Mind Your Language

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Noun                     -                    Verb
Being                    -                    Becoming
Solid                     -                    Liquid
Goal                      -                    Process
Rational                -                    Empirical


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And so castles made of sand,
fall in the sea,
eventually.

[Jimi Hendrix]


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[...] language tends to divide our experience into segments that have the appearance of objects.

[Denis Donoghue]
The Arts Without Mystery, p. 87-8


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If our language tends to foster the delusion of misplaced concreteness, it is particularly nouns - substantives - that get in the way of our being able to clearly see the flux and interconnectedness of our world.

Yet the problem is not so much words per se as our relationship with them.

"Language [...] is a remarkable servant and a lousy master."

And there exists something called poetry, which is the practice of using words to say what cannot be said in words.

Language labels things for us. Jean Piaget wrote: "Intelligence organizes the world by organizing itself." The problem with language is that it turns the world into things. Because of the incredible convenience of language, we hypnotize ourselves into believing the reality of linguistic symbols, especially nouns.

Gregory Bateson, following the inspiration of Anatol Holt, used to say that he wanted to get a bumper sticker that would say, "Stamp out Nouns."

Nouns, representing so-called persons, places, things, and ideas, are a marvelous convenience to allow us to get up and to move our mouth parts at each other and communicate, but they don't represent anything except for a very provisional and temporary kind of reality.

[Stephen Nachmanovitch]
'Old Men Ought to be Explorers', p.10-11
'Improvisation as a Tool for Investigating Reality', found here.


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Anthropologist Rupert Ross said that primordial languages often center on the use of verbs rather than nouns.

Native Americans for example, tend not to label individuals, but look at people as a process rather than a static thing.

Ross says, "When we apply such labels to real people, however, they tend to stick. And when they stick, they cause us to start denying the complexity and wholeness of the human beings we are speaking of."

Many primordial languages in the Americas had no words for guilt or shame. For example, the Apaches say those words were developed by white men to control one another. Actions that we think of as unforgivable actions were considered by many native cultures as mistakes which created opportunities to discover more about themselves and growth toward deeper wisdom.

When living close to nature, everything is in a constant flux of change. Nothing stays good or bad forever. Judgment and expectation get us in trouble. They become shorthand for a dead-end label that some thing or some one is good or bad.

[Sunny Strasburg]
'Violence and the Need for Tribalism', found at Reality Sandwich


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The physicist David Bohm argued that quantum reality is so very different from our everyday large scale experience that it requires a new language for its discussion.

Our Indo-European languages are strongly noun based and subject-object structured. For Bohm they represent a barrier to deeper understanding. The essence of the quantum world is flux, movement, transformation, symmetry and relationship rather than individual objects in interaction.

For Bohm the essence of such a reality requires a verb-based, process-based language - probably one very close to that still spoken by the Blackfoot.

[F. David Peat]
'Creativity: The Meeting of Apollo and Dionysus'


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He: But aren't you supposed to be inside? My interior person?

Chest-Voice: You are stuck in words. Interior simply means deeper. Going inward simply means going more deeply into things, into their heart and soul.

Interior is a sense of inward chambers, the hollow in the chest that resounds. It isn't a place to go and it doesn't mean all those things you've learned and taken so literalistically: introverting, introspecting, internalizing.

[James Hillman]
Healing Fiction, p.122


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Unlike Westerners, Ladakhis never express themselves with certitude about something they have not experienced. Any event in which they have not personally participated will be described using verbs that reflect the limitations of their knowledge: "It is said that ...,""It appears that ...,""It is probable that ..." If I ask someone, "Is it a big house?" he or she will be likely to answer, "It seemed big to me."

Even when people have personal experience, they are far more reluctant than we are to categorize and judge. Good and bad, fast and slow, here and there; these are not sharply different qualities. In the same way, Ladakhis will not think in terms of fundamental opposition, for instance, between mind and body or reason and intuition.

Ladakhis experience the world through what they call their semba, best translated as a cross between "heart" and "mind." This reflects the Buddhist insistence that Wisdom and Compassion are inseparable.

[Helena Norberg-Hodge]
Ancient Futures: Learning From Ladakh, p.82


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While rationality can explain much, there are limits to human capabilities of understanding. The English language is structured to account for cause and effect. For example, English speakers say, "It is raining," with the implication that there is a cause "it" that leads to rain.

Many Indian languages, on the other hand, merely note what is most accurately translated as "raining" as an observable fact. Such an approach brings a freedom to stop worrying about causes of things, and merely to relax and accept that our human insights can only go so far.

By not taking ourselves too seriously, or overinflating human importance, we can get beyond the logical world.

[Walter L. Williams]
The Spirit and the Flesh, p.20-1


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"From West to East" is a commonplace journalistic structure for an article. "From West to Female" is more like poetry. By jumping from one criterion, one binary, to another, it represents a real difference rather than the staged differences of the binary. It's fresh!  

