Language and meaning
Nothing is as people say that it is, first because we lack the capacity to describe things as they really are. That’s debatable, but I’m not going to debate it now. Second, because we really do not, in fact, know what we think we know and understand - and don’t want to admit it. We don’t want to admit that everything we think we know is wrong, or at least “off” somehow. Human beings are naturally conservative, and we must impose order on things in order to comprehend them - even if the order is entirely manufactured (which it usually is). Third, because language is more about decoration than communication. And fourth, because we are liars. As a species we tell stories as a communication device, and story-telling involves embellishing, and from there to outright fabricated lies is a short step indeed. Which came first, the language or the lie?
1) Did language grow out of story-telling? or,
2) Did story-telling grow from language? or,
3) Did the two grow together from an evolving mix of some other, controlling or directing social and neurological elements?
The third choice is just too complicated for most people to think about. But it is the one that probably attracts most specialist experts.
Language is very malleable and adaptive by its nature as we are sometimes reminded by people who cite the principle that language evolves as an excuse for their own dumb abuse of it.
Most other people are probably quick to choose the second choice on the grounds that common sense dictates that language must come first - the same reasoning that leads some to think that the chicken must come before the egg.
Almost everyone I talk to does not understand number three, and discussion gets us nowhere. Which leaves number one which, for many, seems too implausible - the egg-before-the-chicken viewpoint. But it is the one that most attracts me. Here’s why:
We absorb information and pass it on (communicate it) in story form. There’s no doubt about that. Because we are able to tell stories in ways other than by using verbal or oral language - through dance and music, numbers, and art, for example - it can be argued that story-telling
1) preceded verbal language, or
2) at least does not rely on it, or
3) is entirely independent of it.
I have described before how we can say that language functions more as a decoration for our lives than strictly or primarily as a means of transferring factual information. It is very malleable and adaptive by its nature as we are sometimes reminded by people who cite the principle that language evolves as an excuse for their own dumb abuse of it. By enveloping ourselves in our own narratives - our stories about ourselves, how we imagine ourselves in the world, and beyond that our communities’ stories about themselves and their perceptions of their roles in the world - we are not so much connecting with our fellows through language as we are separating ourselves from them. (We create meaning by imposing order through classification, discrimination and separation. Discrimination is good.) Think about it. Our personal narrative, constructed from language, is a sieve, a strainer, or a screen. We look out through it, contributing to the premise that everything we think we know is wrong or “off” somehow. Meanwhile, others look in through it. What do they see? Do they comprehend the ‘real’ us, or do they see and accept the story we tell about ourselves? The story may or may not be factual, which is not the same thing as being
I think that just from the point of view of efficacy we have no choice but to politely accept our own and others’ fictions and go from there, with a moral warning not to forget where we came from, and not to violate the boundaries of our fictions without first publicizing that we are changing the boundaries.