Once upon a time, long ago, after humans had freed themselves from the primeval ooze and struggled to stand upright, they gradually invented language in order to communicate with one another. Initially, it was through pictures and gestures, but eventually they developed an alphabet and put words together. All of this was in order to communicate their ideas and feelings to one another, to make clear what they had in mind.

It was thought for many years that language was the one thing that separated humans from other animal species. But then it was discovered by people like Wolfgang Köhler that chimpanzees could communicate with one another and it was later learned that they could even teach one another the language. Then we learned that other animal species also have communication skills and even something similar to language. This was about the time when humans were losing their own use of language. Coincidence? Perhaps. But in the event, humans discovered their vocabularies shrinking and their ability to grasp such things as compound sentences slipping away. It was about the time when they started playing with electronic gadgets designed to increase their ability to contact other people and, presumably, to communicate with them. Coincidence? Perhaps.

But, it turns out, the idea is no longer to use language to communicate with one another. Language is now for self-expression. We use it to tell others how we feel or, at best, to order pizza. We discovered that we don’t need a rich vocabulary or complicated sentences. We can use images and gestures. Just like our ancestors. 🙂

The problem is, of course, that language is necessary for thought and as language becomes impoverished so also does our ability to think. This is demonstrated, if we require a demonstration, by the alarming number of people who support Donald Trump. Obviously, these people have lost the ability to think. I haven’t been listening at doorways, but I would wager they can’t speak, either. The problem is that language was initiated in order to make it possible for us to communicate with one another. And this means that a fairly sophisticated vocabulary along with the rules of grammar and usage are also necessary if we are to tell each other what’s on our mind. The point was wonderfully made by John Barth in his novel The End of The Road in which the hero, Jake Horner, is dealing with a reluctant student in his basic College English class. The student insists that because language came before grammar we don’t need grammar. After a lengthy Socratic exchange between Jake and the student, Horner concludes as follows:

“. . .if we want our sentences to be intelligible to very many people, we have to go along with the convention [the rules of grammar]. . . You’re free to break the rules, but not if you are after intelligibility. If you do want intelligibility, then [you must master the rules].”

But, it would appear that a great many of us are like the student in this exchange: we don’t want to obey the rules of grammar because ultimately we are not really interested in communicating, in intelligibility. Language is simply a device we employ to express ourselves. Period.

In a word, we as a species regress. And as we regress we are surrounded by a growing number problems that require careful thought and imagination. This at a time when thought and imagination have become impoverished by “advances” in technology and the growing influence of the entertainment industry whose motto is: take it down to the lowest level in order to attract the largest audience. Educators have followed suit, lowering expectations and providing their students with electronic toys. Coincidence? Perhaps. But a bit unnerving none the less.

Thus we discover around us folks whose attention is directed at the toys in their hands — even when they are next to one another — and who find it difficult, if not impossible, to say what they mean or understand what others say to them,. But since language is no longer about communication, since it is now about self-expression, it really doesn’t matter. As long as others know that I am angry, hungry, or sad, that’s really all that matters. If they don’t understand what I am feeling so much the worse for them. It’s all about me. I don’t need language. 🙂


5 thoughts on “Language

  1. A narcissist does not need a long vocabulary to express disdain when he does not get his way and to demean others who stand in his way. In fact, words get in the way, as the more he uses them, the more the superficial nature of his arguments get exposed. So, although he has been proven to lie more than any other candidate by far, he can say ‘lyin Ted’ or something derogatory about Hillary, Bernie or John. HIs fan base is tired of being lied to by the establishment, so they don’t see his outlandlish statements for the lies they are.

    It should be noted that he is the only candidate on trial for misrepresentation in the Trump University case. He told recruits that he would personally interview every real estate professor and they would have the best teachers – he met with one.

      • He is very good at sales, which means keep it simple and don’t confuse the audience. So, by using buzz words and slogans, his audience eats it up. Yet, one thing to note, there are legitimate gripes in his audience, yet he is the last one to place trust in as a champion. But, his fervent base does not know that. Keith

  2. Excellent blog, Hugh!

    I liked it all, but primarily what you said about how having or not having an advanced language and vocabulary affects how we THINK.. It’s possible to communicate with others through various means, some of them sophisticated — such as art, music, non-linear/inventive poetry that conveys ideas and emotions in a representation of how they are felt, the growing use of emoticons which can do similar functions — without always using intelligible language.

    (The London Review of Books magazine this week has a short article on emoticons, with the author saying that while they’re also often shortcuts in lieu of good writing, their use also helps clarify written communication by further explaining the emotional intent of a sentence or word — it’s sarcastic, heart-felt, apologetic, anger, etc.) Emoticon symbols *:) happy 😦 borrow from the Japanese-language characters, a very sophisticated system. But, you and Barth are right. Most of the time, we need the intelligible language to communicate.)

    However, the idea that the loss of vocabulary and language overall is affecting how we think is really important and interesting to me. Too many of us are indeed thinking like we text or post on Facebook — short and shallow — and it’s led to such a narrowing of the public intellect, more reactionary behavior, the anti-science/anti-immigrant/anti-anything challenging movements. It’s scary.

    That aspect of your post about language being so important to how we think was terrific to read, and somewhat of an eye-opener for me — or a needed reminder. No matter how we express what we think, we fail ourselves and everyone else if we actually think unintelligibly and/or encourage others to do the same.

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