, still wouldn’t be done with it.

I’ve started talking about some of the essentials at Macroinformation. A lot of things I wanted to establish at least a basic module on in this my Thinking Tools directory found their way there first. Done right, the two directories, Thinking Tools and Macroinformation, should work seamlessly together. The way it’s actually gone, I’m something of a bigamist, jumping back and forth between two homes.

As soon as it can, this file will become a menu for modules on the subject of language. For the moment there are only a couple of things I want to get down fast. One: a module on ambiguity is overdue here and will appear in this folder soon. Two: what I’m going to say right now, necessitates a fast overview of things to be developed further so that what I say today about euphemistic aspects of language in culture will be seen in some sort of context.

Words are the way we spill our pain.
Owen Parry’s Abel Jones novels

Language: English, French, Chinese, Eskimo … Is that a good way to think of it? It certainly is how most of us do think of it. If we dispensed with the convenience of classification systems, how could we talk about it? Would anything ever get said if we took Korzybski’s suggestion to an extreme and sub-labeled every fragment of every utterance?

Worddate, time, speaker, speaker’s mental furniture, speaker’s personal lexicon, speaker’s personal grammar …

Whoops, I don’t want to go into detail here yet. I skip to this statement:

The classification system I shall use here distinguishes first between

Natural Language & Artificial Language

Both of those can further subdivide. Just as the hypernotes on any phrase, word, or syllable could go on and on — some might want to include the speaker’s horoscope — the sub-divisions of the sub-divisions might come up short of infinity but the end would never be in sight.

But in practice these are abstractions without any actual pure examples in experience. Natural and artificial mix in practice: just as there is no pure vacuum and no solid matter. “E=Mc2 is pure artificial language, but this sentence containing Einstein’s famous formula is a mix: it mixes the natural language English with several artificial languages within it, including obviously the artificial language of algebra. But what we call English is already a mix: of one descendant of Indo-European with other descendants of Indo-European. Traces of Scandinavian as well as Latin “contaminate” the Anglo-Saxon descendant. That’s just in the grammar. The vocabulary comes from all over. (And much of the contamination is “artificial” in the sense that the natural language English, when it had no linguistic description, got mucked with by scholars who had a linguistic description of Latin (and or Greek) and decided to misapply its “rules.”)

The specialist may be speaking “algebra” or “geometry” or “physics” or “thermo-dynamics” but he’s speaking it in Japanese, or German, or Turkic … “How much ‘a’ da cabbages?” may be pure English; “Wha’dya get fa’ da’ 64 MB Simm?” isn’t. The first sentence is intelligible to hundreds of millions of hearers, maybe a thousand million by now, maybe more; the second to fewer. The language of commerce is pandemic throughout English, the language of cybernetic, AI, and computer commerce may be spreading, but it hasn’t yet dyed the whole. And commerce militates to make it ever more artificial: “Ya got a Kleenex?” is proprietarily encouraged over “Ya got a tissue?” which is already a artificial commercialization of “Ya got a hankie?”

OK. I hope that kicked the ball off, because I want to focus today on a particular sub-division of artificial language. Already mentioned elsewhere at this my home page is Sir James Frazer’s report that some tribes have two divisions of its natural language: the language as spoken by the men and “women speak.” The “main,” i.e. male, language, the language of the culture at large, may have a vocabulary of say a few thousand words. The language’s woman-speak will have a vocabulary of only a few hundred words. (Though the vocabulary for proper names in the woman-speak may way outstrip the vocabulary for the same things in the main language: if someone has died, the women have to think of an unending series of different ways to refer to the departed: can’t call him by his “real” name.) In simple: the men may speak the language; the women may speak only

Euphemisms

(and euphemisms need forever to be recoined. Yesterday’s euphemism is today’s obscenity.)

