Should Language Be Abolished?

Words, words words.—HAMLET.

WHETHER language should be abolished is, doubtless, an open question. Whether it is being abolished is not an open question. It is being abolished. Its abolition is going on around us everywhere, with increasing rapidity. The process, to be sure, is an unconscious one. But unconscious processes are generally the most elemental and momentous. If this particular radical alteration in the habits of humanity is a desirable one, well and good; let it go on. If it is not, it is high time to become aware of it and do what we can to check it.

Before going further, I ought to explain that, when I say language is being abolished, I do not mean that men, or women, are ceasing to communicate with one another. I am not using the word language in its wide sense of any medium whatever whereby meaning is conveyed from mind to mind, as we speak of the language of the eye, or as Shakespeare speaks of finding

Tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, Sermons in stones,

and so forth. I use the word rather in its narrower application to the total body of arbitrary verbal signs employed by a people in its spoken, written, and printed discourse. This is the language which, for good or ill, is being abolished.

What! you exclaim, language being abolished, when every fresh edition of the dictionary has to make room for thousands of new words; when newspapers and magazines multiply faster than rabbits in Australia; when talks and speeches and lectures are crowded into every hour of the day and night?

Yes, in the teeth of these facts, I stand by my assertion.

As for the dictionary, it is indeed growing obese. But may not this very obesity be a symptom of the unhealthy condition of that which resides within it? And when it comes to the magazines and newspapers, compare them with those of a generation ago, and you will see what is happening: the printed matter, where it has not been crowded out by highly pictorial advertisements, is subsiding into a sort of gloss (more or less superfluous) on the illustrations. Pages formerly uniform to the verge of monotony are now diversified by photographs, diagrams, cartoons, and a dozen other graphic features. The photogravure sections of the Sunday papers have already been prophetically christened ‘ newspapers without words.’ It would be interesting to know the amount of time given to them weekly by the American public, as compared with other sections of equal size — especially by the women, who are perhaps more sensitive than men to coming changes in the spiritual atmosphere.

However that may be, can anyone doubt that we are nearer the beginning than the end of a process that is steadily increasing the appeal of the printed page to the eye? Possibly the weekly news film of the moving-picture house gives us a hint of that far-off something into which the newspaper of the present is destined to evolve.

And there are indications of an analogous change on the public platform. Oratory, in the old sense, it is generally admitted, is dead. There are still places — the United States Senate, for instance, and certain pulpits — where speeches are yet made; but nobody takes them very seriously. The kind of public utterance that is taken seriously is the lecture by the chemist or physicist, where the apparatus and experiments do the real talking; by the economist or sociologist, who relies far more on exhibits, diagrams, and graphs than on words, to get his thought across; by the traveler or explorer, whose tongue has become the tip of a pointer touching a screen; or by any of a score of other speakers who talk predominantly through things and pictures rather than language.

And I spoke of sermons. The Catholic Church continues to flourish, for one reason, I imagine, because language was never its primary medium of expression. And the Quakers, whose specialty is silence, still survive. Even some of the other churches, if they have sufficiently good music and architecture, attract their worshipers. But the failure of the extreme Protestant attempt to make language the main medium of religious utterance is pretty accurately measured by the steady decline in length of sermon and ministerial prayer, and the gradual return, even in churches of highly antiCatholic tradition, to various forms of ritualism. Straws show which way the wind blows. Trivial as it seems, I propose, therefore, this test of the relationship of church and language: go to a service where the minister preaches a preliminary sermon to the children, illustrated by a brick, or a clock, or a silver dollar (which he holds up in the flesh, so to speak, before the audience), and watch every eye concentrated, not on the speaker, but on the object in his hand; and then, when the sermon proper comes, conveyed exclusively in language, watch the eyes fixed, just as intently as before, on vacancy.

And speaking of the church reminds us of the theatre. While the churches (at least the hortatory churches) stagnate, the theatres flourish. Well — have not a hundred authorities on the drama told us that the secret of making a play consists precisely in eliminating language? Whoever, when a theatrical piece has been in rehearsal, has seen a bit of stage business suddenly render a page of dialogue superfluous, has received one of the most impressive lessons art can offer concerning the relation of language and expression. And what pantomime does toward abolishing language by its appeal to the eye, the voice seeks to do through its appeal to the ear. Intonation and inflection, in the theatre, may become as potent eliminators of language as action and gesture are.

