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new internationalist
issue 214 - December 1990


A tyranny of tongues
Language is probably the most dangerous of human diseases,
says Amorey Gethin, He takes an eloquent swipe at the slavish respect
we have for it - and points to the consequences of this esteem.

The mystique of language has had power for a long time. One important reason is that language has given humans literature and the 'art' of words. These are widely respected. Many believe or feel that 'literature' provides a better guide to reality than life itself. That is bad enough.

This old respect for language has probably prepared the ground well for the new way in which it is admired. People who call themselves scientists now tell us about the marvels of language in a different way. Their science is called linguistics.

It may not make all the old literature-lovers happy. But many others are probably pleased to hear that the medium they revel in is indeed even more profound than they expected.

Linguistics should be opposed for several reasons. One of the main reasons is that linguists encourage the tendency to see language as the fascinating key to human thought and human psychology, the whole human personality. They encourage, that is, the idea that language is basic to our nature.

It is not. For thought is not language and cannot be for the simple reason that language cannot arise until there is something for it to express. But, language is basic to our culture.

How dangerous language can be was emphasised in several places in NI 191. But there, as practically everywhere and always, there seemed to be a feeling that language is intrinsically sound. It remains our greatest asset if we can avoid abusing it. Various philosophers have stressed the human dependence on language. Yet none of them, as far as I know, see this as reason for regret.

Some appear to take their reverence for language to the point of confusing it with reality. One form of this confusion is seen in the views of philosophers such as Karl Popper. Popper seems to think that small children become aware of 'self' as opposed to 'selves' through language; they realise they are separate from others at the time they begin to say 'I'.

If he means that a child cannot say 'I' till she is aware of I, he is merely stating an obvious truth that tells us nothing about language. If he means she cannot be aware of 'I' until she speaks it he. is patently talking nonsense. 'I' and 'you' cannot be spoken sensibly without understanding first. And there is not much doubt that the cat too knows he is separate from me and from other cats.

Far from being part of our biology, I think it is almost certain that language is an artificial imposition on human thought and experience. Language can never represent the thought and experience properly. It will always be a distorting, false mirror.

Worse - language tends to twist experience and put unclean bonds on thought even before the thought has got freely going. Any faith that language is basically a good thing and can be made truthful enslaves us the more hopelessly to it.

Language gives names and so a bogus but permanent reality to ideas that give birth to ideologies and fanaticisms of hate. And language gives names and so bogus reality to many of the groups without which the hatreds and fanaticisms and cruelty could not act. Without the names humans would never recognise those fearful unrealities which lead them to commit and excuse savageries in those unrealities' names. The unrealities, existing only through words in human minds, would never come into being. Whether the ideology or the group is religious or tribal or political or national or philosophical it could not exist without its name.

Then there are the words 'good' and 'bad'. The problem is not some philosophical uncertainty about their meaning. In practice everybody knows exactly what they mean. They have a terrible absolute meaning and a fearful influence. So long as the words 'good' and 'bad' and many others of the same kind, are there, there will be dispute about the thing they should be attached to; there will be intolerance, fanatics, control of minds, war and torture. It is the words' very existence that is the curse. Humans rally round them and use them to egg themselves on, reassure themselves, justify themselves, fortify themselves, or as a basis for pride and arrogance. The tragic irony is that they would need no reassurance if the words were not there to start anxieties and assertions in tIe first place. The only escape from their tyranny is a distrust of them and all the rest of language.

We need instead to try and think wordlessly about what actually happens, about what actual individuals feel, suffer, and need. The sympathy and compassion that are perhaps as natural to humans as fear and cruelty may then be able to overcome the terrible abstractions.

I suggest that language is effectively a human disease. It is probably the most dangerous human disease of all, responsible for a greater part of the divisions between communities and individuals alike that inflict misery on endless millions. Certainly language perpetuates those divisions. It is striking that humans are the only mammals (with the possible exception of the whales) that have language and that no other mammal has caused the world so much suffering. But language is a disease of our own making, like the motor-car. It is of course far, far more deeply rooted throughout human society. It is far more difficult to deal with, and may seem inescapable. At least we should recognise it for what it is.

Currently based in Italy, Amorey Gethin has been a teacher of foreign languages for 35 years. His latest book is Anti-Linguistics: A Critical Assessment of Modern Linguistic Theory and Practice, published by Intellect (Oxford), 1990.

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