William S. Burroughs would revise the title of this node to "language is a virus from outer space" (I'll go create that node too). I wouldn't go that far but I am comfortable ascribing all the properties of a virus to the notion of language. This is an idea further explored in Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.

A virus is simply a pattern of information that replicates in order to propagate itself to other information storage systems. This is true for biological virii as well as computer viruses. A virus can mutate as it multiplies.

Have you noticed how slang terms come and go? I've often heard a word used for the first time by a friend, only to hear it in common circulation a few months later. Or you might learn a legitimate word and add it to your vocabulary. Eventually you use it somewhere and someone else will learn it and add it to their vocabulary, etc. ad infinitum. So a perfect example of language as virus is slang. Some new words spread so thoroughly that they become adopted into common language. For instance "cyberspace", "email" and "fuck". I think it is safe to say that the entirety of all languages developed similarly: words come into existence by creation, mutation and propagation.

See also my wacky conclusions: You are language.

Terence McKenna thinks that language will soon evolve into visible language. Maybe as soon as December 21, 2012.

The Virus

"Language is a virus from outer space, and hearing your name is better than seeing your face."
-- Laurie Anderson

 Among the dirty looks,
 the angry letters you
 are an oasis
     a pud
     a disembodied Glaswegian
 voice, garbled by the machine
 the voice of a poet
     an Ewok
 reply, extinguished
 we are 90% insane
 smothered by nothing,
 Freud, and Sartre
 clinging to data, corrupted.

(quote above is from "Difficult Listening Hour" on the album United States, Parts I-IV)

We didn’t expect it. Couldn’t expect it. There was no precedent for it in our world. Back then, we lived in direct contact with everything around us. We had no ideas, only experiences. We communicated through the motions of our bodies and our communal understanding of the world we lived in. We didn’t need anything else, and we were content.

Then, one day, one of us (we had no names, needed no names) went away for awhile. When he came back, he was chattering with his mouth. Something about him looked wrong, smelled wrong, felt wrong. Our hair stood on end as we backed away.

He stared at us for a moment, and then began repeating the same sound over and over. He picked up an object and held it in the face of the person next to me. “RAAAAAAWWWK”. Over and over he repeated this, until she shoved it out of the way and backed away further. He grabbed her hand before she could get far. Every time he repeated the sound, he touched her hand to the object. She squirmed and struggled to get away from him, but he was bigger and stronger. The repetitions continued, only now he was touching her hand to a different object. And another one.

Then her eyes widened. She began repeating the sound too. They ran off together, him repeating one sound, her repeating another. The rest of us tried to find a place to hide before they got back. Clearly whatever they had was contagious, and we did not want to become infected.

But they did come back, and gradually more of us succumbed and began chattering. Eventually it was my turn. There were enough of them now that I could not escape when it came to the strange ritual with the grey objects and the sound repetitions.

Then I got it. The sound somehow went with the objects, all these objects had the same sound behind them, and I said ‘rock’. All the chattering people got excited and started showing me names for other objects, names for feelings, names for each other. I participated even though something felt all wrong about this.

The feeling of wrongness only got worse. The experiences that had been my entire world began to fade away, replaced by poor imitations called ‘words’ and ‘ideas’. There were no longer a wide and varied number of rocks, but only the idea of 'rock'. I felt distant from everything. Distant from myself. I forgot all but a sliver of what things were like before. Awareness diminished, and a sense of emptiness and longing took its place. I was now certain that these words were a symptom of a fatal disease, and that I was not long for this world.

But I didn’t die. Language spread. It mastered all but a few of us. Everything changed. Mothers and fathers spread it to their babies, who grew up and spread it to their babies. We not only spoke words to each other but carved them in clay and stone. People began to define our species in terms of our words, and to describe those with resistance as stupid and backwards. But I’m not so sure. I think language is a virus. I am writing this down for the benefit of those who live long after we who saw these events are dead. So that they may know the truth, and remember that a time existed before our species caught the word-virus.

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