Language As Symbolism

Language As Symbolism

Language As

Animals struggle with each other for food or for leadership, but they do not, like human beings, struggle with each other for things that stand for food or leadership: such things as our paper symbols of wealth (money, bonds, titles), badges of rank to wear on our clothes, or low-number licence plates, supposed by some people to stand for social precedence. For animals, the relationship in which one thing stands for something else does not appear to exist except in very rudimentary form.
The process by means of which human beings can arbitrarily make certain things standfor other things may be called the symbolic process. Whenever two or more human beings can communicate with each other, they can, by agreement, make anything stand for anything. For example, here are two symbols:
X Y
We can agree to let X stand for buttons and Y stand for bows: then we can freely change our agreement and let X stand for Chaucer and Y for Shakespeare, X for the CIO and Y for the AFL. We are, as human beings, uniquely free to manufacture and manipulate and assign values to our symbols as we please. Indeed, we can go further by making symbols that stand for symbols. If necessary we can, for instance, let the symbol M stand for all the X’s in the above example (buttons, Chaucer, CIO) and let N stand for all the Y’s (bows, Shakespeare, AFL). Then we can make another symbol, T, stand for M and N, which would be an instance of a symbol of a symbol of symbols. This freedom to create symbols of any assigned value and to create symbols that stand for symbols is essential to what we call the symbolic process.
Everywhere we turn, we see the symbolic process at work. Feathers worn on the head or stripes on the sleeve can be made to stand for military leadership; cowrie shells or rings of brass or pieces of paper can stand for wealth; crossed sticks can stand for a set of religious beliefs; buttons, elks’ teeth, ribbons, special styles of ornamental haircutting or tattooing, can stand for social affiliations. The symbolic process permeates human life at the most primitive as well as at the most civilized levels.
Of all forms of symbolism, language is the most highly developed, most subtle, and most complicated. It has been pointed out that human beings, by agreement, can make anything stand for anything. Now human beings have agreed, in the course of centuries of mutual dependency, to let the various noises that they can produce with their lungs, throats, tongues, teeth, and lips systematically stand for specified happenings in their nervous systems. We call that system of agreements language. For example, we who speak English have been so trained that, when our nervous systems register the presence of a certain kind of animal, we may make the following noise: ‘There’s a cat.’ Anyone hearing us expects to find that, by looking in the same direction, he will experience a similar event in his nervous system – one that will lead him to make an almost identical noise. Again, we have been so trained that when we are conscious of wanting food we make the noise ‘I’m hungry.’
There is, as has been said, no necessary connection between the symbol and that which is symbolized. Just as men can wear yachting costumes without ever having been near a yacht, so they can make the noise, ‘I’m hungry’, without being hungry. Furthermore, just as social rank can be symbolized by feathers in the hair, by tattooing on the breast, by gold ornaments on the watch chain, or by a thousand different devices according to the culture we live in, so the fact of being hungry can be symbolized by a thousand different noises according to the culture we live in: ‘J’ai faim’, or ‘Es hungert mich’, or ‘Ho appetito’, or ‘Hara ga hetta’, and so on.
However obvious these facts may appear at first glance, they are actually not so obvious as they seem except when we take special pains to think about the subject. Symbols and things symbolized are independent of each other: nevertheless, we all have a way of feeling as if, and sometimes acting as if, there were necessary con-nections. For example, there is the vague sense we all have that foreign languages are inherently absurd: foreigners have such funny names for things, and why can’t they call things by their right names? This feeling exhibits itself most strongly in those English and American tourists who seem to believe that they can make the natives of any country understand English if they shout loud enough. Like the little boy who is reported to have said: ‘Pigs are called pigs because they are such dirty animals’, they feel that the symbol is inherently connected in some way with the things symbolized. Then there are the people who feel that since snakes are ‘nasty, slimy creatures’ (incidentally, snakes are not slimy), the word ‘snake’ is a nasty, slimy word.
(From Language in Thought and Action, by S. Hayakawa)
