On My Bookshelf

Ignorance of the existence of pre-symbolic uses of language is not so common among uneducated people (who often perceive such things intuitively) as it is among the educated. The educated often listen to the chatter at parties and receptions, and conclude from the triviality of the conversation that all the guests (except themselves) are fools. They may discover that people often come away from church services without any clear memory of the sermon and conclude that churchgoers are either fools or hypocrites. They may hear the political orator of the opposition part, wonder "how anybody can believe such rot," and conclude therefore that people in general are so unintelligent that democracy is unworkable. Almost all such gloomy conclusions about the stupidity or hypocrisy of our friends and neighbors are unjustifiable on such evidence, because they usually come from applying the standards of symbolic language to linguistic events that are either partly or wholly pre-symbolic in character. ~ Language In Thought And Action by S.I. Hayakawa 

One further illustration may make this clearer. Let us suppose that we are on the roadside struggling with a flat tire. A friendly youth comes up and asks, "Got a flat tire?" If we insist upon interpreting his words literally, we will regard this as an extremely silly question and our answer may be, "Can't you see I have, you dumb ox?" If we pay no attention to what the words say, however, and understand his meaning, we will return his gesture of friendly interest by showing equal friendliness, and in a short while he may be helping us to change the tire. In a similar way, many situations in life as well as literature demand that we pay no attention to what the words say, since the meaning may often be a great deal more intelligent and intelligible than the surface sense of the words themselves.

The example of the flat tire appeared in the 1941 version of this book, Language in Action. It was commented on and elaborated by Dr. Karl Menninger in Love Against Hate (1942), in which he offered the following translation of "Got a flat tire?" in terms of its psychological meaning: "Hello-I see that you are in trouble. I'm a stranger to you, but I might be your friend now that I have the chance to be if I had any assurance that my friendship to you would be welcomed. Are you approachable? Are you a decent fellow? Would you appreciate it if I helped you? I would like to do so, but I don't want to be rebuffed. This is what my voice sounds like. What does your voice sound like?" Why does not the youth simply say directly, "I would be glad to help you"? Menninger explains: "But people are too timid and mutually distrustful to be so direct. They want to hear one another's voices. People need reassurance that others are just like themselves.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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