DOUG COCKS

   (Talk to Independent Scholars Association June 2012)

   [No geolinguistics, no comparative linguistics, no neurolinguistics, no FoxP2 etc.]
         What is language?
• A family of technologies used by a group of
  (a) for exchanging information (thought
  messages) between people, and

 (b) for helping people think (e.g. premises>
 conclusions; perceptions > narratives;)

• Mutually understood signals = indicative
  signs & arbitrary symbols= a shared model
  of reality
            Scope of talk

• The evolution of language

• The role of language in contemporary

• Language’s prospects under three
  scenarios for global society
Stages in the evolution of language

• Averbal language

• Talking and listening

• Reading and writing

• Conscious (critical) thinking

• Use of electro-mechanical technologies
          Averbal language
• Gestures, postures, movements

• 1.8 mya to 100 kya

• ‘Voluntary pausing’ around 500 kya?

• Transmitted by imitation of observed

• Selection for brain size and complexity
         Talking and listening (1)
•   5 mya --- down from the trees bringing
•   (a) fine motor skills
•   (b) group living skills (esp. info exchange)
•   (c) mimetic skills

•   BIPEDALISM became platform for
•   ‘pulse’ breathing
•   dropped voice box (vowels)
•   expressive hands
•   brain growth, driven by limb differentiation
•   accessible memory, driven by lifestyle
     Talking and listening (2)
• 1.Selection to tag things with vocal
  signals (Why? Out-of-sight and night
  time communication)
• 2. Selection to use fast vocal signals
• 3. Breakthrough to syntax = separate
  ‘words,’ for components of a
  compound event, e.g. near lion
• (How did vocabulary expand?)
        Reading and writing
• 1st = pictographic (3500 BCE)
• 2nd = alphabetic (1200-800 BCE)---one
  sign per sound
• Last millennium BCE
    ---time of authoritative sacred texts
  and texts of foundation myths
     ---time of the Greek awakening
   Conscious (critical) thinking
• Classical Greeks pioneered use of language
  for self-conscious choice-based thinking
  (What’s happening? What to do?)
• Truth is something to be discovered
• Had vocabulary and cognitive skills to
  debate nature, society & mental life
• What was conscious thinking replacing?
• One contentious answer = bicameral mind
  (hallucinations, belief = knowledge, external
       Self-conscious choice
• Self-consciousness = ascribing
  thoughts being experienced to oneself
• Choice-making is dialectical = generate
  tailored verbalised solutions till one is
  judged plausible (true enough) and
  emotionally OK (? Quality control?)
• Since Greeks, changes in (a) content
  but not cognitive skills (b) message
  construction and transfer technologies
     Use of electro-mechanical
• Technologies which remove/ loosen
  constraints on construction and
  transfer of messages
• Starts with printing
• Telegraphy, telephony, radio and
• Massively enhanced by computers
   What has become possible?
• Shifting message delivery in time and
• Translating between media
• Mass media = mass exposure
• Electronically stored material (= humanity’s
  virtual memory)

• Rapid text construction
            The role of language in
             contemporary society
• Private language use (inc. self-deception)
• Public language use
    ---The struggle to shape public opinion
    ---Global trends
    ---Interest groups
    ---Culpable bullshit
• Other problems with contemporary language
 specialisation and democracy
 loss of truth and God
 post-modernism, relativism
 censorship, free speech
 failure to cope with complexity and conflict
 fragility of the species virtual memory
     Future of language under three
• Economic Growth

• Cultural Transformation

• New Dark Age

(Note co-evolution between language & social organisation)
           Economic Growth

• Economic growth via competitive markets =
  primary path to the public good
• Many new technologies and products
• Loss of vocabulary & freedom of speech in
  authoritarian societies
• Vocational education displaces language of
  the humanities & arts
• Caveat emptor; Mistrust = norm
• Information gap follows income gap
       Cultural transformation
• Shift in attitude towards scope of markets
• ‘Marketism’ replaced by ‘ecologism’ as
  society’s ‘root metaphor’
• Extensive investment in
  --education (e.g. art of dialogue),
  --research (e.g. extending short-term
  memory) and
  --public policy (e.g. improve accountability
                        New Dark Age

•   Under the combined effects of natural disasters, famine, war, mass migration,
    poverty, disease, resource exhaustion, debt and economic disruption, the
    world’s population will start falling well before current estimates of a peak in
    2070. Many indicators of quality of life, including life expectancy, will slump.

•   In all countries, especially failed and war-torn states, it will become much
    harder for most people to meet their everyday needs. Women and children, the
    old and the sick will be most affected. Jobs will be few. Supply chains for
    basic commodities (eg food, fuel, medicines) will break. Barter will become
    normal. Prices will escalate. Health, education, transport and police services
    will degrade. Power and water supplies will become unreliable or worse.
    Roads and other infrastructure will be poorly maintained. Crime and group
    violence will escalate. Violent protest and looting will be commonplace.
    Ordinary people will live in fear. Mental illness will be endemic. People will turn
    to authoritarian regimes for respite.

•   In brief, cities everywhere will struggle to avoid becoming giant lawless slums.
    Rural populations will be vulnerable to marauders and incursions from
    displaced persons. Life will be an exhausting wretched struggle.
 Language in a New Dark Age
• Specialist languages lost as society
• Mainstream language and attitudes
  fragment with isolation
• Impoverishment of vocabularies
• Loss of electronic ‘libraries’
• Disappearance of cheap messaging
     Quo vadis Homo sapiens

• Swimming in a sea of bullshit will not kill us
  off, just make us poorer---culturally,
  psychologically and economically

• Language biteback---Dark Age scenario
  envisages the catastrophic destructuring of a
  global society which we could never have
  built if we had not learned to talk
    Some discussion questions
•   Why isn’t bullshitting recognised as a v. serious problem?
    What price the ‘elephant-in-the-room shit’ of self-deception?

•   Does bullshit have a higher evolutionary function which I am not

•   Should we be trying to develop a theory of bullshit as a social force?

•   Apart from science, can we identify any recent major linguistic
    triumphs---parts of the culture where language has become a lot more
    useful ?

•   If, as Mike Austin says, language is the DNA of culture (in the sense
    that it ‘codes’ the symbolic recipes for technologies, culture’s building
    blocks) could we build a ‘Darwinian’ model (selective retention of
    variation) of the evolution of language?

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