The Purpose Of Language
Language can serve many purposes, but one is far more important than all the others combined
It’s interesting, in these contentious days of verbal chicanery in which people are supposed to tear themselves apart in a frenzy of political correctness over which words are acceptable and what words are purported to mean, to ask a simple question: what is the primary purpose of language?
Although today’s crop of lefty-trendy academics and wokist warriors will inevitably bore us to tears by claiming that language is all about cultural imperialism, linguistic hegemony, and whatever other nonsense happens to be transiently fashionable this morning, we can answer the question definitively by asking another question: why do people learn a second language?
Sometimes it’s because they are interested in the literature written in that particular language; sometimes it is because they will soon be, or are presently, working and living in a country where that language predominates. Sometimes it is merely in order to be able to converse with locals while being a tourist. In all cases it is because those learning a new language want to understand what people who speak that language are attempting to communicate, and to be able to communicate back in return.
We can see by answering a simple question we come incontrovertibly and inescapably to the primary purpose of language: communication.
There are certainly many secondary and tertiary functions of language. Class-ridden societies such as England use language and accent to signal social status and educational attainment; conversely those who cynically seek to glorify cultures of deprivation use language for virtue-signaling.
Likewise, lefty-trendy academics frequently use jargon-laden language in endless sociology papers and literary theory papers to obscure the fact they have nothing of interest to say in their wordy but vacuous essays packed full of the latest must-use words and phrases, all written in a desperate attempt to enhance the extremely minor significance of the author.
As we in the West have lived largely in a world of great peace and prosperity over the last several decades, a great many people are looking for reasons to be unhappy. Having some degree of stress is a natural requirement of all living things so when exogenous stresses are largely absent we create endogenous ones in their place, no matter how risible they may be. Thus today the halls of academia echo with the babble of fashionable nonsense in which various charlatans proclaim that the primary purpose of language is nefarious and can only be remedied by whatever prescriptions and proscriptions they happen to be favoring this morning (and which, doubtless, will change by tomorrow afternoon into something even more transiently fashionable). Language, we are told, is all about domination and exploitation.
In this baleful view of things, everyone who utters or writes a word is, one way or another, a foot soldier in a battle concerning all manner of supposed wrongs. People who imagine that helping children to acquire a good grasp of their nation’s standard version of their language are at best misguided and at worst wicked perpetrators of cultural imperialism and, no doubt, the patriarchy as well. Words must mean whatever we want them to mean, can be arranged in any order whatsoever (in order not to quash natural creativity), and can be pronounced in whatever ways are most endearing to those who love to patronize ghetto culture through the pretense of championing it.
Securely cosseted in comfortable tenured positions, our lefty-trendy academics are keen to tell the world that incomprehensible accents and group-specific argots are the only truly “authentic” forms of expression and as such must be given equal or higher ranking relative to standard forms of language. The fact that these prescriptions will inevitably trap millions of young people by ensuring they are unemployable is of no consequence to our earnest academics because they themselves have no need to worry about such things. Their income, pensions, and other perks are all securely locked in place. What need thus have they to concern themselves with deleterious consequences born by others? Ideological purity is far more important than bothering about the fact such prescriptions, if followed, would condemn millions to endless poverty.
For those of us lacking such ideological purity, we can nevertheless note that a few of the arguments made by lefty-trendy academics do have some merit. At any moment in time there are words that are agreed by at least a portion of the population to be offensive in some way. Sometimes these words have sexual connotations and sometimes they are intentionally discriminatory against particular groups of people. This much is incontestable, and most decent people would tend to agree that using words in a manner intended to cause harm to others is usually something we would wish to avoid.
We can also agree that language can indeed signal status, educational achievement, as well as indicate to some degree the level of intelligence possessed by the speaker. A statement such as “It is indubitably true that quotidian matters are of less interest than the exotic” is clearly differentiated from a statement such as “So he was all, f*ck it, but I was like, it’s f*ckin smart, innit?” We can infer that the person who proffered the former sentence was considerably more educated than the person who uttered the latter, and most likely possessed a far greater degree not only of erudition but also of intellect. We can thus agree than language can indeed signify qualities beyond simply semantic content.
But these qualities are secondary characteristics. Arguing that we should place speakers of restricted versions of a language on the same level as those whose grasp is extensive is to make a fundamental error because we thereby overlook the primary purpose of language.
Someone who pertinently employs an extensive subject-appropriate lexicon is able more precisely to convey their intended meaning than someone whose grasp of language is at best modest and permeated by significant gaps. This is why, for example, airline pilots are trained to communicate using a very precise form of English. There is no room for sloppy ambiguity in an environment in which imprecision has the potential to cost lives. Language is a tool, and like all tools it requires some measure of devotion in order to master it and utilize it purposefully. But because language conveys concepts, it has a greater reach than a bricklayer’s trowel or a sniper’s rifle.
