Progress for me recently was buying a used 2012 Mitsubishi MiEV. Regress is the miserable direction our world is headed politically. I'll address both here.…
Do words work? I ask this ironically, given that I’m using words to write about words.
Old Lao Tzu pondered the same question 2,500 years ago when he opened his book of poems with this zinger: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.”
By the Tao, he meant the unconditional, unknowable source of all truth and all reality. We might call that God, the inner knowing that is hard to define and the external way things work even when we don’t know how. We apply words like tao or god, or even capitalize them into Tao or God, but have we defined anything?
Lao Tzu went on in that poem to say we have words for the ten thousand things, but the words are not the things. Knowing that words can approximate but not contain reality is key to not being held ignorant by words. He showed humility in the face of ordinary and ultimate reality.
Our recent president had his way of summing up important ideas. Donald Trump declared, “I know words. I have the best words.” He went on to create his social media platform for the sharing and exchanging of words, calling it Truth Social.
However, calling it that didn’t make it true or social, that is, unless being on “the right” makes you think you’re right. After all, you wouldn’t want to be left out.
We humans are meaning-seeking creatures. Words helped launch us, but we should remember Lao Tzu’s advice.
We tool-using, social humans have been moving more creatively than our fellow animals for about 100,000 generations, while since the time of Christ, we’ve had only about 100. Long before the time of Jesus, about 30,000 years ago, language emerged. Coincidently, another species of humans (there have been many), the Neanderthals, died out. They were shorter but just as intelligent and caring as Sapiens (us). A small bit of our modern DNA contains their genes.
Another line of humans to emerge from Africa was the Cro-Magnon. Nearly identical to us, they would choke on their food. The larynx had moved deeper into their throats, creating this choking problem but allowing for articulation and speech. Similar to this evolutionary change, the larynx doesn’t descend in our babies until three to five months. Then it does.
The development of speech coadapts with that of the brain, thus allowing communication, singing, and socialization. The human infant is more vulnerable and dependent than most mammals but also ultimately more able and dependable. Comity, communication, and community is part of being human. Culture, primitive and advanced, is what we are born of and for.
Noam Chomsky and others have noted that all human babies, no matter what culture they are born into, can learn and then use the language of that culture. The patterns of speech are established early and strong. Myelination (wrapping the core neural circuits with a stabilizing fatty protective layer) results in stable local language ability, but also the inability of older children and adults to speak other dialects and languages without an accent. Further, all children of any culture start by referring to “me,” then “me want,” then “me want now,” all with similar babbling sounds. They also say “no” before “yes.” This language business is deep in, crucial to our human abilities.
(Curiously, Europe’s oldest and most mysterious group, the Basques (of the same region where the Cro-Magnon cave paintings were found) speak the last surviving remnant of the Neolithic language, Euskara. There is no connection between Basque and any other known language. Coincidentally and curiously, though, of the twenty or so language types in the world, the Basque is similar to the languages of northwest American, Canadian, Finnish, and Eskimo Aleut ancient languages.)
Not only do we have numerous mysterious origins of language groups, but we also have persnickety confusions within a language. Yet we use words that mostly work. Even if we respell words, they are intelligible. In Bill Bryson’s interesting book, The Mother Tongue – English and How it Got that Way, he notes, “Attempts to simplify and regularize English spelling almost always hav a sumwut stranj and ineskapubly arbitrary luk about them, and ov cors they kawz most reederz to stumbl.” (pg.132)
Of the 17,677 words that Shakespeare used, a tenth were words never used before. He made them up. But he didn’t cherish them. He didn’t save his writing and he didn’t spell his name consistently the same. Words emerge. Words change. We can make them up,
English dictionaries were codified by loners. Uneducated, course, and blind in one eye, Samuel Johnson put one together for 1721. But a writer he wasn’t, with sentences reaching 150 words. Noah Webster was, “a severe, correct, humorless, religious, temperate man who was not easy to like.” (Bryson 154) After his death, the Merriam brothers bought in by 1847. Scottish-born Henry Murray managed hundreds of volunteers to assemble an initial version of the Oxford English Dictionary. He was aided also by opium smoker James Platt and Dr. W. C. Minor, an inmate at a hospital for the criminally insane. Minor murdered someone in his paranoia, yet managed to document 12,000 words in one year. They’re huge now.
Rarely do we remember all the words were made up, yet we stumble over non-sexed pronouns. “They” confuses the issue, unless you’re including multiple personalities.
Counterfeit once meant a legitimate copy. A girl in Chaucer’s day meant a young person, whether male or female. Obsequious once meant flexible. An elder minister once accused me of being obsequious. Instinctively, I retorted, “Fuck you.” When I got home and looked it up I found my reaction was accurate, for it meant being overly agreeable. Nice once meant stupid or foolish. Later it meant lascivious or wanton. It went on to mean extravagant, elegant, strange, slothful, unmanly, luxurious, modest, slight, precise, thin, shy, discriminating, and dainty before the current pleasant and agreeable. I hardly know whether to laugh at Dana Carvey’s Church Lady when she says, “Now isn’t that nice?”
Moving between languages can be tricky. When President Carter tried to convey to the Poles that he wanted to understand their opinions and desires, the translator put it, “I desire Poles carnally.” Even to his people, a president can mangle his intent, as George Bush did when trying to ban semiautomatic weapons: ” But I also want to have – be the president that protects the rights of, of people to, to have arms.” No wonder Americans fear disarmament! Much the same reason they don’t want to be defeated – or is it defeeted?
English is a conglomeration of various other languages from Latin to Celtic to Saxon. While dialects in England make it difficult for people in various regions to understand each other, it is remarkably universal in the States. India has 1,652 languages and dialects,15 of which are official. No one language is spoken by more than 16 percent of the population there. English serves to unify the professions and education, while Chinese serves for business. Though we have regions and dialects in the U.S., fortunately, we mostly understand each other.
Meanwhile, some 40 million people in the U.S. don’t speak English, about the same number of those in England who do. There are more people in China learning English than there are people in the U.S. In 1986 the number of American students studying Russian was 25,000, while Russians studying English neared four million.
Confucius wrote, “If names are not correct, language will not be in accordance with the truth of things.
“The word good has many meanings,” wrote C.K. Chesterton. “For example,” he explained, “if a man were to shoot his grandmother at a range of 500 yards, I should call him a good shot, but not necessarily a good man.”
But what if a famous person shot someone else at short range on 5th Avenue? Would the shooter still be good? Richard Compton wrote, “For every credibility gap gap there is a gullibility fill.”
“In a republic of mediocrity, genius is dangerous,” wrote Robert G. Ingersoll. Even if it’s dangerous, it’s still a sneaky but successful tactic, even a safe and popular one, to declare you have the best words.
Especially in an ideocracy, as old Lao Tzu might moan.