Considered from this angle, what is the whole art of music, indeed, but a protest against language, an attempt to evolve a higher mode of expression? All art in fact proceeds from this same dissatisfaction. It is an endeavor to supersede language with something better. To this statement literature itself is only an apparent exception. Literature, especially in its purest form, poetry, is an attempt to purge language of everything except its music and its pictures, an attempt to think by means of sound and light. The poets — where they have been genuine creators and not mere word-mongers — have always insisted, accordingly, that theirs is the art of striking out words; have always stood, if not for the abolition of language, at any rate for its drastic abbreviation.

This is a paradox only to prosaic minds. The man of prosaic mind thinks that composition is a matter of so arranging words that they shall convey a meaning that is the sum of their separate meanings. But the poet knows better. He knows that it is a matter of so ordering them that they shall suggest verbally inexpressible meanings between the lines; that they shall, quite literally, set spirits to dancing from sentence to sentence, flashes of intellectual electricity to leaping from page to page, faces to peeping forth at the reader from behind the letters like children from behind tree-trunks.

Literature is indeed omission — not in the negative sense of leaving things out, but in the positive sense of making the omitted thing conspicuous. Language, accordingly, in the hands of its masters, may be more properly called the scaffolding of expression than the expression itself. To confuse language with expression, therefore, is like confusing the magician’s wand with the spirits it calls up. If pedants had not been guilty of precisely this confusion, the movement for the abolition of language might never have been necessary. It is the pedants and the prosaic people generally who transform from cynicism to truth the saying that language was given man to conceal his thoughts.

That this in sober truth is the function of words seems to be the opinion of the youngest of the arts, — wherein language survives much as the vermiform appendix survives in the human body, — the moving picture. The moving picture of to-day is but an amæba to the moving picture of to-morrow; yet already it has abolished, in the aggregate, billions of words. What it will do in the future, who dares predict? It sometimes seems as if, with its advent, mankind were definitely committed to the method of thinking in pictures. Should this prove true, the cinematograph may well turn out to be the most momentous invention since the invention of letters. In it, for the first time in feasible form, humanity has an instrument of expression fairly adequate to the dynamic and flowing quality of life. Already its wide use is working a revolution in the mental habits of mankind. What though that revolution, up to now, has been mainly destructive! Imaginatively handled, it will enter a creative phase. Indeed, the shifting from abstract to concrete methods of thought which it implies may conceivably bring, in the sphere of human knowledge, changes comparable to those already wrought in the realm of natural knowledge by the abandonment of the deductive for the inductive method.

With this reference to science we touch on one of the most fascinating aspects of our subject. It may sound strange to speak of the scientist as a pioneer in the movement for the abolition of language. Yet such indubitably he is. His relation to words was never better put, I sometimes think, than in one of Jonathan Swift’s most whimsical strokes of imagination in Gulliver s Travels.

Gulliver, in the account of his third voyage, tells of a scheme concocted by certain professors of the Grand Academy of Lagado for abolishing all words whatsoever, on the ground that, since words are only names for things, it would be more convenient for all men to carry about them (in bundles on their backs) such things as might be necessary to express their particular business. ‘I have often beheld two of those sages,’ says Gulliver, ‘almost sinking under the weight of their packs, like pedlars among us; who, when they met in the streets, would lay down their loads, open their sacks, and hold conversation for an hour together; then put up their implements, help each other to resume their burthens, and take their leave.’

Now, however otherwise he may have intended them, these silent philosophers of Swift’s are plainly modern scientists: for a scientist may be defined as a man who thinks with things instead of words. True, the scientist employs a curious language of his own; but the precise mark that sets the genuine scientist off from the charlatan is the fact that his terms — kept outlandish, I fancy, for that very reason — are merely tags of identification substituted temporarily for the things they represent, as a mathematician lets a single letter stand for a complicated expression which it would be tedious to keep on recopying. And just as the mathematician makes a resubstitution before he is done with his figuring, so the scientist in the end replaces his tags with things, which thereupon bring him up with a sharp jerk if in the interval he has let his terminology take liberties with his intellect. The scientist, to be sure, unlike Swift’s philosophers, does not ordinarily carry his apparatus on his back. But that is but a detail. Indeed, Gulliver himself goes on to tell how the primitive packs of these sages were supplemented by rooms fitted out with all the necessary objects of conversation. But what is this if not the evolution of the laboratory?

