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Words are Dumb and Racist
Q: Are some languages better than others for the developmental of wisdom?
Let me address that interesting question indirectly via a quick exploration of the ways in which our words are dumb and racist.
Dumb and racist???
Yeah. Sort of.
Obviously (probably) I find something perversely cheerful in the sheer silliness of saying “words are dumb and racist,” but it is nonetheless true, I think, that common contemporary attitudes about language perpetuate certain types of inter-group bias while also habituating us to a clumsier, less powerful relationship with our words.
The Felt Insufficiency of Modern Speech
Our language can be much richer, more universal & more depth-oriented. This depends in part upon the attitude with which we confront feelings of homogeneity and peculiarity.
Modern ears are generally accustomed to a simplified, standardized grammar that is indoctrinated into us through dictionaries, English classes, marketing & journalism. Although we may humorously comment on all the historical vagaries of our complicated grammar rules and spelling, we still typically use a limited range of phraseology, constrained by our feeling of what is professionally conventional, to conduct our transactions and react to personal and public “news.”
These simplified semantic codes gives us confidence in economic transactions and discussions about the weather, or the plot of a B-grade soap opera, but they fall short when it comes to working with new ideas, profound emotions, deeper relationships and the possibility of a more universal resonance with our own human complexity and that of others people in all regions and epochs.
Our collective “ear” for the sound of normal speech has several problems. It tends to
conceal the true multiplicity of communicable meanings & perspectives under the screen of commonly-used ambiguous signifiers
leave us feeling deprived of shared meaning not matter how much we talk to each other
predispose us toward a kind of naïve idealism about the naturalness and sacredness of foreign languages
act as a translation barrier between languages
secretly (or not so secretly) scorn regional dialects
marginalize the significance of the colloquial idiosyncratic and improvisational which is the normal historical source of terminology
It seems to me that we collectively sense a weakness, an insufficiency, in our language. New words now seem to enter our lexicon through the media’s repetition of phrases born in marketing propaganda, political arguments and new commercial-technological enterprises that reflect very little of the richness of most people’s lived experience.
The feeling of lack is apparent in the fact that many people today reach instinctively for excessive phrases to describe ordinary situations. Overdrive is needed in order to impute meaning into daily communication. It is well-remarked upon that literally is now routinely used to describe merely metaphorical circumstances. Ordinary athletic efforts apparently involve “giving 110%.” And the visceral, embodied power of reproductive interactions (Can you fucking believe it???) has to be added to normal conversation so that we can feel some reality in our words.
So consider that perhaps we collectively sense a failure within the field of our own words? and if so — where is the missing richness, authenticity and respect with which our words could and should resonate?
That Uncouth Sound
Several years ago I’m walking toward the ocean in Victoria, BC. Horse-drawn carriage tours and pedicabs are moving along cherry-tree lined streets. Even now this scene causes a nostalgic pang in my solar plexus. I am passing an old building with a sign saying: “Margarets Confectionaries.”
I wince at the missing apostrophe — and then I wince again with self-recrimination. Has it really come to this? Has my inner ear been so thoroughly indoctrinated by scholastic grammar cops that I snidely tag this perfectly functional bit of writing as a failure that is beneath the standard of common decency? What an asshole!
Clearly I know exactly what the sign means and by that standard it IS good and effective communication. There is no need for me to leverage my automated scholastic habits in order to feel superior to people who are communicating perfectly well — just as everyone did for thousands of years prior to dictionaries and regimented public schooling.
Continuing on my walk, I soon find myself sitting on the concrete tourist walkway that rings Victoria’s sailboat-infested inner harbour. In every direction, I see smiling tourists, Caucasian kiosk-hipsters offering to paint portraits or serve gourmet hot dogs while the descendants of the Kwakwaka’wakw nation are bobbing their heads to mainstream American hip hip that blares from cheap, outdated CD players while they weave overpriced (but good-looking) traditional hats made from cedar bark. I’d like to try making one myself but instead I meet my friend Bexx and her sister, a teacher. They are arguing about language.