‘Primitiveness’ in Language
‘Primitive’ is a word that is often used ill-advisedly in discussions of language. Many people think that ‘primitive’ is indeed a term to be applied to languages, though only to some languages, and not usually to the language they themselves speak. They might agree in calling ‘primitive’ those uses of language that concern greetings, grumbles and commands, but they would probably insist that these were especially common in the so-called ‘primitive languages’. These are misconceptions that we must quickly clear from our minds.
So far as we can tell, all human languages are equally complete and perfect as instruments of communication: that is, every language appears to be as well equipped as any other to say the things its speakers want to say. It may or may not be appropriate to talk about primitive peoples or cultures, but that is another matter. Certainly, not all groups of people are equally competent in nuclear physics or psychology or the cultivation of rice or the engraving of Benares brass. But this is not the fault of their language. The Eskimos can speak about snow with a great deal more precision and subtlety than we can in English, but this is not because the Eskimo language (one of those sometimes mis-called ‘primitive’) is inherently more precise and subtle than English. This example does not bring to light a defect in English, a show of unexpected ‘primitiveness’. The position is simply and obviously that the Eskimos and the English live in different environments. The English language would be just as rich in terms for different kinds of snow, presumably, if the environments in which English was habitually used made such distinction important.
Similarly, we have no reason to doubt that the Eskimo language could be as precise and subtle on the subject of motor manufacture or cricket if these topics formed part of the Eskimos’ life. For obvious historical reasons, Englishmen in the nineteenth century could not talk about motorcars with the minute discrimination which is possible today: cars were not a part of their culture. But they had a host of terms for horse-drawn vehicles which send us, puzzled, to a historical dictionary when we are reading Scott or Dickens. How many of us could distinguish between a chaise, a landau, a victoria, a brougham, a coupe, a gig, a diligence, a whisky, a calash, a tilbury, a carriole, a phaeton, and a clarence?
The discussion of ‘primitiveness’, incidentally, provides us with a good reason for sharply and absolutely distinguishing human language from animal communication, because there is no sign of any intermediate stage between the two. Whether we examine the earliest records of any language, or the present-day language of some small tribe in a far-away place, we come no nearer to finding a stage of human language more resembling animal communication and more ‘primitive’ than our own. In general, as has been said, any language is as good as any other to express what its speakers want to say. An East African finds Swahili as convenient, natural and complete as an East Londoner finds English. In general the Yorkshire Dalesman’s dialect is neither more nor less primitive or ill-fitted to its speaker’s wants than Cockney is for the Londoner’s. We must always beware the temptation to adopt a naïve parochialism which makes us feel that someone else’s language is less pleasant or less effective an instrument than our own.
This is not to say that an individual necessarily sounds as pleasant or as effective as he might be, when using his language, but we must not confuse a language with an individual’s ability to use it. Nor are we saying that one language has no deficiencies as corn-pared with another. The English words ‘home’ and ‘gentleman’ have no exact counterparts in French, for example. These are tiny details in which English may well be thought to have the advantage over French, but a large-scale comparison would not lead to the conclusion that English was the superior language, since it would reveal other details in which the converse was true. Some years ago it came as something of a shock to us that we had no exact word for translating the name that General de Gaulle had given to his party – Rassemblement du Peuple Francais. The B.B.C. for some time used the word ‘rally’, and although this scarcely answers the purpose it is a rather better translation of ‘rassemblement’ than either of the alternatives offered by one well-known French – English dictionary, ‘muster’ and ‘mob’.
The more we consider the question, then, the less reasonable does it seem to call any language ‘inferior’, let alone ‘primitive’. The Sanskrit of the Rig-Veda four thousand years ago was as per-fect an instrument for what its users wanted to say as its modern descendant, Hindi, or as English.
(From The Use of English by Randolph Quirk.)

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