The Language Barrier

January 15, 2007

universal article rating system:
intelligence (3), comedy(3), preachiness(1), analysis (4), presence of fluffy cuteness (0), ability to contribute to world peace (1.1)

I recently found myself wondering why it is that humans are so keen to follow those of a ‘certain’ disposition. Quite literally those who deal in certainties and definites. From Moses’ 10 commandments and Mohammed’s visions to a succession of caesers, a bunch of popes, one Hitler, many right wing radio talk shows and a plethora of Fox News Anchormen. Compare their support bases with, say, Buddha or Ghandi.

My standard, intuitive approach is evolutionary: pack animals are built insecure to make them conform and allow the pack to operate effectively. Insecurity is going to admire and follow apparent certainty and strength. Statements from that strong fount of vision and strength indicating that you are part of a group that “is chosen”, “superior” or “have better oral hygeine” will be welcomed enthusiastically.

Our brain is, admittedly, a human layered over an orangutang over a mammal over a lizard, but I get annoyed with the idea that we have to be slave to our reptilian, mammalian or even ‘monkey’ brain.

I tend to subscribe, at least in part, to the idea that the Human brain layered over the top of these past incarnations should be able control the instinctual behaviours and desires of our lower brains. On it’s worst day I expect my human brain to step in, horrified, after questionable actions instigated by the old reptile and ask it: (1) what the hell it thought it was doing; (2) what it was going to do next; (3) how it was going to apologise and; (4) why it hadn’t at least set up a video camera so we could air it on YouTube? Lizards, sadly, have little truck with modern technologies.

The alternative I came up with is language based. I am very aware of my ‘programming’ from growing up and which bits may be defective and could do with reprogramming. I also try to be aware of others’ dodgy ‘programming code’ too. By ‘aware’ I do not mean understanding, accepting and kind because that would not allow me to taunt them and have fun at their expense. I just mean analytical. For entertainment purposes.

Back to the point. Language. From the moment of ‘vague cognisance’, defined as a baby in a crib or a politician in parliamentry session, we are taught in absolutes. Things are ‘good’ or ‘bad’; ‘virtuous’ or ‘evil’; ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. I could go on but I think the point is made. These make a child feel secure. They are surrounded by a world of certainties and as an insecure animal we like it. Lying is wicked. Stealing is bad. Putting your little brother in the drier, even if he asked nicely, is wrong.

[corrected since original publish] On entering the world we run into problems. Our world contains almost no certainties. I fear every day that next time I open “New Scientist” that the one certainty I allow myself: “1+1=2”, will have been proven by those bastard physicists in Geneva with their new Large Hadron Collider or some new smartarse mathematician to be wrong or questionable or only applicable on alternative Thursdays. In our societies lying is necessary: “those pants don’t make you look fat”; stealing is okay as long as you do it within the bounds of the law (preferential share issues, boards voting themselves ridiculous salaries, corporate plundering) and don’t get caught.

Things in the real world are “better” or “worse”; “bigger” or “smaller”; “accurate to a degree”; “within a margin of error”; “first class”, “second class” and “premier class”. Our certainties are suddenly removed and there is nothing to replace them. The uncertainty, along with taxes, traffic jams and the cancelling of “Buffy”, causes misery. What to do? Then someone tells you that, actually, there are absolutes. It’s just that the world doesn’t follow them. If you do you will be happy…

What happens if you were brought up without absolutes? Would that be any better? what if you were taught, for instance, that truth was the basis for trust and trust is a basis for friendship rather than “lying is bad”? Cynical parents could go as far as: “trust get’s you responsibility, responsibility gets you power and then you can abuse that power to get money. That way you wil be able to afford swanky hotel rooms with lots of hookers, cocaine and someone with a fantastic command of the english language to constantly come up with hew ways of telling you how wonderful you are.”

To which your 8-year-old reply might well be: “What’s a hooker, dad?” I imagine if your parents then got embarrassed and chickened out from further explanation it would, at least, lead you to an appreciation in later life of nice hotels. And also some uneasy sexual associations with the game of rugby.

I was brought up without many absolutes. No sudden drop into a world without them later in life. I had parents who encouraged reasoned argument from their children, even when it was annoying. You learn to accept and deal with (if conceal from others) your insecurities. You learn to analyse what you are told and consider the source. You don’t follow false prophets (profits?) and you don’t always occupy the middle ground just to make people comfortable.

Language plays a huge part in forming not just what we think, but how we think. In the book ‘1984’ by George Orwell (written in 1948) a future state gradually ‘revises’ the dictionary to become more ‘efficient’. Popular magazines have ‘revised’ dictionaries that their writers may use. They don’t want their readers to feel stupid. Dictionaries containing as little as 1200 words. How broadly expressive is the language of a hip-hop video? Or Jerry Springer? or CSI (besides the jargon)? How about Cosmopolitan? FHM? Heat? When was the last time you used a dictionary. Or a thesaurus?

How children are spoken to is as important as what they are told. Early pathways made in the brain have some of the strongest connections. These are not things easily unlearned.

Post script. Thesaurus prejudice: When I was very young a teacher said to me “a thesaurus is not a place for you to find a different word that means the same thing so that you look smart, it’s there so you can find exactly the right word that means exactly what you want said and sounds right within the phrase. The difference, perhaps, between ‘faultless’ and ‘flawless’.*

* I, like, totally made that up, but it’s true(ish) nonetheless.

ref: http://www.online-literature.com/orwell/1984/1/
ref: http://thesaurus.reference.com
ref: http://www.freesearch.co.uk/dictionary

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2 Responses to “The Language Barrier”

  1. Solnushka Says:

    On a similar line of thought, I always thought political correctness was something to be encouraged. Although obviously there are limits.

  2. Coistolla Says:

    Is that a new way? Are you ignoring my interesting pet I have a fresh joke for you) What is three feet long? A yard.


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