I enter the fray with a universalist position. While not quite performing a full Chomsky, I do assert that regardless of culture, we are born not only with algorithms of innate grammar and all the basic possible speech syllables, with all the basic syllables but also the capacity to express the full range of human experience and insights found in all places and ages.
Bexx’s sister scoffs.
What, she says, about Schadenfreude? Surely that is a German word for which there is no English equivalent?
On the contrary, I reply, it is only that you are not accustomed to tolerate the full range of wording within your own language!
The Germans have, in their typically way, shoved two existing words together to produce something like harmjoy, coldpleasure or cruel-enjoyment. Nothing prevents us from doing the same thing in English. It may sound weird — but how do you think schadenfreude sounded to the first Germans who heard that strange compound peculiarity of speech?
She doesn’t have a good refutation of this argument but I can tell she doesn’t like it. And I do not disagree with her that the ethos of logos & dialogos develop differently according to regions, bodies and epochs. What I do have a problem with is the unquestioned assumptions that (a) the narrow lexical and grammatical range of professionally standardized contemporary speech should be treated as the normal form of English (b) that our language mysteriously lacks the capacity for many important and interesting human communications found among the Others.
I don’t think our language lacks the capacity. I think our over-socialized modern language users lack the willingness…
In fact I think her argument depends on the attitude that our language must be limited to only those popular and accredited combinations of expressions that do not sound in any way peculiar. Uncouth or barbarous usages of our words are apparently not “really” part of “what we mean” when discuss the linguistic ethos in which exist. That rubs me the wrong way.
I don’t like that unusual (ie not regularly used in scholastic grammars, pop journalist and elementary language arts classes) combinations that simply sound strange to our factory-assembled ears do not get full rights & respect as linguistic citizens.
Perhaps not, not exactly, but there is a little aural prejudice against improvised, idiosyncratic and non-hegemonic productions within our semantic field. We apparently cannot fully accommodate them because, although they make sense, they don’t sound correct. That is a least somewhat similar to saying that a functional human being cannot use the same bathroom because the tint of their skin pigment doesn’t give us that dominant normality feeling.
This reminds me of what, in some of my writing on metamodern and integrative pluralistic religion, I have called the “fetishization of the exotic.” It is concerns this curious double-move to idealize Others and also keep them at arms length.
We can dismiss indigenous people as savages while, at the same time, longing for the romantic primitivism that we associate with them. Likewise, we can treat Sanskrit as uniquely capable of conveying yogic magic while also scoffing at the accent of the East Indian cab driver.
Frequently, we translate the whole Quran into English except for their word “God” (Al-Lah). In failing to translation that key word, we simultaneously preserve the aesthetic exoticism of the Other while also erecting a very subtle semantic barrier.
Allah is THEIR God; OUR God is simply called “God.”
So here we are — simultaneously feeling that our own language lacks the exotic power of foreign meaningfulness while at the same time enacting simplifying conventions of translation that covertly inhibit a deeper blending between the understandings of two different human lineages.
The Oxford Sneer
Lately I’ve been re-reading Iain McGilchrist’s provocative contemporary book on split brain theory The Master and His Emissary. I love Iain’s work but, once in a while, I seem to hear certain snidely-educated, orthodox British presumptions creeping into his wonderful reasoning. Among them is the self-critical assumption that “our” language cannot access the full richness of human expression .
For example, in one chapter he describes two different meanings of the word “know” (to-really-know-someone VS to-have-a-collection-of-accurate-facts) — a distinction which, he claims, is missing from the overly left-brain’d English language.
He is making a fine and important point through the use of inter-linguistic comparison. Okay. However, again, my curiosity is about why he deliberately samples only the English language from one short time period, class structure and region. There is no interest here in the English of the 14th century, Newfoundland or urban black youth on the streets of Baltimore.
Isn’t knowing different than understanding?
Do you grok what I’m saying?
Do ye kennit?
Have you wised up to this?
There is a whole parade of such distinctions in English but they are not standard components of the hegemonic normalcy of the language. Why, I wonder, are even the critics of language still reinforcing this unnecessary and limiting standardization as if it were the primarily form of our speech?
