Why I’m so much better than you

About 15 years ago, I paid 50 cents at a used book store for a book called Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Man and His Philosophy. It earned its pay this morning when I pulled it down and read this passage while my wife was trying to talk to me:

A CHINESE SAGE of the distant past was once asked by his diciples what he would do if he were given power to set right the affairs of the country. He answered: “I should certainly see to it that language is used correctly.” The disciples looked perplexed. “Surely,” they said, “this is a trivial matter. Why should you deem it so important?” And the Master replied: “If language is not used correctly, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what ought to be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will be corrupted; if morals and art are corrupted, justice will go astray; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion.”

There is in Wittgenstein’s philosophical concern with language a moral elan which puts him closer in spirit to that sage than to the mere technicians of linguistic analysis.

Erich Heller
A Symposium: Assessments of the Man and the Philosopher

And yet, our age is dominated by the wreckage of the work of “the mere technicians of linguistic analysis,” for language is a human activitiy and all human activity necessarily exists in the moral and ethical realm.

one of those linguistic technicians wrote chapter 2 in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Languages. There he says,

It comes near to stating the obvious that all languages have developed to express the needs of their users, and that in a sense all languages are equal.

Hiding within this statement is a set of qualifications that makes it come near to lacking meaning at all. “It comes near,” but it doesn’t “state” the obvious. “In a sense” all languages are equal, which is nearly obvious.

Well then, it what sense are they nearly obviously equal?

He doesn’t immediately say. Instead, he points out that this nearly obvious equality in a sense is a “tenet of modern linguistics” that “has often been denied, and still needs to be defended.”

I suppose with all those qualifications it would need to be! He continues:

Part of the problem is that the word ‘equal’ needs to be used very carefully. We do not know how to quantify language, so as to be able to say whether all languages have the same ‘amounts’ of grammar, phonology, or semantic structure. There may indeed by important differences in the structural complexity of language, and this possibility needs to be investigated.

This seems to be wisely stated and it certainly continues the humble tack of the opening sentence. He tells us we need to use the word equal carefully, but doesn’t tell us exactly how. Instead he applies it in a very limited manner, completely literal. In other words, he allows for the obvious use of the word “equal” as a term of quantity. But he doesn’t seem to allow for it as a term of quality, or at least he doesn’t use it that way, and since he is telling us to use the word carefully his action would seem to imply that he intends us to use it the same way.

Of equal importance, he excludes any metaphorical use of the word “equal.”

So we are going to look at the equality of languages in quantitative terms: first, amounts of grammar, phonology, and syntactical structure; then, structural complexity, which would seem to be an extension of syntactical structure. In other words, in this matter of sntactical structure, which we don’t know how to quantify, there may be inequalities of language. We have to study it.

Very good. In the realm of quantitative linguistic analysis, then, all languages would seem to be equal except in their structure, which needs to be studied, and in their grammar and phonology, which we don’t know how to quantify.

Therefore, quantitatively, it would seem that language may be equal or may not be. We just don’t know.

But, he continues, and you must read this closely, for he tells us at the end that, “This view is the foundation on which the whole of the present book is based”:

all languages are arguably equal in the sense that tere is nothing intrinsically limiting, demeaning, or handicapping about any of them. All languages meet the social and psychological needs of their speakers, are equally deserving of scientific study, and can provide us with valuable information about human nature and society. This view is the foundation on which the whole of the present book is based.

I am very grateful to them for their honesty.  Now I can take this statement in and assess it precisely. Then I can go through the book and 1. check its arguments for consistency with this foundation, and 2. examine its statements against the reality of language.

What I appreciate about the statement is that they have clearly acknowledged that a quantitative analysis of language is impossible. We must beware, then, of any conclusions they draw based on quantitive assumptions about language.

Instead of a quantitative analysis, they shift to a moral judgment. No language is “intrinsically limiting, demeaning, or handicapping.”

This sentence is a really hard one to unravel.