[language becomes] mere texture when dichotomy ends.

What the remapping of the binaries produces, I think, is something irrational: beauty. 

It also produces a sort of self-knowledge; the realisation that all truths are provisional, contextual, consensual, habitual. It's therefore good to break one's habits from time to time -- to "binary hop".

[Momus]
'Binary hopping'


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Montaigne's thinking baffles our most common categories. The vision of an ever-changing world that he developed threatens the being of all things. ‘We have no communication with being’.

We wrongly take that which appears for that which is, and we indulge in a dogmatic, deceptive language that is cut off from an ever-changing reality. We ought to be more careful with our use of language. 

Montaigne would prefer that children be taught other ways of speaking, more appropriate to the nature of human inquiry, such as ‘What does that mean ?’, ‘I do not understand it’, ‘This might be’, ‘Is it true?’

Montaigne himself is fond of ‘these formulas that soften the boldness of our propositions’: “perhaps”, “to some extent”, “they say”, “I think”, and the like.

“I can see why the Pyrrhonian philosophers cannot express their general conception in any manner of speaking ; for they would need a new language. Ours is wholly formed of affirmative propositions….”

'Michel de Montaigne'


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Saussure pointed out that the association of a given sound, or signifier, with a given concept, or signified, is arbitrary - there’s nothing natural, simple, or permanent about it. Saussure wrote, “the arbitrary nature of the sign … dominates all the linguistics of language; its consequences are numberless.”

[The arbitrary association between signifier/signified] suggested an uncertainty, or slippage, in language, that would become a key tenet of poststructuralism.

How does that slippage arise? In place of the idea that signified and signifier were closely tied to one another, Saussure observed that each term is defined in relation to other, similar, terms nearby. For example, the sound of the word ‘horse’ differs only slightly from ‘horn’ and ‘hearse.’ Saussure pointed out that the concept, the signified, was also defined differentially, in the same way. Defining meaning not positively, but negatively, as a gap between adjacent terms, also contributed to this sense of slippage […]

Saussure had another diagram to express the blurry boundaries between terms - he redrew the series of signifiers [and signifieds] as a continuum. It’s language’s role to delineate units of meaning, and map between these two streams.

“It is mysterious that language works out its units while taking shape between two shapeless masses.”

[Christopher Bolton]
Animating Poststructuralism



Saussure's radical observation that signifieds are linked only arbitrarily to signifiers, defined by the structure of a given language system, led him also to notice that the signified is not stable, but the signified slides under the signifier because that signifier requires other signifiers to define the original arbitrary one (e.g., "deciduous broad-leafed trees of the genus Quercus or Lithocarpus").

Each of those signifiers ("deciduous" and "broad-leafed" and "trees" and, yes, even "of") yield signifieds which are themselves caught up in the slippage under their signifieds, a process that could possibly slide all the way to pure meaninglessness.

One of Derrida's unlikely allies, Jaques Lacan, a French Freudian psychoanalyst, gave a series of lectures in which he reapplied Saussurian linguistics to Freud and launched a new theory of personality.

In Lacan's appropriation of Deconstruction, we are "normal" (i.e., merely neurotic) because our minds refuse to notice most of the slippage Derrida insisted was going on. 

Those who could not resist seeing the slippage fell into psychosis, which presents verbal symptoms known, for instance, as "word salad," "clang associations," "knight's move" thinking, "neologism" (coining new words), etc.. Thus, language's identity-structuring power could be used to explain losses of structure, as well. 

'Slippage of the Signified Under the Signifier: Unstable Identity in Language'


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Hegel deals with a sequence of logical categories: being, becoming, one, many, essence, existence, cause, effect, universal, mechanism, and "life". Each is examined in turn and made to reveal its own inadequacies and internal tensions. Each category is made to generate another more promising one which in its turn will be subject to the same kind of scrutiny.

Hegel calls this dynamic aspect of his thinking the power of "negation".

It is by means of this "negativity" of thought that the static (or habitual) becomes discarded or dissolved, made fluid and adaptable, and recovers its eagerness to push on towards "the whole".

Dialectical thinking derives its dynamic of negation from its ability to reveal "contradictions" within almost any category or identity.

Hegel's "contradiction" does not simply mean a mechanical denial or opposition. Indeed, he challenges the classical notion of static self-identity, A = A, or A = non-A.

By negation or contradiction, Hegel means a wide variety of relations - difference, opposition, reflection or relation. It can indicate the mere insufficiency of a category or its incoherence. Most dramatically, categories are sometimes shown to be self-contradictory.

[Lloyd Spencer]
Introducing Hegel: A Graphic Guide


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Related posts:-
Shades of Gray
Lost Tribe
Wishy-washy
All is Change
Escaping Uncertainty
Are You Sure?
Where language ends and art begins
Making it up as we go along
This, Not That
A Difference that makes a Difference
The Eternal Ideas
The Right Distance

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