Hmmmm. Looks like I'm treading on Gritchka's footsteps. It's for the best!
Word up, yo.
In English 'word' can have many meanings. There's the written word and the spoken word, an of course there's The Word.
Examining language has been a science since Ancient times : grammar, syntax, rhetoric, etc. were all invented and rationalized by the Ancient Greeks. But linguistics is a young field. Up until then, philology focused on the roots of words, etymology, the evolution of a language, etc. : it was therefore a descriptive study.
The Swiss Ferdinand de Saussure pioneered the field of linguistics(1) at the start of the 20th century. He establishes that language is a social fact and a system of differences, which must be distinguished from the spoken word (as in speech), which is each person's use of the language.
Saussure also points out the twofold nature of words as linguistic signs, made up of a signifier, which is the sound and spelling of the word, and a signified, which is the concept, what the word means. The sign is arbitrary: there is no reason for such or such signifier to be paired up with such or such signified. The signified < soy > will have "soy" as its signifier in English, "soja" in French, "そい" in Japanese, etc. However, the signifier-signified pairing is unbreakable. It is their unity that makes the word.
Several modern linguists like Jacques Derrida have questioned this simplistic signifier-signified, yin yang type makeup of the sign. They argue that this suggests that the signified exists independently of the signifier, as an universal idea that we simply apply different phonetic labels to, something which they disagree with. On the other hand, people like Noam Chomsky (now I've mentioned the hip crowd of contemporary linguistics, yay) claim that the underlying structure of language is the same in all humans, and that there are certain universal similarities among all natural languages because of this.
I am the word
"The word is what separates man of the animals" is how JayJay Rousseau opens his Essay on the Origin of Language. He does not deny that there is communication between animals, but man only has the use of words. While animals communicate, they do not build a message from an other message. When they receive an information they act according to it and dismiss it. The nature of man's words enables it to be a substitute for actual experience that can be endlessly retransmitted through time and space.(2)
The word is man's first tool when faced with the world he lives in, and not just by assigning labels (signifier) to things (signified). Much more importantly, the word serves to put a distance between man and the world he lives in, between the signified and the one who speaks the signifier. This gap is what allows us to comprehend (cum prehendere, to take with). And it is this gap which Rousseau criticizes:
The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society.(3)
It is with words that the first land owner creates property : his words are a social reality which he overlays over Nature's reality. This field isn't a piece of mother nature anymore, it is now private property. Words allow to create concepts like property and create a gap which is now impossible to bridge between nature and the social world of men. The symbolic words of the first land owner allow him to fake reality, to replace nature's reality with a social reality.
Words are the tool of social interaction. They allow to communicate, but the arbitrary signs that make up the language make words an unauthentic means of relating to an other human being. Communication, impossible without words, is opposed to communion, unthinkable through words.
As a baby, we all learn the language of our parents and of their parents: of our country. Je suis né Français et baptisé par la langue de Molière. Our nation's language is the very first social institution we encounter. However, the realization that we are different and the belief that we have a unique voice make us look for a way to communicate in a way that is our own. How can I really tell you that I love you in the totally unique way that is my own, by using the words millions of other people use? This poses the challenge of using the words of everyone to say things which are only mine. The word (as in spoken word, speech) becomes the purely personal part of the language.
The fact that signs are arbitrary are a form of constraint. This is what makes them different from symbols. With a symbol, the signified can be deduced from the signifier through a logical link between the two. A scale symbolizes justice when I see in the image of a scale (signifier) the idea of weighing, of balance and of equilibrium which is inherent to justice (signified). This is what the symbolist poets of the 19th century understood: their goal was to transform signs into symbols, and thereby to draw men out of their deaf indifference. The poet becomes the interpret to his Delphic muse
The poets' artistic intuition convinced them that words are hardly innocent. Indeed, they are the first constraint we experience, a social constraint. Our words are the words of our Nation, and it is its words that make a Nation. This is Fichte's famous idea. While Napoleon's victorious troops were marching in Berlin, he invented(4) pan-Germanism with the concept that the German Nation is made up of everyone who speaks German, and damn what History and Politics have to say about it.
But beyond the aspect of speaking the language of such or such Nation, we too easily forget that power is hiding in every word. As French structuralist semiologist Roland Barthes(5) pointed out, "We do not see the power hidden in language because we forget that every language is a system and that every system is oppressive." The whole of language not only imposes a certain syntaxic order, but forces me to say things a certain way. For instance, English deprives me of the possibility to add a nuance to my relationship with other persons with you serving both as a singular and plural pronoun. The Russian aristocrats from War and Peace largely spoke French not only because it was the lingua franca (literally) of Europe but also because the presence of tu (singular, intimate) and vous (plural, respectful) allowed them to further stratify the way they addressed each other, deciding that the Russian pronouns were either too formal, or not enough.
Language attaches me to this "authority of assertion," as Barthes put it, but also forces me to repeat, to repeat other people's words, everybody's words. To extract spoken word from language is a tremendous effort because of its oppressive nature.
When people think about 1984 coming to life they think about Big Brother. We see Big Brother come to life all the time. Of course we're going to see him : if you call any database or organisation which threatens to do something to privacy or freedom "Big Brother", then Big Brother is certainly all around us. But is there really a Big Brother like in the book, even threatening to happen? Of course not.
What is threatening to come to life is Newspeak. This is what Orwell understood, and feared, and this is the true genius of 1984. Big Brother's best bet to enslave us all isn't the cameras everywhere and the police or even the Two Minutes Hate. Every system can (and will) be overthrown, but what happens when those most likely to overthrow it don't know how to do it? Or rather, don't know that it's possible? How to make them not know what "overthrow" means? Simple: remove the word. The concept will go. Remove everything from the language that is not Big Brother, and Big Brother will be all that they can understand, more obvious and inescapable than gravity. Dumbify the language and you will simplify their minds. Now compare Newspeak and this AOL/SMS/l33tsp33k we are subjected to. How much clear thought do you think someone who mixes up "you're" and "your" can have? How about not knowing the difference between "their", "there" and "they're"? What kind of citizen can such a person be, how does he view the society he lives in and his part in it? He doesn't!
So what can we do to resist? What can we do to escape the tyranny of words and of language? Is the only way out silence? Is our only refuge a blank page and stubborn mutism? No, we can set up a barrier: we can resist through literature.
This redeeming cheat, this dodge, this magnificent decoy, which allows to conceive language outside of power, in the splendor of a permanent revolution of language, I call it, for one: literature.(5)
Literature "cheats language" in that it strives to use it each time in a unique, unexpected way. Metaphors, symbols and poetic images force the words to leap to an other, new meaning. The syntax is bent, efficiency stops being the top priority. Furthermore, the best way to free all speech from the power of words is to bend it, break it, fracture it, to free it from any premeditation. In other words, create for the reader and the listener clefts in which they can sneak their own interpretation.
- Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, 1916.
- See Karl von Frisch's work on honeybees and Émile Benveniste's article "Animal Communication and Human Language."
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality among Men, 1754, Part II.
- Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Addresses to the German Nation, 1807-1808.
- Roland Barthes, The Lesson, 1977.