Anyone with a smattering of anthropology — even just reading the picture blurbs in a few National Geographics may do — may recognize something of the preceding. Good. Now what I would like you to do is consider the degree to which the same is true, but magnified many-fold, in “civilized” culture. The United States calls itself a “free” society, the leader of the free world and so forth. The English have long called themselves free. The French Revolution was devoted to “liberty.” Germans sang about their “gedanken” sinding “frei.” The United States has a top amendment to its Constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech. What does it mean in practice? That Ulysses can’t be published (except after a struggle). Neither can Lady Chatterley’s Lover or The Tropic of Cancer. It means that Huck Finn must be excluded from this school and that library. And never mind about pk’s writing. But we already all know all that. Mark Twain quipped that Americans were far too wise to dream of actually practicing their freedoms (the actual quote is elsewhere at my home page). Think of this in addition: what about a court room? Do the police speak English? Maybe they do at home. Maybe they do on the beat. But not in court. Nor to a reporter. They speak a cop-speak of a very limited vocabulary the main requirement for which seems to be that the cop not understand the word’s normal use: alleged, perpetrator, apprehend … Now the lawyers and the judge are speaking an artificial language with a traditional place within the natural language: the law. The law is its own sub-language with its own sub-history, vocabulary, grammar, lexicon, etymologies … Like all specialized (artificial), languages there are two reasons for it. 1) the specialist needs to define his terms, be capable of efficiency within the fraternity, etc. and 2) the specialist doesn’t want to be understood by the general public: the public might see how easy it is, or how false it is … the price would go down.

My module on addiction talks not only of how people forever talking about dieting are forever gaining weight but also of how politicians who are forever talking about “getting government off our backs” — to hear a Reagan or a Gingrich speak you’d think they were libertarians if not anarchists (how much would the Libertarian Party come to resemble the Republican Party if it ever actually got elected to anything?) — are also forever building ever more huge and elaborate, not to mention expensive, mansions for the governors. Well, I say the money is one thing. “Give to Caesar,” etc. Money and government are practically the same thing. Let them take it all (if only we had access to land, food, shelter, information, etc. without them). It’s government taking over the language, converting it all into woman-speak, that I object to.

The week before my 62nd birthday I contacted Social Security. After a lifetime of mostly no income, I’m now going to get their minimum — $380 per month plus $10 for having been drafted. Before determining that number, before looking up my record from my social security number, the guy asks me about my work meaning my income. “I have no income, seldom have,” I answer. “You don’t work?” he asks. “I work my ass off, sixteen … eighteen hours a day, six, seven days a week. I just don’t have any income from it.” “Don’t curse,” he says. “Curse?” I’m flabbergasted. “I didn’t curse.” “Yes, you did. You said posterior only ‘posterior’ isn’t what you said.”

Till here my quotes are exact. The following combines what I did say filled out a bit by things I’m forever saying here at my home page. Look buddy, ‘English teacher’ is one of my many hats. I have a Baccalaurei in Artibus in English. A Masters Degree. All the doctoral course work and then some. An original thesis of genius. I’ve taught English at colleges you probably couldn’t get into. I founded the Free Learning Exchange. I am a writer. A good one. ‘Ass’ is plain English, the language I speak best and most often. You want me not to curse, which I didn’t. A curse is a form of magic. I aspire to no sorcery. I practice no magic. A vain appeal to God may also be considered a curse. I made no appeal to God, vain or otherwise. I have no interest in God’s magic. But I know what you mean. I was speaking English. You want me to speak government (a form of woman-speak). I can. And if plain English upsets you, I’ll speak government to you for the rest of this telephone session.

English is forbidden in court. In the press. In schools. By most media. They call their woman-speaks English, but the appellation is false. Teachers may assign Chaucer and Shakespeare, but their own utterances are anemic.

Interruption. When I return I shall include a discussion of the artificial language Standard Written English as a form of woman-speak. I shall compare it to Latin, a language which was never natural. More importantly, I shall suggest that the main languages of natural languages tend themselves to be types of woman-speak: just not as euphemized as the woman-speak per se.

I’ll also add comparisons in words such as “Depression”: how come we’ve never had another? Had never had one before? We do: our woman-speak just never calls it the same thing twice. Indeed, depression was a euphemism in 1929, avoiding the bad word for what had happened to markets toward the end of the Nineteenth Century. To the extent that politicians run the weather bureau we similarly haven’t had a hurricane since Andrew: they’re all “tropical storms” now. Tornados may soon be replaced by … should we have a contest to decide? … whirligigs. One bad whirligig and that too will be retired.

The next file in this folder is Ambiguity. Following soon will be a piece on euphemism alone. (“Funeral Home” is a favorite of mine. It’s both euphemism and oxymoron at once.) That is: this particular file will be rewritten, its contents redistributed, and converted into a sub-menu.

2001 04 13

Today I add another file: language constructs. (Of course virtually all of Macroinformation is about mental constructs!)

