Deconstruct This: Language and Reality

This picture may be only tangentially related to my post, but it is hilarious and your day is now better for having seen it

Yesterday evening, while I was lying on the floor next to eternally sleep-striking Lincoln, I decided to google myself.

Nothing good ever comes of googling yourself. Last night was no exception. I ran across a few posts about how I’m the worst person ever for slamming Michael Voris, and none about how, oh yeah, I pretty much admitted that I was the worst person ever for doing that and then apologized. I came across a few posts about crisis pregnancies. And then I came across this one little gem called “Lies, Damned Lies, and Deconstructionism.”

I got my literature degree at UD, as you all know, since I talk about it incessantly. UD’s literature department is not exactly keen on deconstructionism. If you walked into a classroom there and said, “I’m a deconstructionist,” you might as well have said, “I’m the embodiment of evil, here to destroy Christianity, Western Civilization, and puppies.” At UD, we’re shown the power of language. We’re not taught to believe that language has power; it does have power, and the Core Curriculum shows the students there how much power language wields. We got into reader-response criticism a little in my Junior Poet class, and I nearly had a fit in class when the suggestion was presented that if The Divine Comedy had been written and then immediately buried and never read, it would never mean anything, because no one would ever read it and give it meaning.

“That’s so wrong!” I argued, a little hysterically. Eight months pregnant at the time, I gestured to my belly and said, “if my daughter were born and died on the same day, would she not mean anything, since she didn’t live a life? Would she not have a soul that the world would always be poorer for having missed out on? If The Divine Comedy had never been read, that wouldn’t have detracted from the greatness and beauty of it. The world would have just been infinitely poorer for having not experienced it.”

I still believe that. Language is incredibly important. Words are powerful. Words can be terrible in their power, sometimes. And yet, in my post on swearing, I said this:

“[A]lthough God gave us the gift of language, he didn’t give us the languages we use. Those are all our creations. Every word I know in my native tongue and even the ones I mangle in French and Italian are man-made. They have no meaning in and of themselves, save the meaning we give to them.”

This is the statement that Jake at Roma locuta est took issue with, the one that the crux of his response is based on. Here’s the beginning of it:

“This seems to be the crux of Ms. Alexander’s argument.  Unfortunately, she throws out the statement as flippantly as an undiscerned swear word itself with no regards to either its philosophical background or its inherent truth value.  Such an argument is a small step away from full blown deconstructionism.  No, my dear, Calah, it is not true that words themselves are empty of meaning.  The formation of language is something considerably more complicated, and dare I say it, more cosmic than what you have taken to be mere convention.  Words contain meaning in and of themselves, and what’s more, words contain power.  They are efficacious.  We need look no further than phrases such as “I love you,” or, “I hate you,” or even, “I baptize you,” and, “This is my Body,” to see that words can bring about precisely what they signify.  Peter Kreeft has said, “These are not labels; they’re spiritual weapons. They’re arrows that pierce through flesh and into hearts.”

Like a sacrament, words may be a sign, but they are no mere symbol.  They are formed form the downward pressure of objective reality.  Language itself serves to disclose reality, and it is reality that gives language its form.”

(Read the rest here, and you really should, because it’s fascinating. Even if I hate being referred to as “Ms. Alexander.”)

I agree with almost everything he says here. Yes, yes, words have meaning in and of themselves! Yes, they contain power! Yes, they are in no way a mere symbol! Language absolutely discloses reality! Reality absolutely maybe gives language its form!

So, do I now retract my entire post and hang my head in shame, having once again been reminded by the Deity of the Blogosphere that I’m a blithering idiot?

No, I don’t think so. Not this time.

I’m not exactly sure that my original statements is actually at odds with what Jake says. I know it appears to be, but it might not be.

Words have power. But consider the phrase “Veni, vidi, vici“. That phrase is powerful. Very much so. It has reverberated down through history, resonating with the terrifying pride of Caesar and the dreadful might of the Roman empire.  It’s a touchstone in Western literature and art. Variations of it are used everywhere. And yet, when I repeated it to my sister during a conversation, certain that it was the perfect pithy rejoinder that would prove the point I was trying to make, she looked at me doubtfully for a second and said, “Are you having an aneurysm or something?”

