On Language, a lecture by Ricardo Nirenberg. Fall 1996, the University at Albany, Project Renaissance.

Language is a vast subject. We will limit ourselves to one aspect of language: words—without saying much about other elements studied by linguists: sounds or phonemes, letters, syllables, sentences, whole texts, or even visual images. First of all, let's ask the question: what do words, whether uttered or written, refer to, what do they point to? There are two main answers to this. Long ago people believed (and some still do) that the name of a person or a thing was part of its identity, so a person, for example, would have three inalienable possessions: a soul, a body and a name. Correspondingly, the oldest theory of reference, that is, the oldest answer to the question, What do words point to? is: they point to things out there. We will call this the out-there or objective theory of reference. Sometimes it works pretty well, as when I mention Joe Smith sitting there, or when I say, "The blackboard here." Sometimes, though, it doesn't seem to work that well, as when I mention Juno (the goddess)—where is she? Not out there, it seems. The second theory of reference we will call the inner or subjective theory: it maintains that words point not to things out there but to our shared mental images or constructs, to something inside our minds. Thomas Hobbes (about whom Prof. Isser will have more to say later on) already recognized (in the 1600's) that words and signs refer to cogitations, not to things. These cogitations, or thoughts, are called concepts. The word "concept" comes from Latin con = together, plus the verb capio = to catch, to hold, to grasp. So a concept is something that grasps and holds together many things, like a bundle or a bouquet, or actually, many of our perceptions and memories. For example, when I say "flower," I may not be referring to a particular, individual flower, this one here, but to a concept, flower. The concept that I name "flower" may or may not be the same concept that you have under the same name, but if there's going to be any use for language, any communication, your and my concept must have some area of agreement, although they will probably not be identical.

Although the objective theory of reference is often considered primitive and today the subjective theory is more prestigious, I should add that the whole distinction between objective and subjective, between the out-there and the inner, has been claimed to be meaningless by the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Here I cannot explain his arguments; suffice to say that when Heidegger said, "The blackboard," he was being unfashionable, he was really pointing to a blackboard, not only to some mental construct. There's no denying, though, that we have a concept of blackboard and that in naming the blackboard we are, at the same time, throwing our concept of blackboard on that flat thing, as if it were a cloak to cover it with.

We can distiguish two ways in which concepts may differ: one way is in extension, that is, in what they contain, in which thoughts we are holding together. You may remember twenty flowers in your life and never imagined another, and I may remember fourteen, all different from yours. To describe the extension of a concept is to define it; if there are not too many things or thoughts contained in it, we can simply make a list. With certain concepts this is impossible: take my concept of number, for example: of course, I have only seen or thought a finite number of them, maybe 2 million or so; there's no way I could have thought infinitely many numbers; but I know this is only a sample, and that I can imagine as many different ones as I want or my lifespan permits. For concepts which hold together a potentially unlimited number of thoughts we cannot use lists, but must use logical definitions, such as the definition of a circle we saw in a previous lecture. The second way in which concepts may differ is in their connections to other concepts, which is called their connotation. Our mind or brain is constituted in such way that a thought or a concept can never live for long in isolation. Regarding connotation or connection, we can again distinguish two different manners in which concepts are connected. Take the the word "circle": it comes from the Greek kúklos, wheel. What they did was to abstract a characteristic of the wheel—it's round—and forget about others: it's made of wood or metal, it's attached to an axle, etc.

Or take the word "center": it comes from the Greek kéntron, the sting of a wasp, or a goad; here we abstract the property of being long and sharp, like the point of a compass. This abstraction of some qualities of one concept to link it to another is called metaphor. It is still a lively question among thinkers what is and what is not a metaphor; some even say that all the words of our languages, except maybe the verb "to be," are metaphors. This seems exaggerated. But let the question stay there. Another manner of linkage is what's called metonymy. This means linkage by vicinity. As soon as we think "flower" we may think of "leaf", "branch", "plant", etc. All these concepts tend to be associated in our minds. Again, metonymy is quite a complex subject, and part of the complexity is due to the fact that many associations are based purely on the words, the labels of the concepts; for example, in English "flower" may be associated with "power" only because of the similarity in sound, the rhyme. Try by yourselves to decide whether our word "money" was originally a metaphor or a metonymy or perhaps both: it comes from the Latin moneta, that is, coin. And the Latin word comes from the fact that coins were minted in or near the temple of a goddess, Juno Moneta, which meant Juno the Warner, or the Reminder, or the Advisor, from another latin word, monere = to warn, to remind.




