by John Kendall Hawkins
…[B]oundless mental energy, imaginative outbursts of inventiveness and creativity …without this illness Dr Johnson’s remarkable literary achievements, the great dictionary, his philosophical deliberations … may never have happened….
JMS Pierce, describing the effects of Tourette’s syndrome on the great Samuel Johnson
I’m Jack Johnson, heavyweight champion of the world. I’m black. They never let me forget it. I’m black all right. I’ll never let them forget it.
From the classic A Tribute to Jack Johnson by Miles Davis
According to my mother (RIP), my first verbal expression was not Mama or liebfraumilch, like a lot of kids, but Jell-o — J-E-L-L-O — but, then, she also confided, later in life, that I came from Cherokee stock, and that my Dad broke broncos in rodeos. (It even inspired an early poem.) So, you had to gently consider the source on these matters, keep your visits short, nodding a lot as she played out Mother Mitty, and seek out reality-based thinking back home on the business end of a bong.
Somewhere along the line, probably while the smoke was still bubbling, I gave some thought to the origins of language (as you do, sitting there like a stoned Rodin) — not my language, with its pudding proof of a neglected childhood spent placed before a TV set, introjecting jingles and their subliminal messages, remembered six decades later against your will — but human language, the big soup, how we climbed out, and went from twitching primordial gefilterfish to quantum orgasmatrons of higher thinking we can’t help telling each other about on Facebook, and Liking, almost against our wills.
Well, something happened, a brownout maybe, and when I came to, in late middle age, I recalled I had degrees in philosophy and language. So, I must have spent years thinking about all kinds of cogitos and summa cums. But, speaking as an old fart frankly, breaking wind, as it were, at both ends of the candid, I came to recall that in the great navel-gazing debate over consciousness nobody knows to this day whether it’s an innie or an outie. The same’s true of language. Is it the chicken or the egg of consciousness? I used to know, but I forgot, so I picked up Don’t Believe A Word, by David Shariatmadari, to remember.
Shariatmadari’s not bad at reactivating all the learning channels of yore with his survey of the gringo’s lingo; I could feel bright neurons lighting up (and the dim wit of my many meurons, too). He’s got all the bases and graces of language covered — origins; class, race and cultural differences; finding language in other species: insects, animals, computers; thought and communication; wordplay and translations. And he devotes a whole chapter to challenging Noam Chomsky’s ‘language instinct’ and its evolution.
But, as I read, I started thinking about my pudding proof again and what came before my cry of Jell-o. Before all of our cries of Jell-o. At what point did thoughts and language come spontaneously combusting out of our brains, as if our ganglia-jungle were suddenly woken up by Johnny Weismuller? That’s what I was wondering. However, Shariatmadari doesn’t really address ancient languages — or more specifically, the oral tradition we all come from, so we’ll never know, from this book, how language produced by oral-centric people is (or was) different than that produced by the meaning of, say, reading this page.
That’s fine. I put on my beanie for a minute and recalled a book I’d read as an undergrad, titled The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes. The interesting thing the book posits is the notion that language preceded consciousness, that the left wing and right wing of the brain were in constant dialogue, creating gods, making us functional schizoids, until the imaginot line was breached and a unitary consciousness emerged. “Iliadic man did not have subjectivity as do we,” wrote Jaynes. “He had no awareness of his awareness of the world, no internal mind-space to introspect upon.” There was no consciousness of consciousness, like that which informs a review such as Shariatmadari’s Don’t Believe A Word.
The nearest Shariatmadari wants to get to the origins of language is through the lens of certain academic presumptions: Chomsky’s language instinct, which the author wants to challenge; and, what he calls the etymological fallacy, putting a lie to the notion that tracing a word back to its root meaning clarifies a modern understanding. Shariatmadari not only devotes an entire chapter to reducing the value of Noam Chomsky’s long-held, and widely accepted, language acquisition gene, but comes at him right from the introduction on.
Universal Grammar, the common rule or set of rules underlying all grammars, can be understood as akin to the Collective Unconsciousness archetypes of Jungian psychology — the grammatical structures, like the archetypes, are there already and will develop over time naturally. As Chomsky puts it, “We do not really learn language; rather, a grammar grows in the mind.” It doesn’t matter what culture you belong to, what tribe, what language you speak, from English to Mandarin. Underlying his UG is the precedence of syntax, with surface structures (idiosyncratic) and deep structures (universal).
