In the beginning was the word… or was it?


Reflecting on the origin of words leads us into interesting territory. I do not mean the origin of particular words, though that can be interesting too; I mean the notion of words as units, as building blocks into which sentences can be divided.

How long have we had words? The temptation is to say ‘as long as we have had speech’ but when you dig a bit deeper, you strike an interesting vein of thought.

As I have remarked elsewhere [see ‘The Muybridge Moment‘] it seems unlikely that there was any systematic analysis of speech till we were able to write it down, and perhaps there was no need of such analysis. Certainly a great many of the things that we now associate with language only become necessary as a result of its having a written form: formal grammar, punctuation, spelling – the three things that probably generate the most unnecessary heat – are all by-products of the introduction of writing.

The same could be said of words. Till we have to write them down, we have no need to decide where one word ends and another begins: the spaces between words on a page do not reflect anything that is found in speech, where typically words flow together except where we hesitate or pause for effect. We are reminded of this in learning a foreign language, where we soon realise that listening out for individual words is a mistaken technique; the ear needs to attune itself to rhythms and patterns and characteristic constructions.

So were words there all along just waiting to be discovered? That is an interesting question. Though ‘discovery’ and ‘invention’ effectively mean the same, etymologically (both have the sense of ‘coming upon’ or ‘uncovering’) we customarily make a useful distinction between them – ‘discovery’ implies pre-existence – so we discover buried treasure, ancient ruins, lost cities – whereas ‘invention’ is reserved for things we have brought into being, that did not previously exist, like bicycles and steam engines.  (an idea also explored in Three Misleading Oppositions, Three Useful Axioms)

So are words a discovery or an invention?

People of my generation were taught that Columbus ‘discovered’ America, though even in my childhood the theory that the Vikings got their earlier had some currency; but of course in each case they found a land already occupied, by people who (probably) had arrived there via a land-bridge from Asia, or possibly by island-hopping, some time between 42000 and 17000 years ago. In the same way, Dutch navigators ‘discovered’ Australia in the early 17th century, though in British schools the credit is given to Captain Cook in the late 18th century, who actually only laid formal claim in the name of the British Crown to a territory that Europeans had known about for nearly two centuries – and its indigenous inhabitants had lived in for around five hundred centuries.

In terms of discovery, the land-masses involved predate all human existence, so they were there to be ‘discovered’ by whoever first set foot on them, but these later rediscoveries and colonisations throw a different light on the matter. The people of the Old World were well used to imperial conquest as a way of life, but that was a matter of the same territory changing hands under different rulers; the business of treating something as ‘virgin territory’ – though it quite plainly was not, since they found people well-established there – is unusual, and I think it is striking where it comes in human, and particularly European, history. It implies an unusual degree of arrogance and self-regard on the part of the colonists, and it is interesting to ask where that came from.

Since immigration has become such a hot topic, there have been various witty maps circulating on social media, such as this one showing ‘North America prior to illegal immigration’ 2gdVlD0

The divisions, of course, show the territories of the various peoples who lived there before the Europeans arrived, though there is an ironic tinge lent by the names by which they are designated, which for the most part are anglicised. Here we touch on something I have discussed before  [in Imaginary lines: bounded by consent]  – the fact that any political map is a work of the imagination, denoting all manner of territories and divisions that have no existence outside human convention.

Convention could be described as our ability to project or impose our imagination on reality; as I have said elsewhere [The Lords of Convention] it strikes me as a version of the game we play in childhood, ‘let’s pretend’ or ‘make-believe’ – which is not to trivialise it, but rather to indicate the profound importance of the things we do in childhood, by natural inclination, as it were.

Are words conventions, a form we have imposed on speech much as we impose a complex conventional structure on a land-mass by drawing it on a map? The problem is that the notion of words is so fundamental to our whole way of thinking – may, indeed, be what makes it possible – that it is difficult to set them aside.

That is what I meant by my comment about the arrogance and self-regard implied in treating America and Australia as ‘virgin territory’ – its seems to me to stem from a particular way of thinking, and that way of thinking, I suggest, is bound up with the emergence of words into our consciousness, which I think begins about two and a half thousand years ago, and (for Europeans at least) with the Greeks.

I would like to offer a model of it which is not intended to be historical (though I believe it expresses an underlying truth) but is more a convenient way of looking at it. The years from around 470 to 322 BC span the lives of three men: the first, Socrates, famously wrote nothing, but spoke in the market place to whoever would listen; we know of him largely through his pupil, Plato. It was on Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, that Dante bestowed the title ‘maestro di color che sanno’ – master of those that know.

This transition, from the talking philosopher to the one who laid the foundations of all European thought, is deeply symbolic: it represents the transition from the old way of thought and understanding, which was inseparable from human activity – conversation, or ‘language games’ and ‘forms of life’ as Wittgenstein would say – to the new, which is characteristically separate and objective, existing in its own right, on the written page.

The pivotal figure is the one in the middle, Plato, who very much has a foot in both camps, or perhaps more accurately, is standing on the boundary of one world looking over into another newly-discovered. The undoubted power of his writing is derived from the old ways – he uses poetic imagery and storytelling (the simile of the cave, the myth of Er) to express an entirely new way of looking at things, one that will eventually subjugate the old way entirely; and at the heart of his vision is the notion of the word.