The concepts we use are not fixed, but change with time and place, they are historical. Things that previously were considered leaves may be found by botanists to be actually flowers—what is an artichoke, a flower or a bunch of leaves? Similarly, the concept that people had of number two or three thousand years ago is definitely not the same as we have now, when we consider numbers things like fractions or even irrationals like pi, which were not dreamt of until relatively recently. Secondly, concepts are different in different linguistic communities: one may think one is translating American "flower" into, say, Arabic zahr, and indeed, one is doing the best one can; but the two concepts of flower, the one held by someone who lives in Albany and the one held by someone who lives in the desertic Arabian peninsula, must be very different in extension. Not only that, but the connotations or connections of a concept or word are constantly subject to change in time and space, both in the metaphoric and the metonymic aspects. When an ancient Greek said "psyché," "butterfly," he couldn't but think of the soul, which went under the same name, as in our "psychology" (the discourse or study of the soul), but, unless he knows some Greek, an English-speaking person would probably not make the connection. As you can guess, this kind of thing makes translation a difficult task.

What is a language, then? It is a living organism in which thousands of years of history are kept, remembered, embedded: the history of how a linguistic community lived in the world, what they perceived and what they didn't, how they divided up reality and what connections they established. As a living organism, langauge is always changing: new concepts and new words appear, old ones change their meaning, and much is constantly forgotten. When I say language is historical, that it lives, grows and decays—and dies—this may sound nice and innocent enough, but looking at it more closely we discover a problem. Language is a means of communication, and as soon as we say "communication" the issue of truth raises its head. As Pontius Pilatus says in the Gospels, "What is truth?" An example: our theme in this course is "human identity"; how are we to communicate our identity with language? All of us were born by accident and were not consulted. The fact that a particular sperm happened to penetrate a particular egg was not foreordained, it was an accident. Neurobiologists tell us that the structure of our brain, the particular connections of our nerve cells, have much to do with whatever the fetus feels in the womb and in the first few weeks after birth, and, to a large extent, all these things are accidents. This is what's called contingency, a word which comes from the Latin word tangere, "to touch," and which we can paraphrase thus: a slight touch whichever way, and you end up being a different person. The opposite of contingency is necessity, when things must turn in a certain way and no other. Our identity is very much a product of chance and contingency. Now, suppose you want to say something about your unique identity, something true about what makes you special, particular, different from all other human beings—you want to say it not necessarily to others, just to yourself, what's called reflecting about yourself. For that, you must use some language. But here's the catch: language too is, to a large extent, contingent, and, worse, its contingency has very little to do with you. Your language, all the words and concepts you use, the way you cut up the world, is the result of accidents and contingencies which happened to many dead generations; you have inherited a language and with it a view of the world; how can you hope to communicate your identity with it?

In the 19th century, as we will see next semester, people became acutely aware of the historicity of language and of everything else, and, for this reason, it was the century of relativism and nihilism. Relativism is the notion that truth depends on circumstance, time and place, there's no such thing as an absolute, eternal truth. Nihilism is the belief that there is no scale of values, no better or worse, no morality: if truth is relative, we cannot state, for example, "hurting others is evil," for we are implicitly saying that this is a true law—but truth is relative. Anyway, we who live at the end of the 20th century are aware that language is historical, contingent. Our conceptual tools, our vision of the world, has been imposed on us forcibly and without asking. A French writer, Roland Barthes, declared in 1977 that "language is fascism." This is preposterous and, let me hasten to add, it is purposefully preposterous: it is a provocation. You shouldn't dismiss paradoxes like that out of hand, "it's bull!"; no, let yourself be provoked into thinking: this is the mark of an educated person. What Barthes was pointing at was this imposing of a vision of the world without consulting us, which is what languages do.

We can be even more provocative and say: language is the scene of a double murder. First, the murder of the object of our thought, for no word, no concept, can capture its individuality, its uniqueness (remember, concepts are a holding together of many objects). And second, the murder of the speaker, for in uttering words which are borrowed which stand for concepts which are inherited, we deny our own individuality and uniqueness. I should also point out that demonstrative words, words such as "this," "that," "I," "you," "here," "now," etc., don't solve the problem, because they can be applied to different things, without any respect to their individuality. My saying, "This flower here," still murders its uniqueness and mine. So, what are we to do? Refusing to speak is not enough; should we refuse to think?


