The seduction of language

As you read this you’re probably completely unconscious of the wonderful genius of the invention of writing and its ability to transform small abstract symbols into words and images that have the potential to create ideas and landscapes both provocative and evocative to produce profound emotion in the reader. We now read silently (once illegal because of its supposed subversive nature) but an internal voice turns the words into utterance before we can comprehend the meaning, giving us a clue as to the origin of language itself.

Many animal species possess limited audible abilities to warn of danger or to attract a mate etc. but, so far as we know,only humankind can create abstractions to record these utterances and so attempt to preserve their meaning. The need for the immediacy of communication has been synthesised into its preservation. What to do and what not to do in certain situations has a long oral tradition but the expansion of knowledge depended on specialism, one of which was writing. As so often happens with human technology, once created, it becomes internalised and defines our perspectives, imagination and aspirations.

We conceive the world, not just through our senses, but through the technology of language. Our languages give our species untold power through the precision of communication and the preservation and evolution of the ideas it helps to create. However, its very success can seduce us into thinking that the words are the very things that they describe – like some kind of magical incantation. Thinking using language is an exercise in abstraction; what was once a mental representation has so often become a totality of reality for many. This has created a fertile space for illusion and its intellectual and psychological counterpart of delusion which thrives at the centre of most political ideology.

In some ways writing is inferior to spoken language as it can lack context and doesn’t have the added dimensions of intonation, expression and gesture which can give the same statement completely contrasting meanings. It is said that different languages have varied strengths and weakness: French is the language of love; German the language of philosophy, Italian the language of gesture; English the language of business and war etc. Of course, there are other ‘types’ of language – mathematics is the language of nature, notation is the language of music, aesthetics is the language of art and even ‘dead’ Latin is still used by some sciences. This multiplicity in some kind of synthesis would seem to be preferential in understanding and communication but sometimes much is also ‘lost in translation’.

Because of the triumph of analytical thought over that of the dialectical approach many languages devote themselves to categorisation when attempting to describe observed phenomena. We love to put ‘things’ in boxes with labels on them and this gives us an illusion of understanding. Confusion is expressed in music and movie reviews when the work under discussion refuses to fit neatly into a ‘genre’ – but, of course, one of the things that art loves to do (if it’s any good) is to subvert what we think we know and try to experience the world anew without preconceptions.

We have said that mathematics is the language of nature but, of course, it has also become a fundamental influence on technology especially in its close relationship with the formal languages of computer science, which produce programs for a multiplicity of technological applications. This has led some to speculate on the inevitability of computers producing their own algorithms and perhaps a language superior to the ‘lingua franca’ that English has become. In the future Artificial Intelligences might well communicate with each other without the need for human input. The consequences of this are imponderable at the moment but it again highlights the power of language to transform our view of the world and the culture through which we perceive it. Because of the intangibility and opaque nature of technology to most of us we defer to it in the light of its success without any attempt to understand the abstract nature of it all. This matrix of illusion has us trapped both perceptually and conceptually.

The political danger of the delusion that the language of technology can solve our many problems takes its place alongside the faith in markets, gods and messianic leaders within the framework of idealism. Words like democracy, freedom, equality, socialism and justice etc have lost their meaning not just because of the malevolence of propaganda but because of the seduction of language that, in the hands of idealists, begins and ends with its usage and is rarely tested by reference to real social relationships. Any attempt to present language as an abstraction that can be subjected to a dialectical analysis is scorned in the headlong rush to celebrate our scientific and technological miracles. Socialists try to be precise in the use of language but in the knowledge that words are the abstraction of utterance and that in the communication of meaning, which is their only raison d’être, much will be lost in translation and the inevitable mismatch between the language available and the observed phenomena it attempts to describe.


Next article: Cooking the Books – No magic wand ➤

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