About Words

Most animals with vocal chords have a few words. They are genetically inbuilt but sometimes subject to learned variations. For example, there are alarm calls in birds and mating calls in many species. They each have one meaning and are meant to trigger a response and not a discussion. Some animal calls have no understood meanings such as barking in dogs and many bird songs; and who knows what their function might be. Dialects occur in varying locations.

I suppose that in some time in pre-history human antecedents also only had genetically programmed calls, but that these calls eventually developed into words with variations that were learned and repeated in individual tribes. These words would presumably have practical meanings related to the tribes’ relationship with its environment. Thus rattle snake would have a meaning of danger and maybe food whereas grass snake meant just food. A vocabulary would develop consisting mostly of nouns describing noxious and nutritious plants, dangerous and susceptible animals, suitable and unsuitable terrain and clement and unpleasant weather. Verbs might describe trekking, gathering, chasing and so forth. This language would be open to discussion. I wonder at what stage it first contained lies.

Some behavioral concepts may have been genetically programmed and acted upon without any necessity for a word describing it. Thus territorial behavior requires a complex interaction between individuals or groups that requires learning of boundaries and the concept of home that might have been acted upon without any need to describe it.

It is my thesis that there was a time in the development of language when it was purely practical and factual as described above. It was governed by external factors which could not be ignored.

Time passed and the vocabulary developed and may well have described concepts of time, direction and distance. But at some stage there arose an evil genius who introduced two new words that enlightened and bedeviled humanity from that time forward. They were “why” and “ought’.

Why did the herds move in the patterns they did? Why did some people die and others live? Why did the sun come up in the morning and the moon get bigger and smaller? And why did there have to be a winter/drought/flood etc, etc. Eventually the evil genius or one of his/her descendants started to make up reasons. The reasons were, of course, complete guesswork. They attempted to explain and the explanations had to be consistent with the facts that everybody knew. But the theories could be as far fetched and internally inconsistent as the dreamer could dream. And this introduced a whole new set of words that came from the dreamer’s head; Spirits, gods, witches and warlocks, higher and lower beings, magic you name it.

Following on from this was what people ought to do. You ought to respect the chief. This was easy. People always had. He was bigger than you were and it was good politics on the part of the dreamer. You ought to worship, or perform ceremonies, or throw salt over your left shoulder. You ought to support the dreamer when he was too busy dreaming to do his own hunting. You ought to worry about what might happen instead of accepting what did. You ought to reject the unusual and foreign, forcibly if necessary. There ought to be laws and the people ought to obey them.

The second proposition in my thesis is that this language comes from a different foundation from the first type. It is governed by a different set of rules which arise from within and are therefore incestuous.

As time passed both languages expanded and interacted, the second more quickly and to a much greater extent. I struggle with finding names for the two languages which are not loaded with implications, so I will fall back on convention. The first language will be referred to as type 1 the second as type 2.

The third proposition is that type 1 language developed into science and technology and type 2 into philosophy, religion, politics, literature and everything else.

Type 2 language had no bounds. It seems to be part of the “ought” culture, however, that people will try to impose arbitrary boundaries within it. Some of these boundaries were useful, others inhibiting. Amongst the useful ones there is the very powerful tool of logic (so I guess we have got to the time of the Greek philosophers). Applying logic leads to (surprise!) logical conclusions. If you apply logic to type 1 language situations they lead to practical solutions. If you approach that dangerous rattlesnake then you may be bitten and die, therefore it is a good idea to stay away. Applying logic to Type 2 situations (which no doubt was how it was meant to be used) is fraught with opportunities for error. If that is the god of earthquakes and I propitiate him suitably, then there will be no earthquakes that affect me. To this day we apply logic to the laws of the country but continue to make laws based upon rather random and /or fashionable tenets. There is a good law that says you should not kill anybody. However, there is another one that says you can kill someone if you are a soldier in a war. If you are a soldier in a war and you kill someone from the enemy country who is not a soldier it is all right if you are using an artillery shell or aircraft bomb, but is not all right to intentionally shoot them with a rifle.

I have a parable to illustrate this. Imagine, if you can, a tribe of people who did not invent either the spirit level or the plumb bob. On the other hand they understood right angles and building regulations, and when they built their houses they made sure that every thing was made all square. They just estimated what was horizontal and since their builders had quite a good eye for this and as they only built one story huts it did not matter if some of their homes were a little off upright. Time came when space was a bit crowded. Two rival builders each decided to build a multi-story house. It so happened that the two houses were next to each other and were built on either side of a gentle dip in the ground so that as the houses went up the upper levels grew closer together. The builders argued over who was in the wrong, so they took the matter to law. The Judge found that all their right angles were properly measured and that everything was therefore all right. So they appealed to God. They asked what was wrong with the situation and who was in the right. God looked down and said “Your houses are going to collide at the top”. They replied that they knew this, but wanted to know which of them needed to dismantle his house because it was not upright. God said “Oh, I would have to come down to earth and look at the side elevation to gauge that”. The builders said they would be happy to facilitate this in any way they could. “Oh no, “said God “We tried that once before with most unfortunate results. Tell you what, why not just join the two buildings across the top and just live with it”. So they did that and made a feature window over the gap to draw attention away from the obvious defect. They patched up their quarrel and betrothed the daughter of one to the son of the other to seal the bargain. As it happened the daughter fell in love with a young blacksmith and eloped down a rope hung out of the feature window. She left the rope in place and took off for the next village where the blacksmith lived. The two builders surveyed the scene the next morning and noticed how the rope hung straight down. With a weight on the bottom it hung even more straight. So they forgave the young woman because they realized she had invented the plumb bob and they made a fortune selling this advanced technology to the rest of the trade. The blacksmith made the bobs. The Judge made a new regulation.