We don't want to be murderers, but we would like to think and speak. Is it possible? Remember that in my previous lecture on the axiomatic method we talked about circles and centers, and we discovered that the center of a circle is unique. This truth, and whatever other truths there are about circles, do not depend on the fact that the word "circle" comes from the Greek word for wheel, and "center" from the word for sting. The same theorems would hold true if we were to call circles cucumbers and centers mountains. Here the contingency and historicity of language doesn't seem to matter. We seem to be safe from murder, relativism and all that nasty stuff. Indeed, a mathematician doesn't have to know much history to prove the most brilliant theorems, other than checking that no one else published them before. Historically, it was the experience of mathematicians that allowed the Greeks to acquire, for the first time, the concepts of eternal truths and of eternity.

Here's an idea to avoid some of the traps of our regular language: let us label each thing with a number, let's bar-code every thing in the world and every experience each of us may have of it. You think it a crazy idea? Yet this is exactly what was done with two important features of the world, space and time, at the beginning of modern science, in the 1600's, by Descartes among others. We call that coordinates. So it's not so crazy after all. To start with, let's assign a number to each person (like the SS number, but universal), and a number to each activity we do or perceiving faculty we have, then a number to each concept or category of objects—flowers, animals, rocks, what have you—and finally the coordinates determining location and time. If you smell a flower, for example, we'll write your identity number, then the number for smelling, followed by the number for "flower" and finally your spatio-temporal coordinates (of course, we can add more numbers to code adjectives, adverbs, modifications of the verb, etc.) This language would still be fascistic, for it still divides the world in concepts (flower, etc.), but it would be a non-violent, peaceful fascism; we wouldn't be committing murders: you, your smelling and the flower would preserve their uniqueness. Granted, the human mind would find it hard to remember so many numbers, but computers may help. I don't have time to go over the pros and cons of this idea, so I leave it there, for you to play with or to forget it.




There seems to be no way, even with the most powerful imaginable computers, to avoid the contingency and historical nature of language, and the fact that our world has been conceptually carved up for us long ago without our consent. What we can do is try to understand our predicament. Understanding the way our world is carved up is a necessary condition for freedom; but it is not enough: there is still the question of decision. One may understand, yet decide one doesn't give a damn.

You can study many different subjects to further this understanding—languages, history, sociology, psychology, math and science, etc.—but, with all respect for statistics, which I often teach, it will be of no help when it comes to how our world is conceptually carved up; this is because statistics takes concepts as they are, as given, without questioning them. You may find out how income is distributed in the U.S., about the ethnic origins and races of the population, about educational levels, sexual preferences, etc., but the concepts "income," "ethnic origin," "race," "education," "sexual preference," are not questioned, as if they were not highly problematic, which they are. A study of your language, on the other hand, will help, as will a study of other languages. The 19th century, the historically conscious century, also created the field of comparative linguistics, and established etymology on a more or less scientific basis. Etymology is the study of the changes in the form and meaning of words from as far back as one can go. As I said before, this kind of study is superfluous if one deals only with mathematical concepts like numbers and circles. The reason for this is, those concepts are sharply defined as to content or extension: we can always decide what is and what is not a circle. But etymology becomes important when one deals with concepts such as "ethnicity," "education" or "sexual preference," whose boundaries are notoriously blurry. Suppose you are discussing sexual preferences, and someone says that some are wrong because they are "unnatural." Any intelligent—i.e. non-dogmatic—discussion of the issue must then attend to the meaning of the concepts "natural" and "unnatural": you may be surprised to find how complex the history of these concepts is. We cannot go into it here; only to say that the word "natural" comes from the Latin verb nasci = to be born. So, "natural" seems to apply to anything that's born, to the conditions in which it was born, and to what it was at the time of birth. Take now the word "education." It comes from Latin too, and the original meaning was "a leading out," from e or ex = out from, and ducere = to lead. A leading out of what? Well, coincidentally, out of nature, from the natural state in which we were born. Knowing this, it would be hard for us to sing the praises both of nature and of education in one breath and with a straight face. Incidentally, this meaning of education is what Pink Floyd had in mind when they growled, "We don't need no education..." Keeping people in the natural state insures great sales for rock-and-roll.

