Are we prisoners of language or the authors of our lives?

by John MacBeath Watkins

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis tells us that language, because it gives us the categories we use to think, affects how we perceive the world. Some researchers have gone so far as to propose that people who have different color lexicons actually see colors differently.

Color me skeptical. I think it highly likely that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is correct on more culturally conditioned matters like our sense of fairness, but find it unlikely that it has much, if any, effect on how we see color, as opposed to how we talk about what we perceive.

But this basic insight, which has really been with us since Ferdinand de Saussure's book,  A Course in General Linguistics, was published in 1913, gets at a deeper question. Are we prisoners of the languages that give our minds the categories we think with? Do we have individual agency, or are we prisoners of the structure of meaning?

Is language a prison that restricts us, or a prism through which we see new things?

Marxist political theory has insisted that the structure of meaning is a prison, that those who initiate us into it are enforcing capitalist cultural norms. Structuralist thinkers like Roland Barthes argued against what he called the cult of the author, and in general, structuralists argued against the relevance of human agency and the autonomous individual.

Is this what language looks like?
Structuralism has lost ground in its original field of linguistics. Noam Chomsky, for example, proposed that while structuralism was all right for describing phonology and morphology, it was inadequate for syntax. It could not explain the generation of the infinite variety of possible sentences or deal with the ambiguity of language.

When Saussure developed structuralism, the previous movement in linguistics had been philology, which studied texts through their history, and the meanings of words as they have changed. This is a necessary process when examining classical texts, and philology has sort of calved off from the glacier of linguistics.

Saussure proposed studying language synchronically, that is, at it exists at one time, which was perhaps a good corrective to the habits of his profession. But it did mean that the method was never intended to examine where the structure came from or how it changed. I doubt Saussure anticipated his method completely displacing the earlier methods of studying language. He simply felt is would be helpful to look at language as it exists, as well.

As the understanding of the power of language spread, however, it did tend to obscure the role of the individual. Its proposal to study language as it is, rather than try to attach it to its past, fit with the modernist movement's desire to shed tradition and make the world new and rational, sweeping away the dust and sentiment of the centuries and plunging into the future. At the same time, the concept of the structure of language and thought was frightening. How could we leave the past behind when all we could think was already in the structure?

Some tried to escape the structure of meaning, by making art that represented nothing, writing that tried to trick the brain into a space not already subsumed into the structure. But in the end, you cannot escape from meaning except into meaninglessness, and why do any work that is meaningless?

We are not words in a dictionary that can never be revised. We define ourselves, in fact, we are the source of meaning. The web of meaning we call language would disappear if there were no minds to know it, no people to speak and hear. We learn by play, and it is through creative play that we expand the realm of meaning. A web without connections is just a tangle of fibers. We are the connections, and our relationships to each other are the fibers.

Barthes was wrong. Authors are important, and authorship is pervasive. We are all the authors of our acts, writing the stories of our lives. Learning language and the other structures of society enable us to do this, to create new meanings, affirm or modify traditional meanings, and to influence others.

We need not choose between being ourselves and being part of humanity, because we cannot help being both. Yes, we are in large part made up of those we've known, the books we've read, the traditions we've learned, but we are the vessels in which those things are stored and remade and passed on with our own essence included.





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