Episode 103: Language…instinct, technology or virus?

Language is a virus, said William Burroughs, controversial and Beat Generation writer.  Humanity is infected by language, he believed, which is a medium not only of communication but of control.  Linguists have long argued about whether language is a naturally-evolved instinct or whether it is a technology acquired within a social group and isn’t instinctual to human beings at all.  But what Burroughs argued went beyond to origins and usefulness of language to the very heart of how we think.  Namely — can we think without language, can we imagine things without their designated words, and if not, are we infected by the virus we acquired as children to think only in terms of how our society categorises things?

This week we use Burroughs’s famous quote “language is a virus from outer space” to contemplate language as instinct, technology or virus.

In this episode we discuss:

* the origins of language – instinct or technology?

* Nietzsche on the legislation of language

* language as virus

* impact of the printing press

* practical ways we can shift our use of language to communicate more clearly

* how to enquire into what another person means by certain words to facilitate communication


Nietzsche tried to explain the way language limits us when he wrote, “with words it is never a question of truth, never a question of adequate expression; otherwise, there would not be so many languages. The “thing in itself” (which is precisely what the pure truth, apart from any of its consequences, would be) is likewise something quite incomprehensible to the creator of language and something not in the least worth striving for. This creator only designates the relations of things to men, and for expressing these relations he lays hold of the boldest metaphors… It is this way with all of us concerning language; we believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers; and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things — metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities…”


It is easy to forget this this age of technology that once, language for most people meant only the ‘spoken word’.  That was, until the age of the printing press, which transformed not only religion and culture, but language itself.  The printing press was an agent of change in terms of educational practice. It transformed the relationship between educator and student. “Previous relations between masters and disciples were altered. Students who took full advantage of technical texts which served as silent instructors…. Young minds provided with updated editions, especially of mathematical texts began to surpass not only their own elders but the wisdom of ancients as well.”


The key is language — as medium for communication and control.  Prior to the printing press only the church and the elite had access to books. The church used this to control the masses via religion and as the Roman’s knew, he who controlled the mob (the masses) controlled the state. So one could argue that in order to wrestle control from the church, the printer press was invented thereby making books cheaper to produce and therefore easier to get books into more and more hands and yes like a virus, infect more minds, minds that you can control through the words you write.

The printing press allowed for the democratizing of knowledge as a greater number of individuals were provided access to more information. But it also shapes the ways we think. It creates our lens through which we view the world.  As James Baldwin writes, “it is experience which shapes a language; and it is language which controls an experience.”