Going back to Barthes' provocation: "Language is fascism," let us say, then, where the word "fascism" comes from. Again, from Latin, through Italian; in Latin fascis means a bundle of sticks, twigs, reeds, etc. In ancient Rome a bundle called fasces was carried before the highest magistrates, consisting of rods and an axe, with which criminals were scourged and then beheaded.

a roman fascis

The Italian dictator Mussolini adopted this as symbol of his Party, hence the name "fascist." Notice how apt Barthes' provocation is, for concepts, hence words, as I said before, are also bundles of thoughts, representations, memories, and the axe symbolizes the double murder we talked about and the violence with which a conceptual carving of the world is imposed on us. Notice, too, that the bundle is held together by bands, called fasciae in Latin. The purpose of free thought is to escape the fascism of language by undoing or at least loosening those bands, so that we may tie up other bundles in ways not thought before. For, let me hasten to add, we cannot think nor can we live without concepts. The word "analysis" comes from the Greek, where it means the action of loosening up, undoing, unbinding. Avoiding fascism by analysis is no easy task, mostly because to analyse we need language, which is itself suspect. This constitutes an aporía, an elegant Greek word meaning impasse or dead end. In simpler words, we may be stuck. But the most unfree and most fascistic attitude is to disregard language and what's encoded in it, which is what we do when we say, "What's in a word anyway," or "Like...you know what I mean..." And, worst of all, when we dismiss thinking altogether by saying, "Whatever." Next thing, we may find ourselves marching in goosestep, giving the fascist salute.

I don't want to leave you with the impression that language is necessarily a prison from which only analysis can free us. There is another way of communication, much harder, although at first sight it looks easier (which makes it dangerous, too). Ancient sages, from the Taoists of whom Prof. Ng will speak, to Plato and the Neoplatonists, whom Prof. Isser will discuss later on, recognized this as the best way, which may be called the way of Presence; yet contemporary critics such as Barthes dismiss it as mystical. For Barthes and for his friend Foucault, as for most fashionable French scholars, the world is language and language is a prison; no parole; sometimes good literature and art may be a beam of light through the jailbars.

As for the way of Presence, it was well described by the Russian philosopher Lev Shestov, who died in Paris in 1938, in his book Nachala i kontsy (Beginnings and Ends), (St. Petersburg, 1908), pp. 190-91. Here one hears the echo of Dostoevsky: "When you are listening to a friend or reading a book do not assign great value to individual words or even to phrases. Forget separate thoughts, and give no great consideration even to logically arranged ideas. Remember that though your friend desires it, he cannot express himself save by ready-made forms of speech. Look well to the expressions of his face, listen to the intonation of his voice—this will help you to penetrate through his words to his soul. Not only in conversation, but even in a written book, one can overhear the sound, even the timbre of the author's voice, and notice the finest shades of expression in his eyes and face. Do not fasten upon contradictions, do not dispute, do not demand argument: only listen with attention. In return for which, when you begin to speak, you also will have to face no dispute, nor to produce arguments, which you know well you neither have nor could have. So you will not be annoyed by having pointed out to you your contradictions which you know well were always there, and will always be there, and with which it is painful, maybe quite impossible, for you to part. Then—and this is the most important of all—you will at last be convinced that truth does not depend on logic, that there are no logical truths at all, that you therefore have the right to search for what you like, how you like, without argument, and that if something results from your search, it will not be a formula, not a law, not a principle, not even an idea!"
Now this may seem simple, but it isn't. I'll paraphrase it: language need not be a prison, indeed, language can be freedom, if only (but this is quite an "if only"!) you use it to sing your song. After all, birds learn to sing early in their lives from other birds, yet they are proverbially free. The difficulty is to find your song in a world like ours, drowned in noise—what's worse, amplified, fashionable noise. Using your memory may help, learning poems by heart. This means: taking other people's songs into your heart, so they shape yours.



Required Reading

  1. On the fascism of language: Ronald Barthes' Inaugural Lecture at the Collège de France, 1977. Translated in: A Barthes Reader, Noonday, 1982. I have put the first few pages of this in the Web.

Optional Reading:

  1. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Sciences of Language, by O. Ducrot and T. Todorov, Johns Hopkins, 1979;
  2. Preface to M. Foucault, The Order of Things;
  3. Edward Sapir, Culture, Language and Personality (Selected Essays), U. of California, 1956
  4. On visual images compared to verbal language (a subject not dealt with in the lecture), see "The Visual Image," by E.H. Gombrich, Scientific American, September 1972.

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