The power of those words is completely lost on someone who doesn’t know them. Does that mean that the words aren’t actually powerful? Well…not exactly. But it does suggest that for language to wield its power effectively, the listener must know the language. And even if my sister knew Latin, if she didn’t understand the historical and cultural significance of those words, she still wouldn’t have understood the point I was trying to make. The words are powerful, but they’re imbued with the power and meaning humans have ascribed to them over the last 2000 years of Western civilization.

Let’s take Jake’s example from his post, “amble.” As his daughter astutely pointed out, amble does indeed sound slow. But do you know what doesn’t sound slow? Scramble. Scramble sounds frenetic, chaotic, and messy, as if it were tumbling all over itself in its haste. Remarkably, that’s what the word means. And yet, it contains the word “amble” in it. Could the “scr” at the beginning be entirely responsible for changing that “amble” from something slow and relaxed into something chaotic? Well, I think it certainly plays into it. But what really makes the meaning of those two similar words so diametrically opposed to each other is our understanding of language, and our understanding of reality.

Words shape our understanding of the world around us from our earliest days. A baby’s first word is almost always “mama”, not because he knows that word means his mother, but because “ma” is the easiest sound for humans to make. That’s why almost all cultures have some variation of the “Ma” sound in their word for mother. Mothers over the centuries heard the “ma” and responded to it, in the beginning probably just because their attention was diverted by the baby making a sound that wasn’t crying. The baby sees the mother responding to the “ma” sound and begins to use it when he or she wants the mother. Eventually, “ma”, “mum,” “mommy,” “ama,” “mutter,” and so forth all begin to mean “mother.”

Does recognizing the human evolution of language, though, remove the meaning from the word “mother”? I hardly think so. Jake has this to say about the evolution of language:

“Words have objective meanings, and not simply because man said so.  The very phonetic construction of a word makes it uniquely suitable to describe what it is that it describes.  A writer that has mastery over a language understands this, for it is this understanding that gives him his mastery.  Every sound, every word, every pause exists to serve the whole, and the alteration of any one part would cause the whole to be a different whole.”

This is where I get into shaky ground. I want to agree with him, but I don’t know if I can. I don’t know if anyone can actually know that “the very phonetic construction of a word makes it uniquely suitable to describe what it is that it describes.” Language is so very powerful for humans that it shapes our understanding of reality. So of course, when we see someone ambling and read the word “amble” we think, “it couldn’t have been any other way. That word perfectly expresses the action of ambling by its very sound.”  Ramble, likewise, is the perfect expression of a quiet stroll in the countryside. But…but scramble also perfectly expresses that hasty, frantic jostling! So where does that leave us? Are words constructed according to the principles of reality, or is our reality constructed around the principles of language?

I don’t know. And I don’t know if my once sure-footed assertion that “there are no bad words” really stands. However language evolved, I don’t doubt that language does express the truths of reality, nor that words do possess a power. I’m not sure if that power is inherent to the word, or if it’s power that the word has been imbued with over centuries of human use. I tend to lean toward the latter, because language evolves so fluidly, sometimes from one generation to the next. Fifty years ago, no one used the word “cool” unless they were talking about the weather. Now, it’s become something entirely new, a word that describes something which, prior to the advent its use in such a way, did not have a descriptor. Either that, or it didn’t exist.

Think about it. “Cool.” Cool is not neat, or sweet, or the bee’s knees, or the cat’s pajamas. Cool is something totally unique. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that “cool” gained traction as a epithet right about the time adolescent pop culture became a force to contend with in the modern world. Maybe the teenagers of the 40′s needed a word to describe something that no other word could describe, and “cool” fit the bill. Or maybe after the word “cool” began to be used in the way it’s used today, the power of that word drove the whole teenage pop culture movement to heights it wouldn’t have otherwise attained. Or maybe language and culture and reality and human beings are so inextricably intertwined that all these things naturally evolved together in a way we will never be able to untangle.

I think that trying to decide whether reality shapes language or language shapes reality is something of a “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” argument. We’ll probably never know. The problem, though, is that if reality shapes language, then there are words that are inherently bad, because they express a concept that is inherently bad, and shouldn’t be treated lightly. On the other hand, if language shapes reality, then my original assertion stands, and those words that we consider “bad” are only bad because we consider them so.

In either case, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the power that swear words had 40 years ago has diminished considerably. Swear words are unquestionably evolving into commonly used and even acceptable words. So here’s something to consider: if reality shapes language, what does that say about our reality? Conversely, if language shapes reality, what does that say about what language is doing to our reality.

And with that, I may have just talked myself right out of my love for swear words. Crap.

  • Jessica

    I am not an English major, but an historian, and a little bit of a linguist. I would have to agree with you that words are constructed, for two reasons:
    Only certain words are “efficacious,” or what in linguistics are described as performative. They are all first-person verbs: I marry, I claim, I assert, I promise, I baptize, I consecrate. The action and the word are one and the same. In most cases, however, words simply don’t work this way: saying “I bake” does not get me a batch of chocolate chip cookies. I can say “I smile” without actually smiling. Performative words are such a small category that I don’t think they prove the efficacy of words in general.
    Secondly, the debate over the “realness” of language was hugely important in the late 17th century. People like John Wilkins, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke were sort of freaked out by the discoveries of non-European languages in the Americas, and tried to figure out where they came from. They tried to figure out what language Adam spoke when he named the animals and whether this was of divine origin or not. I know that the truth of certain theories isn’t necessarily impacted by their social consequences, but ideas about the divine origin of languages lead to some problematic hierarchization of languages, and thus cultures, and thus peoples. (English or French clearly being the “best” language, culture, people…and 17th century Hebrew was clearly NOT the same as Adam’s language, because the Jews were clearly not the “best” language/culture.)
    Same goes for Jake’s argument. If you’re going to say that “amble” has some sort of innate relationship with the idea of walking slowly, does that mean that the Spanish, “dar un paseo,” which doesn’t share any phonetic equivalent with “amble,” somehow does not express as well the idea of walking slowly? Does that mean English gets it right in this case, and Spanish doesn’t? I agree that there’s often a correlation/connection between certain sounds and certain ideas, but it’s not as direct as Jake seems to imply.

  • SM

    “Could a performative statement succeed if its formulation did not repeat a ‘coded’ or iterable statement, in other words if the expressions I use to open a meeting, launch a ship or a marriage were not identifiable as /conforming/ to an iterable model, and therefore if they were not identifiable in a way as a ‘citation?’ Not that citationality here is of the same type as in a play, a philosophical reference, or the recitation of a poem. This is why there is a relative specificity, as Austin says, a ‘relative purity’ of performatives. But this relative purity is not constructed /against/ citationality or iterability, but against other kinds of iteration within a general iterability which is the effraction into the allegedly rigorous purity of every event of discourse or every speech act.”

    The arbitariness of signification has been around since Saussure (50 years before Derrida) and in other forms since long before that, but that’s aside for the moment. The “mama” example: yes, there are a lot of languages that use the “ma” sound for this. But it seems like all you’ve stumbled on is a commonality of Indo-European-derived languages. The word for “mother” in various languages outside the family: “anne” (Turkish), “母 / haha” (Japanese), “தாய் / tāy” (Tamil), etc. I think for phonetics to connect as deeply to reality as you and Jake think they do, you’d need to come up with some sort of explanation for these examples. Evolution is really tricky when it comes to languages, and we shouldn’t be too hasty to ascribe functional and adaptive biological explanations to variations that don’t /really/ hold universally.

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  • David J. White

    but because “ma” is the easiest sound for humans to make. That’s why almost all cultures have some variation of the “Ma” sound in their word for mother. Mothers over the centuries heard the “ma” and responded to it, in the beginning probably just because their attention was diverted by the baby making a sound that wasn’t crying.

    One suggestion I’ve read — and I talked about this just today in my Medical Terminology class — is that the syllable “ma” may be connected with the idea of motherhood in so many languages– not all, of course — because in saying “ma” one mimics the mouth gesture babies make when suckling on their mother’s breast.

    • Elizabeth

      And sometimes they vocalize while nursing, which usually just sounds like a little wolverine or something, but occasionally produces a “ma.” I have just been watching this process with my second son. It’s funny how what they usually are trying to say is “I want,” and they will jabber away with whatever phoneme they can muster to say “give me that thing that I’m pointing to.” “Ma” was his first phoneme (at about 10 months) and, as Calah says, probably the easiest to attain. And at that point I, Mama, was the thing that he most often wanted. A couple of times I saw him say “mamamama” not necessarily referring to me, but indicating his desire for something else, food or something. Now at 13 months “mama” has gradually come to mean me specifically, and I reinforced that for him probably a thousand times. We definitely co-create language with our babies.

