A Short Essay on a Few Key Language Points
A Few Basic Facts About Language You Probably Won’t Learn In School
Since there are still only, literally, a handful of readers familiar with my work on language, and since those few already more or less know what I’ve generally theorized about it, I think I can dispense with much standard introduction or explanation for the statements that follow.
I just thought this morning that, since, while much of my main macro language theory and several of examples of how it actually may work, both written and through podcasts, on a micro level are still all available in cyber-form on my website and through my dropbox contacts, the full book I have been meaning eventually to pull them all into—something called something like “A Bioenergetic Analysis of Language,” itself a fairly problematic title--has yet to fully form itself into a clearly recognizable and at least reasonably complete book shape, and, who knows, may never, this sort of summary might be of use.
I decided, largely out of economic and physical necessity, to finally put a hold on it’s completion a few years back, with some regret, But also since I felt the main ideas and sufficient micro theory and micro examples had already been made available to public scrutiny, if not in standard publishable form, at least it’s main educational, if not publicational (w?) goals, and that therefore my main purpose and intent in the writing of it had been accomplished.
This was to leave behind me at least sufficient beginnings of hitherto unknown or overlooked critical information on language that any sufficiently interested and intelligent future “student” might continue what I would consider, and still do hope for, a much-fuller and still critically-needed investigation upon.
So, I thought this morning, in the event such a full publication of said information by me may not occur, a shorter essay outlining some of the main ideas, perhaps even indicating future chapter titles and/or lines of research, might, again, prove of some worth to someone. So here goes, in, as those already familiar with my writing style on such subjects, in no necessarily discernible order.
Suffice only further to say that all or most of what follows refers to the English language, the only one with which I have any true intimacy, even though, in the most universal context, my entire theory, both macro and micro, must, in order to be valid, apply in some substantial form to all languages.
1) Human language, arguably around in some communicative method for thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years, generally developed from very graphic, literal forms (pictures and such) though verbally concrete forms (words like trees and stones, hammers and nails, etc.) to very abstract, symbolic forms (words like sin and reincarnation, reconciliation and metaphysical, and so forth). Thus, in it’s most recent iterations, human society has been reinventing it’s main form of communication to include more and more stuff we can’t simply see or touch or just point to, like an clear solid object in space, with stuff that we can’t, but which resides, rather, more in our heads, memories, and imaginations.
2) This sophistication, if you like to think of it so, in language, has run in a generally parallel course with the sophistication of our human social rituals and institutions, as well as our various permutations in psychological behavior and economic wealth, since more complex sophistications in language require more healthy blood flow to the brain. These changes have in turn belied changes in the political, military, and economic sectors of society, which of course include our health and welfare, relationship to the natural world beyond our skin, and all the other human areas for which governments have created oversight agencies and universities have created departments of study.
3) While our language has, on a cognitive level, largely and necessarily been developed consciously and cognitively—since it’s first primary function concerned practical and protective “outer-world” reasons—soon, if not from the beginning, language, as well as, arguably, all human communication, contained a vital, parallel if not even more important “subliminal” set of aspects and components, just as, if not more, critical to people understanding each other as was the communication of cognitive meaning. These developments, of the cognitive and subliminal, even as the sophistication from concrete to abstract was going on, most likely generally took place simultaneously or nearly so.
At times the cognitive was obviously more important, e.g., “a bear.” At others, the subliminal, e.g., “I just know what he is thinking; I can feel it, no matter what he says.” Mothers who have sung or read to their embryo babies while they were still in their wombs might also weigh in on the supreme influence of both the cognitive and subliminal working together in some critical ways. And so forth.
4) The official acceptance of such a linguistic co-evolution by our still-current cadre of linguists and social scientists would for the most part cause such a major disruption in the world of their nearly infinitely subdivided departments (fiefdoms) of learning as to cause the loss of myriad jobs and reputations based on the still-mostly orthodox and thus safely-stuck-on-the page and far-removed –from-the-human-body, dualistic theory of language, which holds that it’s development among various cultures (Babel if you will) is to the main extent, barring various political, etc. variables, arbitrary and that it’s function, no matter how words may seem to affect our hearts, guts, and general health at times, resides almost if not entirely in our brains, and perhaps, in some ways still not really clear, the structure of our DNA. It is for these reasons, much more for motives political and economic than as having anything to do with the search for truth, that you will not be finding much if any reference to any officially- sanctioned or culturally-embedded sort of the ideas/hypotheses propounded in this or similar essays.