This week I’ve been reading CK Ogden and IA Richards’ The Meaning of Meaning for the first time in decades. I’ve always known it was a big influence on my thinking but I needed a refresher on how big. I should have been more aware of Ogden and Richards’ influence in reading both Bateson and Korzybski.

In real life you don’t need much language.
Walter Mosley

2001 04 22 Just seeing a video of The Contender reminds me of another sore point of natural language: flexibility of definition. The latter is a two-sided sword. Flexibility is natural as well as, in a natural language unavoidable: but it can be consciously as well as unconsciously abused. A sore political area in the movie was the issue of abortion. One side used the term as a euphemism for kill the fetus; the other side aggravated the sore by calling it murder. If the terms of political discourse where ever defined, then meaning could be a point of law: the losers of the battle couldn’t keep coming back with their old aggravations and get away with it quite so easily. Good: practice open dissent, civil disobedience, fight to change the definition and the law. At least we’d know who was minority and who majority. Those who continue to call abortion murder after the law says it isn’t should give up their offices within the law, not maintain the confusion in Congress. Similarly, those who continue to euphemize the kill once the law has called it murder should have to carry on their fight from outside the hall, from outside the legal language.

Of course the result would be something we actually have already: the perpetual subdivision of the language into dialects: In Democratic English, it’s abortion; in Republican English, it’s murder. In all cases, it’s killing. (But who are we to pretend to be against so common a practice: don’t most of us eat meat? don’t the others kill carrots?) Clarify the differences, dare to define, and maybe we’d get somewhere.

The same process went on with slavery. All men are equal, but slaves aren’t men, neither are women, neither are children, neither are Jews, neither is anyone we want to exclude …

I adamantly believe that politicians and other dirty fighters should have to climb uphill against traditional usages. Congress shouldn’t be able to lightly alter dictionary definitions. Not that dictionaries speak ex cathedra either.


English has long been my talent as well as my trained field. So I find myself a little surprised to realize how few of the well more than five hundred files here deal with the ordinary stuff of English studies: either language or literature. There’s plenty of thinking about the pathologies of natural languages and the absurdities of artificial languages, but very little about usage and nothing about prescription (my own studies were descriptive, not prescriptive). Today however I add a piece on a current sore spot: Gender and Usage.


I suddenly had a delicious memory of my linguistics professor, Howie Berntsen’s, introduction of human language as distinct from animal communications. Naturally, after four decades, I must paraphrase.

Daybreak: the rooster goes Cock-a-Doodle-Doo.
Something startles the rooster: he goes Be-Gawk!
But never does the rooster say, “Cock-(Be-Gawk)-a-Doodle-Doo” to mean
It’s a lousy day.

2004 02 24 Embarrassing. I’m here to update layout but can’t avoid seeing how this notebook-style module strings on and on: still haven’t broken it up and structured the fragments.

I was just saying “Holy Molley” over and over while waiting for the coffee to give me some semblance of a working mind and my Catherine asks me what that means. Hmm, I think. It’s a euphemism; it’s euphonious; it rhymes mid-way and at the endings … But what is it a euphemism for? The “holy” part is left intact, but what’s the “Molley” substituting? Mary?

RA Wilson etymologically traces God’s famous secret name to “prick / cuny” (Bowdlerizing K. 2016 07 29): or yang / yin, if we wish to say the same thing respectably. We can at least partly trace some things back a couple of thousand years. But linguistic properties have been operating for multiple tens of thousands of years. Looking at forty million year old light through a telescope should not deceive us that we’re seeing fourteen billion year old light. Today’s devil was yesterday’s god. Yesterday’s euphemism is today’s obscenity. I’d bet that prick and c- both were once harmless euphemisms: but for what?

I’m reminded of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper Album. The cover graphics were replete, over-saturated with icons as cultural detritus: so saturated as to have no possible meaning to human beans. Rabbis spend a life time of scholarship on just a few old scrolls. the more they study, the more they see. With Sgt. Pepper, the more was added, the less it meant.

Oh: don’t forget that such linguistic tendencies have their counter-processes. A term can derogate; a term can augment, appreciate. Values are no more stable than the moisture in clouds.

One day human sacrifice is good, the next day it’s bad. Blood is sacred, then it’s vile, then it’s harmless. Killing your enemies makes you a man; then killing anyone makes you a criminal. Don’t think any of these processes are one-way; or are finished.