When we hear academics proclaiming the equality of all forms of language, we should ask ourselves: would we wish to live in houses constructed by bricklayers who have little grasp of how to construct a wall? Or abandon the training of soldiers on the grounds that manuals of arms merely inhibit the natural creativity of would-be snipers? Do we want pilots to babble on in the hope that somehow the hapless Air Traffic Controller listening will be able to infer what is meant?
There is no reason whatsoever to claim that language has a uniquely privileged position, nor that any sequence of noises can be construed as a means of communicating complex concepts. If we can reasonably presume that an inept bricklayer has taken insufficient care to master their craft, and a sniper who hits the target only occasionally by random chance has likewise failed to acquire the requisite abilities, why should we presume otherwise of those who do not communicate with adequate comprehensibility?
Today we are increasingly cautious about our utterances lest we fall foul of the shrieking neurotics who seek to police every utterance and every text. It seems as if every day new words and phrases are added to the list of proscriptions — a situation reminiscent of the way in which the Church used to impose similar prohibitions in order to control the minds of millions. The curious thing is that it is not uncommon these days to be told that certain words are acceptable if some people use them, but entirely unacceptable if used by others. The so-called “N-word” is perhaps the most famous example of such double standards. It’s not difficult to see this attitude is intellectually incoherent as well as morally dubious because it imposes a verbal apartheid on everyone concerned.
Unfortunately, we are presently living in an age in which the media is hungry for endless sensationalism and so promulgates the nonsense foisted upon a gullible public by a relatively small number of self-promoting academics. We are consequently supposed to believe that certain words are now off-limits; thus a great many journals now avoid the word “woman” and use absurd circumlocutions such as “menstruating people” or “people with a cervix.” As more than half of all US citizens don’t know what a cervix is, the latter is obviously going to leave a great many people devoid of comprehension while the former seems indisputably to discriminate against people with XX chromosomes who have passed through menopause.
The reason for this nonsense is because of so-called social justice activism. In this amusing but unfortunately harmful view of the world, gender is purely an artificial construct and therefore anyone can be whatever gender (or, presumably, genders) they like merely by stating their preference du jour. And we must treat them according to their self-assignment. Thanks to the joys of ideological purity, consequences can be ignored. In fact, consequences can be used as an excuse to demonize those who attempt to draw attention to them. When someone dares to point out out that male rapists have gained access to women’s prisons by the expedient of telling the prison authorities that they now “identify as a woman” and thereafter have committed further rapes on female inmates, the person pointing this out will be harangued as transphobic and subject to all manner of vitriol — while the actual problem of rape is ignored.
We also see attempts to remove from language all words that are presently deemed to be unacceptable, either because of the ludicrous doctrine of “cultural appropriation” or because of supposed “colonial” overtones. As language is a perpetually evolving construct that of necessity absorbs influences from other languages, an attitude of linguistic purity is self-defeating as well as being intellectually absurd. It is also yet another example of linguistic apartheid. And no one seems to notice that these strictures are imposed by a self-selected group of highly homogenous lefty-trendy academics — and are thus a classic example of elitism seeking to dominate the discourse of others.
In other words, the lefty-trendies of academia are doing precisely what they accuse everyone else of doing. This is an amusing irony, but much more importantly it totally undermines any shred of intellectual honesty or justification for such a posture.
In our modern world of febrile neurosis over what we supposedly are and are not allowed to say and write, we would do well to remember that language is first and foremost a means of communication. Its secondary functions are the result of social forces, not the primary means whereby such forces are generated. Telling people they aren’t allowed to use the word “woman” does nothing to remove discrimination, prejudice, and inequality but does rob us of an extremely useful word that has served us well for centuries. No one gains, everyone loses.
The same argument in favor of comprehension applies to accents and pronunciation. As someone who’s lived most of his life in a wide variety of countries, all I care about is intelligibility. Provided the right words are used to convey the desired meanings, and those words are spelled or spoken so as to be comprehensible, then communication is achieved. In the absence of those basic requirements, communication is difficult or impossible and therefore communication is not achieved. As the primary purpose of language is communication, it logically follows that we need to meet the basic requirements in order that language can fulfill its primary purpose. Putting politics in the way is not only a foolish attempt, it is also inevitably a doomed one. Because in the end, we do need to communicate with one another, and in our global interconnected world, standardized languages are the means whereby we can best accomplish this task.
For anyone interested in a sample smattering of the absurdities of our modern world, these articles may provide transient amusement: