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Robert Andrew
 
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Unlike JF Kennedy, Politicians Must Not Be Seen As 'Jelly Doughnuts'

11 January 2014, 23:35

The origin of language remains a mystery. Modern linguistics is of little help since most theories are developed solely in terms of one language and little attempt is made to give them a wider application. Our common linguistic ancestry has a truly inaccessible past. According to some researchers, the distant common ancestor of all modern language might not even have been a language. Evolutionists believe that the whole of vertebrate evolution, of body, brain and behaviour, was the 'material cause' or origin of language.

 Language is the ability to use a relatively limited-albeit quite large-set of symbols to generate a virtually infinite number of meaningful combinations to form utterances, each of which has meaning. Each of us has a vocabulary of around 30,000 to 40,000 words, of which the most commonly used number just a few thousand. Yet we can generate billions of different meaningful sentences of about twenty words or less in length.

 Language gives us extraordinary creativity: the chances are that every sentence we use has never been used before.        

All we really know about language is that there is a relationship between what is going on 'in our heads' and a bodily activity that produces sounds and gestures which are perceivable by others and interpretable by them. Similarly, we know that there is a relationship between a perceivable activity of others and what consequently goes on in our heads. Language is thus the capacity of one individual to alter the mental organisation of another individual. We also change our own mental state by using language to 'talk' to ourselves.               

Fritjof Capra (The Web of Life) believes that language among human beings is not just a transmission of information, but rather a 'co-ordination of behaviour'. Mutual co-ordination of behaviour is the key characteristic of communication, in whatever form, for all living organisms. He quotes the example of African parrots that live in dense forests with hardly any possibility of seeing each other. Parrot couples form and co-ordinate their mating ritual by producing a common song. Each bird appears to be singing a full melody, but it is actually a duet in which the two birds progressively expand upon each other's phrases. Close observation showed too that the level of the ritual of the parrots is determined not so much by the 'meaning' of the sounds but by the intensity and dynamics of the melodic coupling.               

The famous biologist Robert Trivers goes further: he believes that language has 'reciprocal altruism' (you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours) bound up with it. The mutual co-ordination of behaviour by language develops from a 'back and forth' kind of relationship where each benefits from the interaction.               

Language is a powerful instrument and constitutes one of the principal forces controlling and forming human behaviour. Why is it then that in so many areas, especially in politics, the art of language in its broader sense often seems to be destroyed? The plethora of speeches and spoken written documents, generally read by someone else who did not write them, are very poor substitutes for face-to-face contacts where gestures, facial expressions and tone complement syntax and understanding. Unlike the African parrots, human beings need to see one another to maximise the co-ordination of behaviour through language. The language of human beings is also unique in the animal world in that the sounds we utter have meaning. Each word we say or write, and how we say and write it, will conjure up a particular meaning for the people for whom the communiques are intended. We often laugh about misunderstood words but they can have damaging consequences. How much of the poor efficiency in the language of politics, and consequent media statements, are caused by misunderstanding or confusion in the language used? Not all misunderstood words are seen as funny, as was the case with JF Kennedy when said during a speech in Berlin trying to indicate his emotional ‘togetherness’ with all Berliners: "Ich bin ein Berliner" which the Germans took to mean, "I am a jelly doughnut".

In these days of frenetic politicking and political posturing, imploring universally shared visions and values among the citizens or the party followers, politicians would do well to realise the importance of language. Unlike information technology, which relies on good formal computer 'language' and 'syntax', these attributes will not necessarily produce the benefits brought about by proper, correct and well-delivered human language. Politicians should realise that their ability to converse meaningfully with their constituents and the broader diverse population is their most valuable skill.

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