And so science with its things, like religion with its ritual, and like art with its music and pictures, must be counted on the side against mere words. With such foes in the field against it, the outlook for language appears dark indeed — until all at once an immense sphere is remembered about which we have said nothing. The language of ordinary life,— of the street, of the club, of the home, — that surely (you protest) is not disappearing.

Ah! but you forget. Such language is not language at all, as I have chosen to define it. (This is no quibble; it is the heart of the whole matter.) Every hour of the day is testimony to the fact that, in proportion as we really know one another, we leave the level of mere language when we would converse, and rise to higher and subtler modes of communication: we talk, not by words, but by the light in the eye, the expression of the face, the tone of the voice, the gestures of the hand, yes, the movements of the whole body. Gropingly we all reach after the ideal caught in those future-piercing lines of Donne:—

We understood
Her by her sight; her pure and eloquent blood
Spoke in her cheeks, and so distinctly wrought
That one might almost say, her body thought.

Even dull and sluggish men make use in their way of these finer instruments of meaning; while truly expressive and receptive souls put more, and find more, in a shrug of the shoulder or a toss of the head, in a wink or a nudge, in an ‘ah!’ or an ‘oh!’ than dumb ones do in hours of talk or pages of printed matter. In fact, among sensitive and congenial spirits, words, in the sense in which we find them in the dictionary, have much the function that sand has for the locomotive: they enable the wheels of thought to clutch the track of conversation; but they are as far from being the soul of intercourse as the sand is from being the movement of the train.

The soul of intercourse in the intimacies of life is much more a matter of action and music than it is of language. The parents glance across the table at each other — and suddenly the daughter’s face turns crimson. The brother’s eye turns by an imperceptible degree — and presto! the sister passes him the salt. The baby’s under-lip begins to go down — and like a flash the mother has leaped into the breach. ‘Hm,’ says the husband as he tastes the soup; and though the sound means nothing to the outsider, to the wife it speaks volumes. ‘No,’ says the maiden to the youth; and by some alchemy of tone the familiar monosyllable reverses its accepted meaning. ‘Oh!’ cries the child as she receives the apple; and that ‘oh’ says, ‘Thank you’ as unmistakably as her tardily added, ‘Thank you, Mrs. Jones,’ says, ‘I’m remembering to say what mother told me.’

Thus does the human voice play the old witch with the dictionary. Listen to words and you will hear words; listen to voices and you will hear reality.

People complain of the paucity of vocabulary in the American home. No doubt the American home is povertystricken enough intellectually; but its paucity of vocabulary is no proof of the fact. Time enough to worry when that vocabulary begins expanding. The recent vogue of the word ‘some’ as an adjective, in a sense for which there is absolutely no synonym in the dictionary, has been the despair of many a parent and pedagogue. ‘The language is being pauperized,’ they cry. Nonsense. It would be nearer the mark to say it is being vitalized. Watch a healthy schoolboy when he tells you he has just come from ‘some’ ball-game, and you will perceive that the offending word has ceased to be a mere linguistic sign and has become a kinetic current within the body, a movement of the spirit. Some word, it! A true super-word, in fact. Philosophize on it, — and on the kindred subject of slang, — and you may discover why, when a man’s vocabulary begins to expand, his powers of expression are generally on the wane.

Genuine expressiveness, involving, as it does, the whole personality, constantly reveals how small a part words have in human communication. When Salvini played Othello in this country, scores of people admitted after seeing him that they completely forgot during the performance the fact that he was speaking in one language — of which most of them understood not a word — while his company was speaking in another. On the day of Pentecost, we are told, men uttered themselves in a Babel of tongues, but each heard and understood in the tongue in which he was born. Babies likewise speak a universal language. And children just learning to talk perform miracles of expression with their slender stock of verbal raw material quite out of the range of an adult with the entire Oxford Dictionary on the tip of his tongue. And yet this very adult, when he succeeds in forgetting his dictionary, catches something of that power which children and geniuses possess more fully. Every man, for example, has a hundred ways of uttering his wife’s name, each of which is a masterpiece of vocal shorthand. And the wife reciprocates. The amount of conversation that can be carried on with a pittance of verbal capital is astonishing. Study yourself, gentle reader, from this angle, if you have never done so, and you will be startled at the scope and variety of your spiritual vocabulary.