      (Calah, your readers are a smart and wonderful bunch! What a great discussion.)

  • Bernadette

    To piggy-back on SM’s point—and to raise a few further points of contention with the blogger you cite—I don’t think that there’s any reason why the performative qualities of language need to be connected to some concept (phonetic or otherwise) of an “objective meaning” 0r “positivity” of words that is, presumably, completely divorced from their relationship to other words or to the context in which they are uttered. To draw on the idea of the Mass, for instance (with some help from J.L. Austin): in Catholic theology, transubstantiation is not simply tied to the words said by the priest. It is, in fact, necessary that a priest say the words, that the elements being consecrated are appropriate, etc. (all of which Austin would call conditions that allow the speech-act to be “felicitous”). Similarly, me running up behind two of my friends and calling out “I now pronounce you man and wife!” doesn’t do anything—at least nothing with legal force—because I’m not invested with power by the state, my friends haven’t consented to the marriage, etc. In other words, these acts are not “performative” in the way that “abracadabra!” is meant to be; namely, a statement whose power is presumed to be lodged within the word itself. Of course the words are important in the marriage ceremony and in the consecration of the Eucharist, of course they have real force, but that force arises within a larger linguistic and social context.

    I also wonder about the presupposition at work in the claim that “language reveals reality.” The phrase seems to assume that language itself has no reality, that it is merely a window through which to see reality. But surely if we’re concerned about making certain that we’re grappling with reality, we should acknowledge that language itself is a part of reality? Surely to grasp reality is, in part, to grasp language as a system?

  • Christie @ Everything to Someone

    You’ve summarized in lucid, intelligent writing a thought-feeling-thing (wow, great one with words, aren’t I?) I’ve felt for a long time, actually spurred by the question of the badness of swearing.

    Do you think this imperfect absolute meaning of words has something to do with the Fall? Like, language was meant to be perfect and embody reality but because of our fallen world it does so imperfectly? I am reminded of the language of the universe in C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet, and how he suggested a universal language of the angels that was supposed to be the root of all languages, until sin entered the universe.

  • Chris

    One observation I have is that words tend to have meaning in the same way that money has value, namely that the meaning (or the value) comes from outside the words (or the money) and not from the words themselves. Let me explain. Take a paper dollar, even a paper dollar backed by some gold bullion at Fort Knox. The paper only has value because some entity says it has value. Even the promise to replace the dollar with a certain amount of gold is extrinsic to the paper dollar, and the utter lack of gold these days to justify the existence of so many printed dollars makes the promise even more vacuous. But then something happens. A diligent soul performs some work. This work produces a good or service, and a needy soul comes along and exchanges some paper with the diligent soul for that good or service. The paper has now acquired a value it did not possess before, namely the value of the work performed by the diligent soul, plus any additional value which the market may place on the particular kind of work performed in a particular way with a particular medium. I know it’s abstract – and it’s made even more abstract by the fact that it is impossible to go back in time to a moment prior to which these paper dollars had acquired their value. But the paper itself has no more value than a bit of odds and ends pressed together in a difficult-to-replicate way and imbued with certain inks and threads in an even more difficult-to-replicate way. The value is not intrinsic to the paper or to the dollar. But because other parties besides the diligent soul and the needy soul recognize the extrinsic value, and just as importantly because the diligent soul did the work and the needy soul saw the value of the good or service, this value is real.

    So also with language, and in a way, your quote captures it best: “Those are all our creations.” As our creations, those meanings are not intrinsic to the language itself. They are derived – from human history and experience and politics and religion (and yes, even economics). There is no intrinsic meaning; therefore, amble cannot mean slow because it sounds slow. Rather, it means slow and sounds slow because of the cultural creations with which we have endowed the word. If you do not understand those cultural creations, you cannot claim that amble sound like it means slow. To envision this, you really have to imagine a native speaker of Mandarin or Mayalamam hearing the word amble without ever having had contact with Latin or a Latin-based language. Amble no longer sounds like anything, unless it coincidentally replicates sounds of these other languages. It sounds slow to us because we have made it so; we have created it so. The sound and the meaning are all extrinsic. God did not place them there, though he certainly placed into amble the capacity for such meaning to take hold.