A train of thought is most likely to bridge and twine between the two types. Although I propose that type 1 is the foundation of science nobody can progress science far without speculating in type 2. A difference between science and, say, philosophy is that the scientist must be able to test an hypothesis in the world of type 1. One of the hardest lessons that has to be learnt by fledgling scientists is that if their hypothesis cannot be tested using the technology of the day then it has no value. You might call this the Von Danakin effect. He wrote books about how an alien civilization came in a space ship and helped early earth civilizations to do wonderful engineering. His speculations gained a wide following, but were of no scientific use because they could not be tested. (Others have described much better than I can the necessity for the null hypothesis in scientific investigation. It is not adequate to pile on more and more supporting speculation to an unsupported base. )

Throughout history the type 1 investigators have been limited by the tools available to them at the time. Thus astronomy was well studied in prehistoric times because all you needed was eyesight. When this data was taken into the realm of type 2, astrology resulted. While this could be further extrapolated into religion and prophesy it was a type 1 dead end. When it was combined with the (type 2) tools of mathematics, prophesies applicable only to astronomy could be made and, in time, tested. This sort of prophesy came to be called an hypothesis. Type 2 hypotheses also occurred. Thus it was quite clear in the type 2 world that the sun must revolve around the earth — common sense really. The tool of mathematics was then made to support all sorts of contortions until Galileo thought that the earth might go round the sun instead. The type 2 world fought back with dogma.

Anatomy could also be studied without much more than a body and a knife. It thus gradually became the foundation of medicine as the hypotheses of Galen and Hippocrates yielded to more objective studies. Hook and the microscope gave another impetus to type 1 investigations, whilst type 2 authorities did their best to suppress any departure from the current belief. I am told that Florence Nightingale was a staunch opponent of the germ theory of disease. For her cleanliness was next to Godliness and the only question was whether it was next after or next before. It required no Frenchman to complicate matters with organisms too small to comprehend and anyway somehow bound up with an immoral drinks industry.

A dichotomy has thus developed during the last century or two between the type 1 and the type 2 worlds as science has risen to more and more prominence. Prior to this Leonardo de Vinci could be both a military engineer and an artist, Isaac Newton could be the last man able to understand just about everything, and Charles Wesley could be a religious leader and write a medical home companion. I suppose the man who really put the cat amongst the pigeons was Darwin. Although a conventionally religious man, his ideas went too far for the religious establishment and the tenets of common sense to react with anything else but indignation. Monkeys indeed! Not even horses or dogs. Note, however that his theory of evolution was a type 2 bit of thinking. He had a lot of evidence but he could not test his hypothesis.

And so I am drifting toward the present. Scientific knowledge is increasing exponentially; the scientific establishment gets paid quite well, few people insult scientists in the street and yet there is a big backlash against the use of scientific information. When I first joined the British public service the entry qualification for the upper ranks was a good knowledge of Latin and Greek. The head of the service had said that it did not require very good scientists, just ones good enough to explain to the administration what was happening. Throughout my career I have been told by the press that it was my job to promote my discipline and that I should not expect reporters to investigate new science.

I am therefore somewhat disillusioned with word smiths. When a student at university I stopped taking the Daily Telegraph in the UK when I read an inaccurate account of a piece of science that I knew something about. If they were could get this so wrong when the information was freely on offer how could I trust what they said about situations that vested interests were trying to obscure? I have said that I thought type 2 subjects were incestuous. Literature is composed and then criticised by literati brought up in the same schools. Authors are rarely held to account for the clarity with which they try to express their message. If a poet uses a word inaccurately many critics will pass over the matter as being poetic licence. I once heard a poet interviewed who admitted he did not remember quite what he meant in one of his acclaimed poems. The dictionary meaning of words is said to be evolving, or in other words can be changed to suit the author. Inconvenient words can be substituted by other words which mean the same thing but for some reason are more acceptable such as ‘senior’ for ‘old’. It is interesting that Orwell’s concept of the new-speak dictionary is being brought about by the advertising and news industries and not by any sinister government department. Poorly defined concepts become accepted when given a buzz word title such as ‘chemicals’ in the food industry.

What are words for? In the early, type1 days they were an evolutionary advantage which allowed information to be passed on without the necessity of undergoing practical experience. Once the type 2 language developed, words could continue to express practical information but also ideas and concepts. Type 1 had a natural controls built into it. If you gave inaccurate information someone would try it out and tell you what they thought of you. In the early days type 2 had no such controls. Latterly science has imposed some sort of control by subjecting some ideas to experimental verification. But for the majority of type 2 material anybody can say anything and the degree of acceptance probably depends mostly upon the charisma of the speaker. You would think that in this circumstance it would be important to ensure that words have a consistent meaning and that dictionaries would be authoritative documents. It seems to me, however that this is decreasingly so. Science tries to maintain consistency at least in its own words (although it confuses things again with the use of acronyms). The type 2 world however dismisses scientific language as jargon and refuses to learn it.

I could go on but this essay would develop into even more of a diatribe/conspiracy theory. How do I cope with the situation? In my book there are no absolute truths in the type 2 world. Priests will proclaim the Truth, politicians the truth, scientists the balance of probabilities and business men the hard facts of the case. All of them ignore scientific results at their peril. I suggest that any type 2 theory is only worth one vote by each adherent. I am not sure if the type 2 world realises upon what shaky ground they stand. The word is the foundation of their ideas but they continue to undermine it.

This essay is, of course, purely a type 2 statement.

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