No one ever had fuller faith in this theory of the transcendental meaning and economy of words than Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking-Glass. Humpty’s character was not as well rounded as his shape, and his verbal practices accordingly are far from impeccable. But they are certainly exhilarating in their quality of creative brevity.

‘There’s glory for you!’ he exclaimed, as he finished expounding to Alice the doctrine of unbirthday presents.

‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory,”’ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knockdown argument for you! ” ’

‘But “glory” does n’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,” ’ Alice objected.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘ which is to be master — that’s all.’

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. ‘They’ve a temper, some of them —particularly verbs, they’re the proudest — adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs — however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’

‘Would you tell me, please,’ said Alice, ‘what that means?’

‘Now you talk like a reasonable child,’ said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. ‘I meant by “impenetrability” that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.’

‘That’s a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

‘When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘ I always pay it extra.’

Humpty Dumpty treated words as if they were alive — just as poets and children and people close to nature always do. He spoke a super-language — as even ordinary people do in the ultimate sincerities of life. If the great world in its larger human relations only did likewise, language in its scholastic and lexicographic sense would have been kept in its place, would never have attained its present autocratic power, would never, therefore, have provoked by its abuses the movement for its own abolition. As it is, that movement is an instinctive recognition of the truth that an arbitrary code of signs, however useful, or even miraculous, as a tool for the adaptation of means to ends, is futile for the purpose of expressing reality. The revolt against language is an attempt, in fact, to recover something that was lost when letters were invented. The invention of letters was a fall, as well as an ascent, of man. The movement for the abolition of language is a revolution, a return, an atavism, if you wish; a confession that civilization has been on a wrong scent, that the birds, in some respects at least, have kept closer to the central track of evolution than has man.

While human communication remained exclusively gesticular and vocal, there was no danger of its losing its dynamic and dramatic quality, and that danger remained slight, even with written symbols, so long us they were hieroglyphic: representative, that is, in form, or imitative in sound.

‘Words,’ said Democritus, ‘are but the shadows of actions.’ It is true; and while the shadows keep in contact with that of which they are the reflections, their nature runs little risk of being mistaken. It is when shadows begin to wander about unattended, that we feel that we have passed out of the world of realities. When linguistic signs, therefore, began to depend on arbitrary agreement rather than on intrinsic fitness, — when language, that is, became abstract and static, — the danger became imminent of taking the sign for the reality. From the moment, somewhere in the dim past, when this error was first made, dates that fatal idealistic illusion, which, slowly and subtly infecting the human intellect, culminated in the great biblio-scholastic aberration (what a ghastly example of language!) of the last twenty-odd centuries. During that period, language— which has made man—threatened to unmake him. (Like the dyer’s hand, his spirit was subdued to what it worked in.) It did indeed make him insane. It made him as one who, seeing the word ‘God’ on the page, should bow down to the book in which it was written; or the word ‘food,’ should seek to devour it; or the word ‘ horse,’ should leap on it and ride. Mad as these comparisons seem, they are no false images of the condition of man while he is ruled by the dynasty of language.

But there are other and better ways of deposing autocrats than by destroying them. The movement for the abolition of language, accordingly, need not proceed to the bitter end. Let it but become conscious of itself, and it will recognize that what is wanted is not so much the doing away with words as it is the doing away with the confusion in function between two kinds of word: between those, on the one hand, which are genuine emanations of things and actions, spirits, real representatives of life and possessed therefore with truly magical and creative power, and those, on the other, which, like algebraic signs or the technical terms of science, are the arbitrarily chosen tools of the intellect.

From the natural but fatal confusion between these two types of word — between creative language and intellectual language — an incredibly large share of the woes of humanity has arisen. All slaveries, I had almost said, are traceable to this source. The chains that really bind humanity are chains the links of which are abstract words. All other chains are chains of sand. The kings and the capitalists, the priests and the pedants, the lawyers and the doctrinaires — not for a day could they retain their sway over the masses of mankind if the verbal bonds in which they fetter their victims were shattered.

And they are being shattered. The dethronement of abstract and static language is under way. It will go on until man learns to distinguish between that which is close to the divinest part of his nature and that which is but a tool in the hands of his mind. With which consummation will come the end of man’s long scholastic digression and the twilight of the autocratic gods.