Language Is an Heirloom

One cannot understand their mode of existence as long as the differentiation of basic concepts such as nature and culture, societies and individuals is not counterbalanced by the qualification of their relationships, by instruments of synthesis. Language and knowledge are examples of the latter.
—Norbert Elias, The Symbol Theory (131)


The Symbol Theory by Norbert Elias (1991) is a book that attempts to highlight the need to form an integrated theory that not only describes that thing we, as humans, do with sound-symbols, but more importantly describes the synthesis of knowledge, thoughts and language. Try, if you can, to separate any one from the other. It is not what we do with language, but rather, what language does to us.

The nature of language cannot be understood if one uses individual actions as a point of departure (20).

Elias makes a compelling case that the studies of linguistics, epistemology, and consciousness can in no way be separated. Without language how does one have thoughts? Without language, or sound-symbols, as he names it, how can one come to any realm of consciousness as we understand it? How can one have any sense of “knowledge?”

Human societies and human languages can change to an extent inaccessible to the societies and means of communication of apes. The structure of the latter is still largely genetically fixated or, in other words, species-specific (29).

And this is an interesting point. Beyond the individual level, as a species, apes (for instance) are only able to act on a species level—their language skills are species-specific and as such have limits of mutability, in that it varies very little from group to group and needs some sort of evolutionary change to leap over to the sort of language/knowledge complexity we enjoy. Humans, by virtue of our language which is not species-specific but rather societally-specific (in our Tower of Babel way) with the ability to grow, alter, expand or contract our “knowledge” of the world regardless of the actual sound-symbols (languages) we are employing, and with the ability to create anew at any instance, communication with another human. It is a factor worthy of a system of study.

Descartes, is based on a strange assumption which is rarely stated explicitly. It suggests that the cognitive functions of human beings developed initially on their own independently of a world to be recognized and that human beings having at first developed without object of cognition at some time, as it were by accident, entered an alien world. That, however, is a fable. Human beings have developed within a world (98).

For instance, I give you the photo I took this morning of a group of trees in the park. Our knowledge tells us that, in my part of the world, trees grow in dirt, not water, and yet, I can take the photo and relate to any English speaker in the world the events that caused these trees to be immersed in water (the power and glory of the storm last night! Thunder and lightening, pounding rain and surging water tables!) these are specificities  and temporalities that are lost without language. This knowledge means nothing without the power of language to communicate. But, Elias would go further, because, consider how it is we know, in the first place that trees mostly grow in dirt? The idea that we come into the world and learn to speak, as if language somehow stands outside of knowledge,  negates the accumulative effect of our history and culture. It sets up strange desperate “ologies” that, in truth, are utterly un-seperateable.

Concepts such as ‘nature’, ‘culture’ and ‘society’ are telling examples of the tendency to treat as separate entities set apart from each other problem fields at a high level of synthesis, symbolically represented by different substantives surrounded by a fog-like aura of ideological undertones (38).

This creates a sort of “intellectual apartheid” in which it is impossible to begin to understand what is it that makes us human. For Elias an important aspect is “by acquiring the skill of sending and receiving messages in the codified form of a social language, persons gain access to a dimension of the universe which is specifically human” (47) He goes on to say that this acts a a fifth dimension, because it is within the four dimensions of time and space that all species act, but our ability to communicate and identify ourselves through and because of our sound-symbols is a post-animal state of being.

There is nature, there is culture, there is knowledge, scientific or otherwise, there are politics, economics and the all-embracing symbols of language, but how they all cohere with each other is a question that is rarely asked and hardly ever answered (89).

But we can’t help ourselves. We want to know. We want absolute beginnings and we want discrete theories of our world and our place in it. Elias is sympathetic. His only point is that when we begin to consider just how unique and complex our sound-symbols are, then we can begin to see a theory evolve which may help us understand how we got here, and more importantly, give us the perspective to see that perhaps we are really at the beginning:

I like best the suggestion that our descendants, if humanity can survive the violence of our age, might consider us late barbarians. I am not indulging in reproaches. Humans have to go through a long period of learning how to live with each other in peace. Our uncertainty, our inability to eliminate violence, are part of this learning process. No teachers are at hand. Outside help, evidently, is not forthcoming (147).

*title from p.129


4 responses to “Language Is an Heirloom

  1. Hmm. All very interesting, but they omit what we seem to share with other mammals: play. Kids learning to speak often babble; they like the sound of words before they know what they are. People talk and sing to themselves. It;s not just a form of communication. It’s fun – why else crosswords, scrabble etc. Are they just training for communication with others or an event in themselves?

    • It is more that it is all of a piece. Why do we play, that has much to do with our biology and culture as well, and of course there are multiple forms of communication, this book’s focus was on complex human languages and its symbol theory implications.

  2. Can you imagine being there to witness the very first time that a primitive, prehistoric human uttered a grunt or something, and another understood what that meant, and that sound became the standard reference for a specific thing for the rest of those people’s lives?

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