The English have not been as ruthless as the Parisian government in hunting down and exterminating dialectical variations from their lands, nonetheless we suffer some of the same modern ailment. We attitudinal privilege a constricted version of our language that serves the instrumental uses of certain professional classes. Then we try to compensate for the missing sense of human vitality by projecting those possibilities it into the exotic languages of our geopolitical rivals, distant ancestors & former colonies.
Put another way, we marginalize the usages of our own language from which, historically, the richness of human experience enters speech through divergent, idiosyncratic and novel-sounding combinations.
The Universal in the Particular
In his typically playful and philological introduction to “Meeting with Remarkable Men,” Georges Gurdjieff says…
“Strange as it may seem to you, in my opinion, a great deal of harm to contemporary literature has been brought about by grammars, namely, the grammars of the languages of all the peoples who take part in what I call the ‘common mal-phonic concert’ of contemporary civilization. The grammars of their different languages are, in most cases, constructed artificially, and have been composed and continue to be altered chiefly by a category of people who, in respect of understanding real life and the language evolved from it for mutual relations, are quite “illiterate”. On the other hand, among all the peoples of past epochs, as ancient history very definitely shows us, grammar was always formed gradually by life itself, according to the different stages of their development, the climatic conditions of their chief place of existence and the predominant means of obtaining food.”
This is an interesting observation. It comes from a well-travelled man who spoke numerous languages, spent his life digging for human depth and frequently passed into and out from the regions of 20th century European civilization. He might, therefore, have something to say on this matter.
His critique is that trans-cultural, universal human experience tends to emerge and get mapped into local terminologies through the filter of physiological, history, geography and temperament. Within these niches, healthy people re-generate all the basic concepts, feelings and insights that comprise full-spectrum human complexity.
HOWEVER this is disrupted by the attempt to build grammatically self-consistent one-to-one translations in order to form a universalist interface. Pseudo-universality is inhibiting organic universal potentials.
Modern scholars, living mostly artificial & experientially impoverished lives in service to institutions of bureaucratic and industrial power, tend to misinterpret, mutilate and homogenize languages in ways that promulgate a tendency for educated people in all language to inhabit dehumanizing, shallow and instrumentalized versions of their own speechworld.
It is analogous to replacing the rich topological texture of a landscape with flat roads, sidewalks and parking lots. These do make it easier for certain transactions to occur more efficiently using with certain tools BUT it is also worse for human bodies, far uglier and acts to conceal a great deal of authentic data about the ecological terrain that we inhabit.
Consider word like Love or Science or Truth. These smooth, generic, widely-used signifiers conceal plural clusters (a rich landscape) of signifieds.
Back when Stephen Colbert was funny he introduced the word truthiness — the feeling of truth. Human beings generally have the capacity to differentiate between “facts” and “gut instincts” but the standard contemporary word Truth conceals that difference. When Colbert locally improvise a term for the distinction, we are intrigued but it sounds comical.
A strangeness to joke about.
But it isn’t strange. It is a normal human distinction entering into language by the normal method of local idiosyncratic-poetic improvisation.
Gurdjieff’s claim is that a bunch of people doing this in a region for a few generations will produce a much more universal set of human language-mediated concepts than will a scholastic grammar, dictionary or professionally-policed set of hegemonic phraseologies.
The universal is in the depth of the particular.
I read a lot of science fiction as a boy. Naturally, I assumed that the future language of planet Earth would be either Esperanto or some hybrid form of international English.
That, of course, was before translation software. Now (and more each day) we do not have to share a common language in order to communicate with anyone on Earth.
On the one hand, this duplicates the problem of a technical-professional simplification of terms being used to modulate between and organize all local tongues in a way that tends to homogenous, instrumentalize and suppress complexity.
But on the other hand it also points each of us back to our own language. The “future” is not in learning all languages or deciding on one great super-language. The future belongs to the common understanding of human richness that each person obtains by going deeper into the strangeness, novelty and full supranormal range possible in the language/s they already know best.
That, I think, is the best one for “wisdom.”