5) Contrary to the orthodoxy, I hold to the ideas, along with the ideas as I was taught them rather surreptiously at Harvard graduate school, of a certain long-mostly disremembered semiotics philosopher named Charles Sanders Peirce (a little-known contemporary at Harvard of the much-more- conventional and easily decipherable, and thus far-more-lauded William James) that language is definitely not dualistic, that is, not just made up a sign and an object, but rather made up of at least three components—the sign and object, yes, but also, mediating them, a chemical reaction of some sort in the human brain/general neurophysiolically system, which reconstructs each word we speak before we repeat it, whether to ourselves or others, after having heard or read it from some other person or source.
So therefore, after I have heard the word “ball,” I must reconstruct it from within my body before I can think or say it again.
This is where the subliminal often comes into play, since in that, often, split second of neurophysical time, all of my own past, emotional, etc. associations with that word come into play with that particular assortment of letters (of course usually a word or sentence with a conscious overlay, meaning, or purpose to it). This “third” component of language, the “bodily,” subliminal one, is what allows us to have such fun at times with the children’s game of “telephone,” in which kids line up in a room and someone whispers a word into the ear of the first kid in the row, who in turn whispers it to the second and so on down the line. When the last kid publically announces the last iteration of that original word, and it turns out to be very different from the first, everyone has a good laugh.
But that couldn’t happen, could it, were there not some “third” component going on with language, something else that effected how the kids’ were transmitting what they had just heard?
6) Now let’s go back a bit, hopefully in order to better go forward. What follows is particularly personal and anecdotal, and still so without any more “scientific” means of validation, which renders it that much more open to criticism and even ridicule. Yet from a personal perspective, these hypotheses also meet my own trained definition of science, since they seem, so far as I can discern, to lead to predictably similar results under varying conditions.
This set of notions begins with the idea that, being the complex things they are, our brains and our language did not develop in just one way (even if that one way--the
cognitive/subliminal—is in itself complex), but in other ways as well, according to other aspects of the human experience, and physiology.
I should add that not all folks, and this includes some of the most highly educated, will not experience this as I did, perhaps because the conditions under which I first encountered the stimulus for putting this hypothesis together were rather extraordinary, or just because of some folks’ various reasons for being resistant to or dismissive of anything new or the least bit strange.
Still, to proceed, without getting into any personal stuff, let’s imagine yourself as an aboriginal person walking alone through a potentially dangerous forest. Beasts or poisonous creatures could be in the bush or grass waiting to strike at first contact. Since you are alone, you have no one to communicate to in alarm or for help.
On the other hand, unless you are singing or thinking hard or talking to yourself, you have nothing to interfere with your eyes (particularly in this example), ears, or general awareness of the sounds and atmosphere surrounding you. You are, thus, more or less, in full possession of your own senses. No other human help, perhaps, but no human interference, either.
Compare this to walking the same path with, say, a hunting party. Now the opposite holds true. Not alone, and perhaps fully equipped with weapons and hunting roles should a beast appear, you have help, and maybe even set ritual communication as to how to deal with the threat. You may even have a drummer, etc. Yet, on the other hand, and here is where the personal experiment we can make today comes in, your senses are likely no longer to be entirely focused upon your surroundings. Your ears—and eyes—are abridged by the sounds and coordinated, or otherwise, movements of your group. Your survival is more likely to depend on how well the group does together than on how well you perform by yourself. Now, both the hypothesis and methodology here will seem strange to most people, so be prepared.
Putting away all the other variables in the situation I describe, imagine that, beside the cognitive purpose of the group’s sounds, whether they be drumming or grunts or words, they also affect the loose and thus free motion of your own eyes. Perhaps the sounds are made on purpose, to facilitate protective group interaction; perhaps they are irrelevant or even more of a threat to survival. No matter here. They point is that the sounds, either in part or whole, divert not only your ears from the more “natural” sounds of the forest, but also to some significant degree “lock up” your eyes from fully, loosely, freely perceiving the world outside the group.
And this is an experiment you can easily try for yourself, and you don’t have to be in some dangerous forest to do it. From the comfort of your own room, if you will, lay or sit down and relax for a bit in silence. Then, with eyes either open or shut (shut works best for me), turn on some sound (music works well, particularly music with a strong beat). All the while, before and after, focus calmly but steadly on your eye motion.
Try not to turn on the music until your eyes have relaxed to the point of not moving at all.
Then turn on the music and, again, focusing intently on your eyeballs, notice whether or not they don’t begin, involuntarily, to move about, whether to the beat of the sound or not.