How are they using language here? As something actually used or as some abstract entity. I am utterly incapable of conceiving of language as an unused abstract entity. Language is a tool of communication and thought. It is an instrument we use to negotiate our relationships with ourselves and the world around and within us. It is an organon, not an idea.

So how can a language be intrinsically anything apart from its potential as an instrument for thought and communication? And are we to believe that any language used by humans is of equal value in the actual task of knowing, understanding, interpreting, communicating, and living in the cosmos?

Doesn’t that depend an awful lot on the people who use the language?

I have been heard to say my core belief that the quality of one’s life is determined by the quality of the questions one asks. If a community of people are driven by questions like, “How can I most effectively kill my neighbor?” or “How can I make lots and lots of money?” or “How can I experience the most physical pleasure?” then their language will reflect those inquiries because that is what language does.

So is there something intrinsic in the language that is “limiting, demeaning, or handicapping”? I wouldn’t think so. As one who believes that language is a gift from God, I find it hard to believe that He would give some people a language that is intrinsically any of those things.

But I’m not sure that matters in the practical question of whether, in the world in which we actually live, one language can be better than another. Let us suppose that a group of people is driven by those questions I outlined above. Words that have to do with justice, holiness, philosophical essences, will stop being used. They’ll wither on the vine. Not only that, but if a people isn’t particularly interested in an issue like, say, theology, then they won’t refine and develop words used for that purpose.

So whether one language can be better than another is not a linguistic question. It’s a moral question and a natural question.

What I mean by that is, I hope, relatively simple.

If my use of language helps me become more fully human, then it is, to the degree that it provides the resources that help me answer the questions I need answered to become more fully human, a better language. Practically. Morally.

If my language enables me to know things the way they are, then it is a better language than one that doesn’t.

Now here’s the crucial practical point: language adapts. It is of the nature of language to change over time. Even strictly controlled languages like Latin or French change. And they change based on circumstances and priorities.

For example, Latin changed dramatically when the Romans encountered the Greeks and attempted to formalize their language and to add vocabulary to make it the equal of the Greek language that they sensed was superior to their own.

And why did they sense that? Because when they tried to think thoughts and answer questions that the Greeks thought and answered, they continually found that they had to resort to Greek words to do so. So the Latin language was enriched by its contact with the Greek.

Here’s another example: After the Normans invaded England in the 11th century, the Angles and Saxons found that their language simply lacked the legal resources to keep up with their Norman conquerors. And what were the Normans speaking? A dialect of Latin called French.

To this day, we still use Greek and Latin words when we want to talk about theology, law, ethics, and philosophy (e.g. justify, legislate, virtue, and epistemology – I won’t bother pointing out that three of those four words are Greek transliterations).

If we were still speaking Anglo-Saxon English, I can assure you there would be no global appreciation for equal rights, democracy, constitutional freedoms, or any of the other noble ideas spread through the world by an English language that was enriched by Latin, Greek, French, German, Native American, etc. etc.

So while I agree that there is nothing intrinsically limiting, demeaning, or handicapping about a language, I am completely convinced by the evidence of my senses and my interactions with real human beings that some languages are less helpful in actual practice than others in learning about and living in reality.

The best actual languages (as opposed to intrinsic languages) are those that enable our souls to fly the highest, dig the deepest, run the farthest, think the most precisely, communicate the most effectively, live the most fully, and love the most wisely.

Over time, some languages have, by the providential hand of history, become better than others at these things. But no language is adequate to them all. So we all need to learn as many languages as time allows, beginning with the languages that give us the most access to the best ideas and the most other languages: Greek and Latin.

Everything turns on the questions asked by the speakers of the language.

I might come back to this if I have time because I’ve left some threads loose. But for now I have to stop. Lest anyone be worried, the title is a joke. I don’t know enough language to be able to make the claim.

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3 Responses

  1. Great post, this is a great supplement to the book I’m reading.

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