Shariatmadari describes Chomsky’s crucial later concept, Merge, “which apes, birds, dolphins and every other species lack. It is what enables children to acquire language so quickly and dramatically, because they perceive, beyond the jumble of words at the surface, an inner order… Merge is the holy grail.” Because of this function humans are able to generate an infinite number of sentences out of one set of rules.
But for Shariatmadari there’s more to it than mere functionality. Whereas Chomsky posits that “the overwhelming use of language is internal — for thought,” Shariatmadari emphasises a more primary social purpose. He writes, “[L]anguage is fundamentally a social phenomenon. Its structure does not derive from an internal blueprint, but from the general cognitive abilities of a social species, and external factors….” And, really, his whole book is not about how we think about language, but, rather, how we engage each other in social situations and experience in a variety of spheres — “psychology, sociology, neuroscience, anthropology, literature, philosophy and computing.” Although, the author does push for greater self-consciousness. In fact, he suggests that we may be entering a new paradigm regarding language similar to Galileo’s heliocentric splash.
Shariatmadari also cites the etymological fallacy — tracing a word back to its root as an authoritative explanation for a current usage, which the author declares can be “a form of deceit.” He cites, as one example, how following such a trace for the word ‘treacle’ could leave one “in a pickle” because ultimately it means “a wild or venomous beast.”
He goes on with another example, “I have legs. Words have meanings. But is the ‘have’ in the first sentence the same as the ‘have’ in the second? Obviously not.” Obviously not. He goes hilariously further with the word ‘slab’. He says it’s “an example of word-as-tool. Its meaning, in the context of a building site, was to get someone to do something that would help build a wall.” (Yell ‘slab’ to a mate driving away in a ute in Australia and he’ll bring you back a sexie sixie of XXXX beers. If he’s a real mate.)
Well, anyway, Shariatmadari’s stated concern with these trace-backs is that “the institutions that define standard language: universities, newspapers, broadcasters, the literary establishment” might employ such fallacies to maintain control of meaning, as they did with the Canon, before postmodernism came along to bust their balls. Nuff said.
But Shariatmadari’s position may be a little overstated. We learn much by tracing, say, the word ‘tragedy’, as Nietzsche did, back to its goat beginning. And, as another example, it’s important that, say, the root of the N-word, which literally means black, and goes a long way toward demonizing a quality a human cannot change, even if he wanted to.
This discussion seems to lead naturally into Shariatmadari’s somewhat jocular section of the alleged demise of language proposed by certain elements of the upper establishment. Shariatmadari spends a chapter discussing the popular highbrow notion that “language is going to the dogs.” What does he mean? Prudes, pedants and English teachers, other than Robin Williams (RIP), worry that postmodernism, the replacement of critical thinking skills with standardized testing, the clickety-cluckety noise of the Internet, have led to an Anything Goes approach to language as a conveyor of ‘deeper meaning’. I profess a fondness for sonnets, so I can understand the thinking here.
As an example of such prudery, Shariatmadari trots in a British organization to have their imperial say:
“[The decline of the English language] is something the Queen’s English Society…has been trying to prevent. ‘Some changes would be wholly unacceptable,’ the Society says, ‘as they would cause confusion and the language would lose shades of meaning.’ With a reduced expressive capacity, English would no longer be up to the task of describing the world around us, or the world inside our heads.”
Again, to a certain degree I concur. One frightening thing for a literate person is the prospect the author raises of a future world that no longer even comprehends Shakespeare’s “old” English.
First, it was going to the groundlings, to the feisty little Falstaffs in the crowd, but now, according to the haughty culture, English is going to the mad dogs. But Shariatmadari says implicitly ‘phooey’ and that degeneration is a sentiment that has been common throughout the evolution of language. Like a latter-day Will Rogers, he agrees that ‘nothing is the way it used to be — and never was.’ As far as he’s concerned, language is alive and well: “Most democratic freedoms have been preserved and intellectual achievement intensified. Information has become far more accessible, news media have proliferated and the technological advances have come thick and fast.” If it comes down to it, Fuck Shakespeare is a development he seems okay with.