Now, if they do not, or at least you notice no movement, then, well, end of experiment. If so, I would recommend you try it again at different times of day, or when you are better rested, less stressed, etc., and see if you detect any movement under various conditions. But of course that’s up to you.
On the other hand, if you do sense a movement in your eyes at the advent of the sound, try this. After a bit, turn it off until your eyes settle down again, then turn the music on again, and see if your eyes don’t start moving to the beat, or whatever, once again.
If all this does happen, yes, it’s anecdotal, but also, and here’s the important part, predictably repeatable.
There’s a well-known human syndrome called “fight-or-flight.” Most of us have heard of it. When in danger, people who aren’t paralyzed with shock or fear (another whole topic—though I suppose we could say this also is a type of flight) do one or the other. In any case, in such instances, the body produces something we call an adrenaline reaction, in which our bodies involuntarily increase blood flow to muscles, output of the heart, pupil dilation, and blood sugar.
What we don’t often consider is that such danger threats can be “passive” as well as “active.” That is, we get these reactions not just when we want to run and fight and do, but also when we want to go and can’t.
Thus, to jump a bit here, this syndrome applies as much to our being unable to leave a boring or distasteful lecture or dinner as to being attacked by a bloodthirsty beast. Another important fact to remember here is that the sense of helplessness or vulnerability brought on and producing the adrenaline, often unconsciously, brings with it a “high,” which usually influences our subsequent thought and action. Exactly how depends on the situation.
Now how does all this generally influence, not only behavior, but the development and continuation of language, up to and including the present? That’s next.
7) To make a short point out of potentially long hypothesis, something those familiar with my writing know is unusual for me, those people, in all times and places historical, stuck as audiences, whether at school, church or any lecture hall or even outdoor event, faced with listening to or watching something they wanted to run away from but for social or other reasons could not, necessarily experience an adrenaline rush. Essentially, this is because they are trapped, even if, as is often if not usually the case, they are unconscious that they are even having one, particularly if the event is one they often must endure. But conscious or otherwise, the normal response to this unwanted sense vulnerability and rise in blood sugar is to “bond,” whether physically, intellectually, emotionally, etc., with whatever surcease for that sense of vulnerability is being broadcast. “Strong minded” people, people with sufficient diverse experience, etc., may be accordingly resistant to it’s influence. But those with fewer other options and those pelted with the same general ideas day after day, etc., will be much more likely to swallow the information taken in whole, and that includes the language, as well as the associations that go with it within that particular context.
If they physically survive the experience, “it,” whatever it is, becomes their savior, including the language and associations that go along with it.
The issue here, though it’s ultimately an important one, is not whether what is being broadcast or taught or whatever, is “good” for the audience or not. Sometimes it is, sometimes not. The issue is that all this is going on at an unconscious, subliminal, often eventually embodied level. To give a good example, how can good “strict” teachers teach so many young students so well so quickly the basic data they need to learn. Bad examples also abound. Why did otherwise brilliant German Nobel prize winners and lovely, kind blond German mothers join the Nazi party?
In any case, I think you may get the point by now. William McNeil, the great historian, wrote his last book on how people throughout history bonded into social groups through vulnerability-creating, uniform, ritualized body movement. Yet, for all his brilliance, he missed the language part of it.
The same goes for Lionel Trilling, one the main leaders of the progressive, academic movement of the 20th century. But he too failed to realized that the very language he was using to advance the better part of civilization was itself a double-edged, subliminal sword, having evolved and having been embodied in our entire species over at least thousands of years of technological limitation, war, and scarcity.
8) There are many other aspects of this subliminal side of language, and how it continues to affect us and hold us back on an unconscious level, particularly on a more micro-level as it involves actual letters and words. Some of that you can read and hear about for yourself on my website. But for now I will end this essay here—it has probably gone on far too long for many of you as is. If possible, I will continue to write along these relatively abbreviated lines in another essay or two as time allows.
In the meantime, if your interest is at all piqued or renewed, recheck the language section of technologychangesmorality.com and/or try out that eye/music experiment for yourself. If you come out dumbfounded, then perhaps it indicates that whatever my personal, anecdotal experience may tell me, it does not speak to you. If something interesting and that you feel worth pursuing does occur, just let me know at this email address or through the website—but use only email@example.com now please. If I do hear from you, if before it goes on Kindle, I will send you a copy of my first full book on the more general subliminal functioning of these system, in which language plays a key but not the entire role in our inability to more positively and enduringly change and improve our behavior.
In either case, I wish you well.
Lee Strauss c/o (copyright 2015)