Latest news

Bad Language

In his recent best-seller, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, historian Yuval Noah Harari ponders how, as humanity evolved, large numbers of people learned to cooperate and work together. He concludes that this was because they shared a belief in common myths (pp.30-31). In certain contexts this makes some sense. For instance it could be claimed that in the 19th century many Irish people were drawn together into a common purpose by powerful myths of Irish nationhood expressed emotionally in songs such as My Dark Rosaleen, or through mythical figures such as Caitlin Ni hUallachain.

However, Harari goes on to draw more radical conclusions. He claims that any instance of large-scale human co-operation, such as a church, a state, or a legal system is rooted in a common myth that exists only in people’s collective imagination. People may believe in God, or in the State, or in the Law, but:

None of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings… Just try to imagine how difficult it would have been to create states, or churches, or legal systems if we could speak only about things that really exist, such as rivers, trees and lions. (Op.cit., pp. 30, 35).

Harari is clearly an extreme empiricist, meaning that he believes that only whatever is perceived by the senses can be said to exist. Homo Sapiens, he says, stands out among the other animals by its ability to imagine entities that have never been seen, touched or smelled. The truly unique feature of our language, he asserts, is the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all (Ibid. p.27).

In passing, it should first be pointed out that this distinction Harari makes between things that are accessible to the senses, and things that are only in our imagination, is a very shaky one. It is actually quite difficult to find a word naming something accessible to the senses which does not involve some degree of interpretation. And interpretation is an abstract exercise in which our senses play no role. For instance, although most adults might recognize a lion, the sense of vision of a very young child will identify only a large yellow object with a number of appendages. A ‘lion’ (Panthera leo) is quite a sophisticated concept, the end result of centuries of exploration and zoological classification. Similar observations can be made about Harari’s rivers and trees. The only ‘things’ directly accessible to the senses are different colours and shapes, tastes, smells, different feelings of touch (smooth, rough etc.), and sounds. As I am writing this at my desk, all I can ‘see’ are colours and shapes, but years of experience have taught me (without even having to think about it) to break down these images into nameable things such as books, ornaments, shelves and so on; in other words to interpret the sense data I receive.

However, the really serious import of Harari’s is to deny the existence of everything that is not a brute material object. This represents an extraordinary impoverishment of language. Language has evolved to name the ‘things’ that matter to us as humans, that help us to make sense of our world and make our way through it. ‘The world’, says biologist Gerald Edelman, ‘is an unlabelled place…Any assignment of boundaries made by an animal is relative, not absolute, and depends on its adaptive or intended needs’ . Nicholas Lash comments, ‘All schemes of classification, all maps and names of things, are thus conventional. We assign the boundaries, and it is therefore up to us, if needs be, to redraw them differently’

Language is very fragile. In the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell depicts a totalitarian society whose rulers set about destroying words in order to make people think differently. Winston Smith and his colleague Syme work in the Ministry of Truth. Syme is sceptical of Smith’s commitment:

You haven’t a real appreciation of Newspeak, Winston… You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words… Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it… .

Orwell, writing in 1949, is dramatizing a very real process which was still busily under way in the Soviet Union, and had also been an integral part of the Nazi propaganda machine.

In 2007 a disturbing example of the manipulation of language was noted nearer home, in the hallowed halls of the Oxford English Dictionaries. A woman in Northern Ireland was using the 2007 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary as she helped her son with his homework. To her surprise she found that a whole series of Christian-related words like bishop, chapel, disciple, minister, sin, and devil which had featured in previous editions of the dictionary had been dropped. When the Daily Telegraph enquired on her behalf, the head of children’s dictionaries at OUP told the Telegraph that the changes were made to reflect a “multicultural” society . Is this an example of ‘the destruction of words’ that Orwell writes about?

To return to the book Sapiens, the attempt by Harari to tie the word ‘exist’ to material objects, and to tie the word ‘myth’ to abstract concepts, simply doesn’t work. Firstly, as pointed out above, because some degree of abstract thought is in any case needed to identify and name material objects, and this makes such objects partly ‘abstract’. However, more importantly, many of the supposedly ‘non-existent’ abstract concepts play a far more important role in human affairs than many of Harari’s “material things that really exist such as rivers, trees and lions”. When Chamberlain stated in September 1939 that “this country is now at war with Germany” he named three things that, according to Harari, do not exist, namely country, Germany, and war. In relation to the first two, see the quotation from Harari above. Some may say that war can definitely be observed by the senses, but that is not correct. The outcomes of some wars are definitely observable by their bombs and bullets. But war itself is an abstract notion. For instance the largely uneventful winter of 1939-40 became known as ‘the phoney war’, and the period 1947-1991 of tension between East and West came to be called the Cold War. World War II, which, if we follow Harari’s logic, did not exist, claimed the lives of about 50 million people. If a people are in the process of creating a useful language, it must be considered a very odd outcome if this language does not allow us to name as ‘real’ something that takes the lives of 50 million, while it does allow us to name as ‘real’ something like a tree that does not kill anyone unless it happens to fall on them. The main problem with the use of the word ‘exist’ is that its misapplication undermines the validity of some of the most important concepts in human culture, such as human rights, which figure as a fiction in Harari’s list.

Perhaps, to use Nicholas Lash’s terminology, we need to redraw the boundaries differently. It is surely more sensible to classify words according to the impact of the ‘things’ they name, rather than on the basis of the shaky and debased concept of ‘existence’ which has been the subject of philosophical debate, most of it sterile, over many centuries. In fact, this is how most ordinary folk use language. They do not ask themselves what ‘domain of reality’ the words they use belong to. They know that their lives are most deeply affected by relationships, accidents, health, wealth, war, poverty, injustice, and a host of other factors that do not ‘exist’ in Harari’s world. Trees, rivers and lions generally affect their lives much less than these. This finds resonances in the world of sociology, in what is called The Thomas Principle, formulated by W.I. Thomas in 1928. According to this, “if a person perceives a situation as real, it is real in its consequences”. What this means is that our behaviour does not depend on the ‘objective reality’ of a situation. It is our subjective interpretation of reality that determines our behaviour. That is what is ‘real’ to us, and our language needs to respect that.

There is obviously a further question, which concerns the ‘reality’ – it is hard to find a better word – lying behind concepts. While it is true to say that concepts are real, and that they may exert a powerful influence on our lives, they sometimes name things which are imaginary, such as fairies, Santa Claus or unicorns. In this case the concepts are real, but there is no substance behind them. But the concepts may still exert influence – the concept of Santa Claus certainly does. Up to a point the concepts of ‘Santa Claus’ and ‘human rights’ function in the same way. Both are intended to recommend and enshrine certain types of behaviour, one towards children, the other more widely. But the fact that the concept of Santa Claus is also inextricably tied to an imaginary person living at the North Pole undermines the concept for older children, as it does for adults.

Incidentally, it is notable that Harari does not advert to the fact that the concept myth, on which he hangs much of his analysis, is, in his understanding of language, itself a myth and does not exist. Where that leaves the remainder of his otherwise quite interesting book is not clear.

About Pat Coyle

Pat Coyle is Director of Communications for the Irish Jesuits. Her academic background was mainly in philosophy, and a great part of her professional background was as a journalist, producer and presenter with RTE, BBC and UTV. She is a mother of two.