But I’m not sure I agree with Shariatmadari’s oblique (o bleak!) optimism. Look at the state of the mainstream media he describes as conduits of productive information. No, for me, it recalls a Nietzsche nugget regarding Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press — that’s great, he said, but then the Germans went ahead and threw it all away by inventing the dirty noisy newspaper. Things kind of got out of hand from there, just as they did with poor ol’ Tim Berners-Lee and the WWW in our time. Pearls before swine. The road to good intentions turns out to be the road of excess, with neither leading to any real wisdom. As newspapers have been in the past, the Internet today is largely only good for wrapping up fish, or kindling a small fire to cook it on.
The prudery Shariatmadari refers to is further expanded in a section that discusses Race, Class, and Cultural differences. He who controls the narrative arc controls what happens to the characters. Thus we get spin cycles in the news; attempts to control how information is processed by hearts and minds. Shariatmadari provides examples of how these motifs are played out in the social milieu.
For race, he cites ebonics (or what he calls African American Vernacular English, or AAVE) as an example of how a ‘second language’ can work to empower Black people, such as in its expression in hip-hop, while also providing cover for White criticism of a historically marginalized group’s lack of assimilation. It’s also self-reinforcing on each side to the point that the dominant side (The Mighty Whitey) can’t even understand Mr. Ebony. Remember Archie Bunker and his tussles with Lionel Jefferson next door and the communication gap? Shariatmadari paraphrases the Bunker mindset, when he cites an Oakland Department of Education decision: “The desire to bend over backwards to accommodate an ethnic group’s sensitivities was trumping the need to deliver a high-quality education to the students….” (But it’s okay to bend over forward for the upper class?)
Similarly, in discussing Class, Shariatmadari cites the language differences of the Upstairs/Downstairs experience of shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue versus Klein. Citing a linguistic study by Bill Labov, among many differences over time he notes how in Saks how clear and well-enunciated “fourth floor” rings from employees, while at Klein he hears, instead, “fawth flaa.” You could tell where someone might shop just from how they handled Rs. One is reminded of the Harvard student Matt Damon gets initially punked by, onnacounta his Boston accent, which he later pays back in spades and the famous punchline: “So how do you like them apples?” Nuff Said.
On Shariatmadari goes, “When you say something you send out social signals.” (Indeed, what would be the point of cracking the wind with a tongue whip, if not to communicate your desire to an other? Grrrr. Minnie.) He cites an amusing example for cultural differences — the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious. Unlike the Rolling Stones, who Shariatmadari claims were putting on “a bluesy drawl” to please Americans when they sang, You make a dead man cum, in “Start Me Up,” he claims that if “Sid Vicious tried to sound American he would’ve been seen as inauthentic – something that was anathema to the punk ethos.” (In the punk bar I used to hang out in, if the regulars didn’t like the look of you — maybe you were dressed like Jim Carroll — when it came your turn to swan into the mosh pit, everybody moved away while you were in mid-air.) We’ve all laughed at attempts to sound like another culture, even fascist ones.
There’s a section where Shariatmadari seems to go off the rails some, going all Tourette’s for a minute, with a flush of coprolalia (familiarly knowns as, talking shit) maybe channeling Samuel Johnson. It’s hard to tell sometimes:
“I can say ‘Fuck me!’ as an exclamation, but I can’t say ‘Fuck me precisely’ or ‘Fuck me by midday’ without reverting to the literal meaning. ‘Fuck me!’ is an emotional signal rather than an example of propositional speech.” No fuckin comment.
And, the Turks say: Avrupalιlaştιrιlamayanlardansιnιz, which means ‘You’ re one of those we can’t make a European out.’ And we say: antidisestablishmentarianism, which means ‘You’re one of those we can’t make a good Catholic out of.” Will they ever see eye to eye?
The author continues on with a few other areas of interest, most notably human attempts to communicate with other ‘species’ — including insects, animals, and computers. He describes the expressive dance of bees, but there is no language. We have a long history of trying to find consciousness in animals, so that we can communicate, but to sometimes crazy ends. And he sporadically makes references to computer-speak, which he reckons could, in the future, be most efficiently programmed with Sanskrit (!). By the time I was finished I felt I needed a good sit-down session with a compassionate shrink — and found Dr Eliza, who helped get me to another day.
Nietzsche always said that when you look into the abyss, look out mofo, because the abyss also looks into you. I’ve taken that wisdom on board and made it part of my practical philosophy, and find myself these days looking into the abyss reflecting on the philosopher Harold Lloyd’s simple visual motto. If you must take the mickey out, begin with yourself. Einstein said the universe is warped. Like Lloyd, I can totally relate. Pass the bong.