Briefly, Plato’s Theory of Forms or Ideas can be expressed like this: the world has two aspects, Appearance and Reality; Appearance is what is made known to us by the senses, the world we see when we look out the window or go for a walk. It is characterised by change and impermanence – nothing holds fast, everything is always in the process of changing into something else, a notion for which the Greeks seemed to have a peculiar horror; in the words of the hymn, ‘change and decay in all around I see’.

Reality surely cannot be like that: Truth must be absolute, immutable (it is important to see the part played in this by desire and disgust: the true state of the world surely could not be this degrading chaos and disorder where nothing lasts). So Plato says this: Reality is not something we can apprehend by the senses, but only by the intellect. And what the intellect grasps is that beyond Appearance, transcending it, is a timeless and immutable world of Forms or Ideas. Our senses make us aware of many tables, cats, trees; but our intellect sees that these are but instances of a single Idea or Form, Table, Cat, Tree, which somehow imparts to them the quality that makes them what they are, imbues them with ‘tableness’ ‘catness’ and ‘treeness’.

This notion beguiled me when I first came across it, aged fourteen. It has taken me rather longer to appreciate the real nature of Plato’s ‘discovery’, which is perhaps more prosaic (literally) but no less potent. Briefly, I think that Plato has discovered the power of general terms, and he has glimpsed in them – as an epiphany, a sudden revelation – a whole new way of looking at the world; and it starts with being able to write a word on a page.

Writing makes possible the relocation of meaning: from being the property of a situation, something embedded in human activity (‘the meaning of a word is its use in the language’) meaning becomes the property of words, these new things that we can write down and look at. The icon of a cat or a tree resembles to some extent an actual cat or tree but the word ‘cat’ looks nothing like a cat, nor ‘tree’ like a tree; in order to understand it, you must learn what it means – an intellectual act. And what you learn is more than just the meaning of a particular word – it is the whole idea of how words work, that they stand for things and can, in many respects, be used in their stead, just as the beads on an abacus can be made to stand for various quantities. What you learn is a new way of seeing the world, one where its apparently chaotic mutability can be reduced to order.

Whole classes of things that seem immensely varied can now be subsumed under a single term: there is a multiplicity of trees and cats, but the one word ‘tree’ or ‘cat’ can be used to stand for all or any of them indifferently. Modelled on that, abstract ideas such as ‘Justice’ ‘Truth’ and ‘The Good’ can be seen standing for some immutable, transcendent form that imbues all just acts with justice and so on. Plato’s pupil Aristotle discarded the poetic clothing of his teacher’s thought, but developed the idea of generalisation to the full: it is to him that we owe the system of classification by genus and species and the invention of formal logic, which could be described as the system of general relations; and these are the very foundation of all our thinking.

In many respects, the foundations of the modern world are laid here, so naturally these developments are usually presented as one of mankind’s greatest advances. However, I would like to draw attention to some detrimental aspects. The first is that this new way of looking at the world, which apprehends it through the intellect, must be learned. Thus, at a stroke, we render natural man stupid (and ‘primitive’ man, to look ahead to those European colonisations, inferior, somewhat less than human). We also establish a self-perpetuating intellectual elite – those who have a vested interest in maintaining the power that arises from a command of the written word – and simultaneously exclude and devalue those who struggle to acquire that command.

The pernicious division into ‘Appearance’ and ‘Reality’ denigrates the senses and all natural instincts, subjugating them to and vaunting the intellect; and along with that goes the false dichotomy of Heart and Head, where the Head is seen as being the Seat of Reason, calm, objective, detached, which should properly rule the emotional, subjective, passionate and too-easily-engaged Heart.

This, in effect, is the marginalising of the old way of doing things that served us well till about two and a half thousand ago, which gave a central place to those forms of expression and understanding which we now divide and rule as the various arts, each in its own well-designed box: poetry, art, music, etc. (a matter discussed in fable form in Plucked from the Chorus Line)

So what am I advocating? that we undo all this? No, rather that we take a step to one side and view it from a slightly different angle. Plato could only express his new vision of things in the old way, so he presents it as an alternative world somewhere out there beyond the one we see, a world of Ideas or Forms, which he sees as the things words stand for, what they point to – and in so doing, makes the fatal step of discarding the world we live in for an intellectual construct; but the truth of the matter is that words do not point to anything beyond themselves; they are the Platonic Forms or Ideas: the Platonic Idea of ‘Horse’ is the word ‘Horse’. What Plato has invented is an Operating System; his mistake is in thinking he has discovered the hidden nature of Reality.

What he glimpsed, and Aristotle developed, and we have been using ever since, is a way of thinking about the world that is useful for certain purposes, but one that has its limitations. We need to take it down a peg or two, and put it alongside those other, older operating systems that we are all born with, which we developed over millions of years. After all, the rest of the world – animal and vegetable – seems to have the knack of living harmoniously; we are the ones who have lost it, and now threaten everyone’s existence, including our own; perhaps it is time to take a fresh look.


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