The essay below is the fifth in a series by our English correspondent Seneca III. Previously: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.
So Here There Be Dragons!
by Seneca III
Part IV — Lacunae
This part of the series is a short list, with commentary, of some factors contributing to the moral, cultural and political dilemmas we face today, i.e. those either not covered in the preceding parts in detail, not at all or at best only alluded to. A Summaries and an Afterword follow in Parts VA and VB.
“Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.”
— William Pitt the Younger — Speech in the House of Commons (18 November, 1783).
“The tyrant’s plea, / excus’d his devilish deeds”
— John Milton — Paradise Lost, Book iv, line 393.
1. Language — its function and evolution
Language uniquely separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. It enables us to organise and cooperate in complicated ways, to clearly communicate ideas (even abstract ones), emotions, intentions, and much else. It is not a sessile but a motile, dynamic construct constantly being expanded by the introduction of neologisms and also contracted through words and definitions, ‘archaisms’, falling into disuse. Language allows and inspires us to jointly explore and mutually contemplate ourselves and the world and universe around us in a variety of ways practical, philosophical and metaphysical. In competent, successful speaking or writing, language and thought are contiguous, and the words chosen offer us an immediate presentation of some aspect of reality.
Yet, we simply don’t know how language originated. We do know that the ability to produce sound and simple vocal patterning (a hum versus a grunt, for example) appears to be in an ancient part of the brain that we share with all vertebrates, including fish, frogs, birds and other mammals. But that isn’t human language. It is suspected that some type of spoken language must have developed between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago, well before written language (about 5,000 years ago). Yet, among the traces of earlier periods of life on Earth, we never find any direct evidence or artefacts relating to the speech of our distant ancestors. Perhaps because of this absence of direct physical evidence, there has been no shortage of speculation about the origins of human speech. An understanding of how and why human languages developed is a rich field. Darwin was of the opinion that:
“Music, rhythms, frogs, birds, the nightly howling of canis simensis across the Ethiopian high plateau, the song of whales, communicate in ways limited to their immediate environment, establish but limited or for mating purposes, not that our ways in that circumstances are worthy or would stand well under scrutiny.”
2. The use and abuse of tone poetry and figurative language
Languages come in many variants and from different roots yet most are composed of nouns, verbs adjectives, etc. expressed through vowels and consonants. One exception is the ‘click languages’ of Africa, a group of languages in which clicks function as normal consonants. The sole example of a language using clicks outside of Africa is that of ‘Damin’, a ritual vocabulary of the Lardil tribe of northern Queensland, Australia.
In written language punctuation primarily serves to create sense, clarity and stress in sentences, to indicate pauses in the flow and to emphasise or explain certain ideas or thoughts through words, facts and phrases that are presented in the text, thus structuring and organising the written word. If punctuation is missing, as in the [paragraph] below, and as it is in many legal documents, or in what passes for modern journalism, then the use of emphasis, obfuscation, opinions, conflation, relevance and disambiguation can lead to different or preferential interpretations thus, permitting a situation where to precisely define what is true and what is not is difficult or near impossible.
[In written language punctuation primarily serves to create sense clarity and stress in sentences to indicate pauses in the flow and to emphasise or explain certain ideas or thoughts through words facts and phrases that are presented in the text thus structuring and organising the written word If punctuation is missing as in the paragraph below and as it is in many legal documents or in what passes for modern journalism then the use of emphasis obfuscation opinions conflation relevance and disambiguation can lead to different or preferential interpretations thus permitting a situation where to precisely define what is true and what is not is difficult or near impossible.]
However, oratory and rhetoric, which are essentially verbal streams of consciousness used to educate, motivate, deceive or misinform are slightly different, whereby emphasis or the lack of it, pauses, tautologies, gesticulations and responses to audience responses can and often do project and affirm falsehoods favouring the position supported or being proposed by the orator. Skilful lawyers can and do utilise such techniques during the course of a trial and when making closing statements to juries; politicians, particularly on the hustings when trying to con the electorate, do the same, which is why so many of them manage to slither into Parliament in the first place. Media audio-visual presenters do this as well, and they are pretty good at it. Instead of actually addressing the argument itself they focus on a rhetorical flourish that you may consider overly dramatic, inappropriate or irrelevant then, if you question this, they imply that your emotional response invalidates your case. That is tone poetry.