    This feature of language struck me most forcefully, perhaps, while reading Frances Hodgson Burnet’s “The Secret Garden.” It’s a great story, but one of the story’s most telling things about language is its preservation of Yorkshire English, with all its thee’s and thou’s and thy’s and similar language, which I had always thought was part of an archaic formal form of English. In the book, folk from Yorkshire are dirt poor, and the wealthier folk look down upon Yorkshire English. This suggests that this sort of language in English translations of Biblical texts is more an indication of the translators’ desire to use the common language of the people rather than a desire to imbue the English translations with overly formal language. The further you go back, the more common thou becomes. And it is always the elites pushing at the vanguard for change, probably because they can control it (or think they can).

    Just as importantly, once-common words like wot and baste are either almost gone from common usage (wot) or else they today mean something largely different (baste). In this case, baste is very different from when one of the foresters tells Robin, “I’ll baste thy sides until thou wilt ne’er be able to walk again,” while Robin competes at the Sherriff’s archery contest in Howard Pyle’s “The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood.” Many, many more examples could be found, ranging from the Spanish “sabe” – as in “sabe usted” or, with an s dropped, “sabes tú.” In the pirate cant of the eighteenth century Carribbean, this became “savvy,” meaning “you know what I mean,” or “do you understand.” And today, it’s savvy, meaning having a particular ability or knowledge in a specific field, or even just in general. Savvy certainly sounds to us like it refers to general knowledge or ability, but it is far, far more specific (heck, it’s even a verb) to a native Spanish speaker.

    That language has acquired its extrinsic (and genuine) meaning before any of us came around does not diminish the fact that the meaning is extrinsic. It also cannot prevent changes in meaning from infecting a language. Some such changes are good, others evil, still others indifferent. But they are all real.

    It’s just that real does not mean intrinsic. Still less does it mean unchangeable.

  • John in Tronna

    No one used the colloquial meaning of “cool” before 1962? I thought it went back to the jazz age. (Yes, I know, picky, picky.)

    • calahalexander

      Sorry, I said 50 when I meant 70. I’m an English major, so addition and subtraction are not my strengths. I believe “cool” entered into the vernacular as we use it today during the post-war 40′s. I think it was used as an epithet in the 20′s but had a different connotation, closer to “aloofness” than the “hip” connotation it eventually took.

  • Jake Tawney

    I have penned the response at Roma locuta est, but there seems to be a problem with posting a comment here. I am hopeful that this is because I included a link and it thinks this is spam, so without the link the comment will go through.



  • Anna

    Can the answer be “both”, at least to some degree? It reminds me somewhat of a Peter Kreeft lecture in which he talked about the philosophical factions of “a person is a being-in-relationship and so is called into being by the Other” vs. “a person is an autonomous entity who can choose to enter into relationship.” Both are true (can’t be called into a relationship if you aren’t already there to be called, but you aren’t fully a person if you are a wholly isolated island), but they go together rather than being in opposition. Language seems something like this: it does have weight and meaning, but a large amount (not all) of that meaning is due to our conditioning. In Kreeft’s “Philosophy of Tolkien”, he has a section on language; he says there is a Form of language (this has to do with “In the beginning was the Word…”), but also includes music as a language – which does get much closer to a universal reality than words that shift meaning over time. Anyway, I’d recommend that book; it’s a good read anyway (and in q&a format, so it’s easy for a busy mom who still wants something for her brain now and then, but who can’t read for more than a few minutes – if that- without being interrupted) on lots of subjects, but it does have that section that applies to this specific discussion.

    • Jake Tawney

      This is a great explanation and is a paraphrase of my own position. From the beginning I said that (1) words have meaning in and of themselves, and (2) human’s had a part in the construction of vocabulary. I specifically set out two extremes to be avoids. The first is to assume that words are mere convention. The second is to assume that words are given straight from the mouth of God with no part for humanity to play. The reality is that it is somewhere in between. In some way, I feel like I was pigeonholed into the latter error in Calah’s reply.