All this can be and must be better woven, but not today. Last wisp for the moment: once we sacrificed animals or people … whatever magic might work for us. Then we drank wine instead of blood; then grape juice instead of wine … We killed the god instead of the man: and told ourselves we’d made progress. We cannibalize the god instead of our enemies / neighbors … How much of our Christianity is “really” ancient grow-away-from-cannibalism magic by abstracting the cannibalism? Some sage gets the emperor to bury clay figures with him instead of half his living subjects. Yeah, but why bury anything? Why not use the dead emperor for fertilizer?


2004 03 01 Ah, finally. More than once I’d gone flipping through Ogden & Richards failing (quickly) to find the following delicious list (I was beginning to think my memory of the source was at fault):

Nine Uses of Language

1 to dissipate superfluous and obstructive nerve-force
2 for the direction of motion in others, both men and animals
3 for the communication of ideas
4 as a means of expression
5 for purposes of record
6 to set matter in motion (magic)
7 as an instrument of thinking
8 to give delight merely as sound
9 to provide an occupation for philologists

A. Ingraham, Swain School lectures [1903]

#6 in particular really knocked me out back when, 1960 or so. It took me till 1995 to make similar jokes in public: as in my Magic module. Magic, our Father


2004 07 12 Evolution has engineered redundancy here and there: two eyes, two ears, gonadal doubling, but left other organs single. A man has a spare testicle, but only one throat. Breathe and eat wrong, and you choke: one tube doing double duty. When we speak, it does triple duty.

Why did we learn to speak? In his Sex, Time, & Power Leonard Shlain reviews the physiology of the human vocal tract. Shlain writes, “An extremely powerful incentive must have propelled us to talk to each other to justify fouling up such a vital and basic feature as the ability to breath and eat simultaneously. That we would deviate from the standard anatomical alignment, present in virtually every other oxygen-dependent creature, points to the urgency associated with the development of human speech.”

Shlain had just rapidly reviewed the usual theories but spent extra time on one that knocks my socks off: one which Ingraham (just above), Ogden, Richards, pk, and the rest of us had missed. Psychologist Geoffrey Miller (in The Mating Mind) proposes that language (the quote here is Shlain’s),”instead of being prodded into existence by the exigencies of survival, was a function of sexual selection pressures. Females chose men based on their ability to communicate effectively, and ‘runaway sexual selection’ did the rest. Runaway selection, remember is the evolutionary process that caused the male peacock to have such large, spectacularly gorgeous, but useless tail feathers. Females noted than any peacock that could survive with such an outlandish ensemble sported an honest handicap. Once the peahens began to select for males with ever-larger useless tail feathers, the race was on!”

That certainly fits with my conviction that human communication is largely illusory. We pretend to be interested in truth; actually we’re just cruising.

How could you believe me
When I said “I love you”
When you know I’ve been a liar
All my life?

You can’t talk the food into your mouth, but you can talk the girl into your arms: until it backfires: and the girl flees the Samuel Beckett to crawl under Bill Clinton’s desk.

Trying to talk his way into the bedroom
Walter Mosley

Apropos of Geoffrey Miller’s theory just above, I cite a passage from a current Yahoo-list discussion that relates:

Further recall that our large brains are optimized for political purposes. In other words, we are optimized specifically to exploit other members of our own species. It follows that the most successful at exploiting others
will be the best liars. Moreover, the best liars will be the best at hiding their true motives from themselves.

I park that here till I find a better place for it: or work it in better to “language.” That prose may be Jay Hanson’s. I’m not sure.

2004 09 25 This file grew and grew, eventually including a menu for others. Now I’ve separated the menu. Soon I’ll break this file up into its compents, adding each separately to the menu.

Language Scropbook
2016 08 11 I’m enjoying the Irish TV thing Rebellion very much, expecially the women as toughies, especially the working in of Gaelic speech: lessons, masses … Politics, history murders language, then people revive dead and wounded languages. Latin was never a living language until the Middle Ages. Hebrew had pretty much died, until it was resuscitated. I’ll return to spell some of this out when I’m not quite so in the midst of so many things.

English, Hebrew, Yiddish, German was a comedy of errors in the ’40s and ’50s. more to come

Jan and I watched Mrs. Miniver a couple of months back. Greer Garson (speaking of Irish) was the 1940s strong silent woman, good, I love her, I love that history, love those fables, but this Rebellion really shows fighting women already in the streets,and not prevailing just by accident.

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About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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