Sunday, January 16, 2011

I, you, here, now

One of the passages in In the Heart of the Country that makes me think Coetzee has Wittgenstein in mind is this:
74. My father is exchanging forbidden words with Klein-Anna. I do not need to leave my room to know. We, he is saying to her, we two; and the word reverberates in the air between them. Now, come with me now, he is saying to her. There are few enough words true, rock-hard enough to build a life on,and these he is destroying. He believes that he and she can choose their words and make a private language, with an I and you and here and now of their own. But there can be no private language. Their intimate you is my you too. Whatever they may say to each other, even in the closest dead of night, they say in common words, unless they gibber like apes. How can I speak to Hendrik as before when they corrupt my speech? How do I speak to them?
This is not Coetzee speaking, of course, and the character who speaks might even be insane at this point, so we have no real reason to accept what is said here, beyond the words themselves and our own thoughts and experience. But the basic idea seems true to me. Just as my father's sleeping with another man's wife (not that he would!) might change the relationships between the four of us, so might the words used in the forbidden act become colored by this use.

On the other hand, if these words are spoken in private, how much difference can this use make to the general use of those words by others, who do not know what has been done with them in private?  If just two people attach special meaning to the words we and two, then this won't make much difference to the meaning of these words.  Unless the two people make up a large percentage of the community in question.  If others pick up on the fact that something is associated with these words, then using them might become awkward, or funny, or romantic, or whatever.  And then the language has changed, if only slightly.  So even private (i.e. behind closed doors) uses of words, in thought alone even, can change the public, shared language.  But they don't have to.

I wonder what this implies for solitary language users.  I wouldn't want to say that a Robinson Crusoe could not speak a language, but he might face problems with meaning, with making sense, that the rest of us don't.  If you're already inclined to agree with Kripke's reading of Wittgenstein then this will hardly be news, but I'm not, so it's interesting to me.

It also makes me think about original meaning and current use as determining the meaning of a word.  There was quite a discussion here about "the c-word" and whether its use is sexist or not.  Roughly speaking, Americans seem to think it is (necessarily) sexist because a) that's how it tends to be used in the US (as a nasty, reductive alternative to 'woman') and b) its origin is clearly gender-specific so its use as an insult must imply that there is something bad about that gender.  On the other hand, British and Australian people seem to think it is not sexist because, whatever the original intent of the first person to use it as an insult, it is not used as anything but an insult (i.e. meaning something like bastard, only stronger).  I lean towards this latter view, but of course words can carry historical baggage.     

Surely what matters is what words still carry with them, or have come to carry with them, not the original luggage they left home with, as it were. It doesn't matter if 'welch' (meaning to fail to pay a gambling debt) originally came from 'Welsh' (meaning of or pertaining to Wales) if no one remembers this connection. (Does it? According to my dictionary the origin of 'welch' is unknown, by the way.) But it is no easy matter to know what someone remembers, or might remember, or might come to think. Words with a dubious past are always liable to have this past brought up, but innocent words (such as 'niggardly') might still upset people. And this kind of damage seems more important to me than questions of etymology in deciding which words to use when. What words should remain in currency seems to be a kind of political decision, and the politics of Robinson Crusoes are hard to imagine or understand. Which relates to the idea of ethics for one that Christensen addresses.


  1. I agree that the damage we may cause using a certain word seems more important than the word’s etymology when it comes to desiding what words to use when. Our guiding tool should, roughly speeking, be sensitivity and fingerspitzengefühl, rather than dictionaries. It’s surprizing though, how often even profesional linguists forget this when they get carried away discussing the meaning of particular words.

    A few years ago we had a similar discussion in Norway, concerning the norwegian equivalent to ‘negro’. Some are offended by this word, which they claim to be racist by definition. I’m inclined to agree. The word may once have had a purely descriptive function in norwegian -- though I doubt it – but surely not today. Not least because it insults so many. Therefore the word is uncommon. My impression is in fact that only a certain kind of people keep wanting to use it. Still, some etymologists argued that ‘negro’ isn’t offensive at all, because etymologically speaking the word simply denotes black or dark complexion. This is astonishingly simple minded. It’s as if they had forgotten that language is something we use when speaking, not something recorded in dictionaries. You write: ‘Surely what matters is what words still carry with them, or have come to carry with them, not the original luggage they left home with.’ Indeed, isn’t this what makes etymology such a fascinating field of enquiry too? – that words change!

    That some words for some reason begin to do damage, and the speakers to take that into consideration, is one way language may change. This is perhaps -- approximately -- what you mean when you say that it’s a kind of political decision what words should remain in currency. (What almost certainly will fail, is when linguists try to use their knowledge of etymology and how words have been used to date -- their language political influence, as it were -- to police the use of words in the future.)

  2. Yes, predicting the future is always going to be difficult. The past might provide some useful clues, but it surely can't offer any guarantees.

    It seems obvious, I agree, that a word's benign origin says nothing about whether its current use is benign. When I was a graduate student I met someone who insisted that it was not sexist to use the word 'he' instead of 'he or she' because this word had evolved from a word that originally meant 'he or she'. In effect, according to his account, English has two words spelled and pronounced 'he,' one of which means 'he' and one of which means 'he or she.' Assuming that this is historically accurate, it still seems irrelevant. We might wish that people knew more about etymology, but their ignorance is no excuse for not caring about the harm done by etymologically innocent uses of language. I think most people would accept this.

    What struck me in the discussion at Crooked Timber was the way that some people took it to be obvious that a word with a dubious origin must still be dubious or simply bad. I don't think this is true, let alone obvious. But I do agree with them that if a word has a bad origin then we should be very careful about using it now. We should, that is, give careful thought to whether we ought to use it or not. We might only need to do this once, though, not every time we feel like using the word.

  3. 'Many names of religions started as mocking nicknames,' writes Julian Baggini in his book Atheism: 'Methodist, Quaker, and even Christian all started out this way.' I agree, it's not obvious that these names are still mocking.

    Your fellow student was in effect saying: It's not sexist of me to say this today, because it wasn't sexist all those years ago -- which looks like a very poor argument. Perhaps that's why arguments from etymology in general are unsatisfying, because they all have this form: The word used to mean this -- or it was coined to have this meaning -- so that's what it means; it's not wrong to use it today because it wasn't wrong then (or it is wrong because it was).

  4. Yes, those are good examples. I don't think any Quakers would be insulted by being called by that name (i.e. Quaker), so the origin is irrelevant. It might be interesting, but it says nothing about whether we should use the word or not. Thanks.