On Language

The problem of language and where it comes from is an issue that is in a state of constant evolution.  The answers to the question of a language faculty, inherent in our brain, elude us still.  Early scholarship was predominantly one-sided on this issue, believing that language creation was the product of one’s environment.  While logical and certainly partially responsible for the phenomenon, the idea of environment being wholly responsible for language development, inadequately addresses the question of language origination. 
 
Over the last half of the 20th century, scholars like Noam Chomsky, began to develop alternative theories concerning language, revolving around the idea that human beings possess an intrinsic language faculty, that predetermines our ability to learn, speak, and cultivate language.  Chomsky and his peers surmised that it is the combination of the language faculty, along with one’s external environment, that causes a person to learn, create, and enhance the language they are exposed to. 
 
These issues are relegated to the mind/brain, an organ we still know very little about, and so our theories are limited by what we observe, create, and can study via history and experience.  I thought the subject of language was appropriate to discuss, in light of my comments about Nietzsche’s views on language from last week, when I addressed his notion of language limiting our understanding of original truth, because it is a creation of our minds, and therefore is incapable of articulating first thoughts or concepts.  Essentially, Nietzsche’s thesis is that all language is fiction.
 
I think we are dealing with two scenarios here:
 
1.) The reality that all man-made concepts, such as language, currency, community, politics, etc. are indeed nothing more than creations, and are not inexorable truths.  We’ve only conditioned ourselves to believe that they are certain truths, needed to maintain discipline and to promote growth, within a functional society.  And if we are able to liberate ourselves from these social constructs, and are capable of ascertaining that 2+2 is only 4 because that’s the mathematical language we’ve created, and not because it’s an inherent truth, then we are also capable of understanding that what we’ve created was for the perceived necessity of having a system of communication, but does not, under any circumstances, adhere to nor encompass the idea that it was part of our nature.  
 
This concept is contingent upon man being able to step outside of man.  To understand this theory, one must be able to free himself from observing the systems of society, as integral to our being.  As if these systems just were.  On the contrary, these systems are as necessary as we make them, and are creations of our minds, which mean they serve no basic truth, above and beyond what we allow them to be.
 
So from that perspective, I agree with Nietzsche, that all language is fiction, and therefore draped in metaphor.  That also illustrates nicely, what I’ve always argued about grammar.  Grammar facilitates better communication, because we have conditioned ourselves to believe that squiggly lines on a page, somehow enable us to grasp a person’s premise more clearly.  I would argue that we don’t need strict grammatical guidelines- first because they are creations and not inherent to language, and second because we possess the ability to discern a person’s meaning without the use of the aforementioned squiggly lines.  These grammatical enhancements might improve articulation, but in regards to understanding the heart of what is being expressed, I do not believe meaning is obscured without grammar. 
  
2.) The issue of the real world as it relates to us now.  At some point society developed to such an extent, that to contemplate starting over- or to think of the issue of language and society as being anything more than our imaginations realized- became a truth that mankind could no longer entertain.  Quite simply, there is the real world as it relates to us daily, and there is the ideal understanding that one can attempt to resurrect, in an effort to better our lives. 
 
I’m not saying there isn’t value in discussing the idealistic notion of stepping outside what we think is real, in order to grasp what is actually real, but for that to come to fruition, so many institutions and ideas that we have grown so dependent on, would have to suffer a collapse, based upon massive shifts in cultural consciousness, the scale of which is too large to ever think truly possible.  In essence that argument is moot.
 
All we have is how we relate to our immediate world.  And that involves what everyone else around us knows, such as language, cultural norms, standard definitions of words, etc.  And while the use of those words can make us interpret things differently, we can no longer think that an argument in favor of 2+2 not equaling 4, can be taken seriously.  At least not so far as to influence any great change in perspective.
 
So from there, we only have language used in metaphor vs language used in exact, clear terms.  I find myself longing for both. 
 
When I write lyrics (something I used to do with great frequency) I have to use poetic phrases, metaphors, and romantic interpretations of what I’m thinking and feeling.  First, the physical space for words, is not vast in a song.  So writing lyrics, much like poetry, is an exercise in brevity.  Secondly, the purpose of art is to elicit an emotional response, because emotions resonate with people.  It allows them to feel and to use their senses.  It is a part of who we are.  Emotional embellishments are common in this paradigm, as it is the goal of the artist to elicit what he hopes, is a kind of catharsis, causing one to feel before they think.
 
But when I’m striving to truly penetrate and articulate a topic of a more philosophical nature, then I prefer to use more direct language that is clear to understand, and isn’t draped in metaphor.  I think the distinction is necessary and both forms have their place.  The point in this context is the inverse of poetry, which is that the author is striving to make one think before they feel.  Philosophical arguments can often touch sensitive nerves, particularly when the topics involve religion and politics, so it’s essential for constructive debate to articulate one’s stance clearly, in order to avoid the emotional uproar that so often arises when addressing circular issues that we humans know very little about.  
 
Religious texts seem to somehow toe the line, because while it may seem completely obvious that the authors are using metaphors, poetry, and parables to make their points, leaving the message to be interpreted, many religious people choose to understand these metaphors as literal truth.  Instead of interpreting them, and reaching their own conclusion (which I’m sure some people do), they take them to be literal events and that’s when the language becomes divisive.  History and science have proven that religious stories were not literal events, and have stressed the need to interpret the language symbolically.  But still, religious leaders and people all over the world don’t seem to agree with these assessments. 
 
In conclusion, I see the value of both approaches.  I agree with Nietzsche that at its foundation, all language is fiction, but I’ve discussed this at length in my post on truth.  What I find much more fascinating is this idea of the language faculty that Chomsky champions.  Human beings are unique in our ability to reason, and to shy away from instinct, whereas by comparison, a wolf will react the same way based upon his instincts, 100 out of 100 times.  A significant part of our reasoning comes from this language faculty, that allows us to communicate in immensely complicated structures, which we use to understand scenarios that we find ourselves in.  We are able to learn and instantly discern, infinite words and meanings, that we decipher in a nanosecond, processing the information and generating a creative response almost simultaneously.  This is an amazing concept that we really know very little about.  It’s obvious that external elements help to nurture the growth of the language function, but the origins of the innate abilities in our mind are still being discovered.  Unlocking those mysteries can lead to more than just brain/language comprehension.  The answers to these questions might also possess insight into evolution (both human and animal), and how our minds have come to be capable of so many possibilities.
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