Author Topic: how empty words may become mortal  (Read 4473 times)

Offline Guijarro

  • Forum Regulars
  • Linguist
  • *
  • Posts: 97
  • Country: es
    • Spanish
    • Elucubraciones de José Luis Guijarro
how empty words may become mortal
« on: January 09, 2015, 06:49:28 AM »
We all use words like “unicorn”, “troll”, “Fairy Queen”, etc., …and “god”. However, those words have no external reference. We know that the concepts they point to are individual mental representations which are shared by many people. But apart from the last word, i.e., “god” we don’t have to believe in their real existence out there.

The trouble with the word “god” is that it points to a mental object which, probably, has been created in our minds by our human condition, namely, by our faculty to attach intentions to the systems we don’t wholly understand (as Daniel Dennett, for one, assumes), which is apparently a product of our evolution. This feature has been further elaborated by social pressure and has become more or less shared by human groups. So, like the words “mermaid”, “hobbit” or “centaur” one may use “god” to point to a mental representation which  supposedly may be roughly shared by others. But being really an empty concept (filled up with an evolutionary trait and some social elaborations) it is prone to be further fashioned by our individual characters and experiences.

Some Muslim believers, after the criminal and idiotic assassination of cartoonists and journalists in Paris the day before yesterday, have immediately tried not to be considered terrorist because they share the name of the religion proclaimed by the imbecile criminals in their crazy killing paroxysm. So, they have tried to convince us that god is LOVE, JUSTICE, TENDERNESS and what not. Not cruelty, stupidity and hatred, if you please.

But as “god” is really an empty word (in the sense I am assuming here) what these decent and horrified people are talking about is themselves, as the criminals acted because they wanted to, not because “god” commanded them.

Those empty words which may be filled with anything become terribly dangerous (remember, NY, Madrid, London, before Paris.), and should be banned from circulation. True, they help some people understand the unsolved mysteries of our existence. But why use a word which is a noun, and not a clause, like I do? When I face some of those unsolved mysteries that haunt us, I use a clause, not a noun. “I don’t have enough information”. It points to exactly the same situation as when others use the noun “god” but it can’t be loaded by criminal (or saintly, for that matter) qualifiers at will.

In Paris, at this very moment, terrorism is still alive. Empty words, hatred and human deaths. All in the name of “god”.

Offline Daniel

  • Administrator
  • Experienced Linguist
  • *****
  • Posts: 1495
  • Country: us
    • English
Re: how empty words may become mortal
« Reply #1 on: January 09, 2015, 07:10:27 AM »
While the situation is serious, I don't think it's relevant to the linguistic details. So in my reply I won't focus on the situation.

First, what word is not empty but a reference to some mental construct based on our perception or imagination of the world? If I use your name, can I truly be referring you, not to what I perceive of you and the social construct which is you?

Second, "god" may or may not be real (surely we must step at least that far into potential belief into order to have a dialog with someone believes), and there are others for whom we do not necessarily have immediate evidence-- how is "god" then any different from other names like "George Washington" or "Sherlock Holmes"? Clearly we can refer to references that are not physically present, witnessed or even necessarily real-- but the reference is real to us. Unicorns don't exist in the real world, but neither does god-- if god exists, it is in some domain beyond the real world, and all we can do is indirectly refer to "god" with such words. The same is true of unicorns. But it isn't a problem because we all know what unicorns are-- I can draw a picture of a unicorn as well as I can draw a picture of a horse (admittedly not very well).

And it seems that "dragons" go back as far as Proto-Indo-European:
http://hdl.handle.net/2142/13178

So in the end, we describe what we perceive. It is not real objects in our language, but mental objects, and certainly our mental objects may not correspond to the "absolute truth", if in fact such a truth exists.

Thus, this all seems to come down to belief. Do we believe our eyes? Our ears? History books? Science? Religion?

And for all of that, language is agnostic. Isn't that what makes it interesting-- the infinity of language-- that we can refer to anything-- whether or not we're right :)
Welcome to Linguist Forum! If you have any questions, please ask.

Offline freknu

  • Forum Regulars
  • Serious Linguist
  • *
  • Posts: 397
  • Country: fi
    • Ostrobothnian (Norse)
Re: how empty words may become mortal
« Reply #2 on: January 09, 2015, 09:05:48 AM »
In that regard I find English quite fascinating, that these words in a sense are "hollow" with no fixed "quality". Other languages, however, do not always share this quality, which is important to remember.

And it seems that "dragons" go back as far as Proto-Indo-European:
http://hdl.handle.net/2142/13178

Yes, the concept of a serpent does indeed go back to PIE, and probably further if you ask me. However, the concept of a firebreathing lizard is a newer construction. Although, I could be wrong... but as far as I remember, the ancient serpent-myths deal with literal serpents (snakes), which later morphed into various spectacular beasts (cf. the various greco-roman chimeras).
« Last Edit: January 09, 2015, 09:11:45 AM by freknu »

Offline Daniel

  • Administrator
  • Experienced Linguist
  • *****
  • Posts: 1495
  • Country: us
    • English
Re: how empty words may become mortal
« Reply #3 on: January 09, 2015, 09:40:20 AM »
Can you expand on this?
Quote
Other languages, however, do not always share this quality, which is important to remember.

As for the serpents, thanks.
Welcome to Linguist Forum! If you have any questions, please ask.

Offline freknu

  • Forum Regulars
  • Serious Linguist
  • *
  • Posts: 397
  • Country: fi
    • Ostrobothnian (Norse)
Re: how empty words may become mortal
« Reply #4 on: January 09, 2015, 09:58:03 AM »
Can you expand on this?
Quote
Other languages, however, do not always share this quality, which is important to remember.

Well, I'm speaking from the point of view of my own tongue, but:

god — any person or thing that is worshipped
troll — 1. a strange/charming/mysterious (*cough*"crazy"*cough*) character, e.g. Daffy Duck (cartoon character), Björk (Icelandic artist), Willow from Buffy (played by Alyson Hannigan); 2. something unknown or mysterious, e.g. the troll in the well, or when used similarly to English "gremlins"

There are no implications, be it "god" or "troll". If you want to talk about an all-mighty, all-seing, all-present "god", then you are talking about the christian "god".

I don't know, but what Guijarro is speaking of may just be the result of a society dominated by christianity (even though its influence has waned in the past few hundred years). There doesn't seem to be a distinction between something being worshipped, and the identity of that being worshipped — god versus Yehowah.
« Last Edit: January 09, 2015, 12:04:04 PM by freknu »

Offline Guijarro

  • Forum Regulars
  • Linguist
  • *
  • Posts: 97
  • Country: es
    • Spanish
    • Elucubraciones de José Luis Guijarro
Re: how empty words may become mortal
« Reply #5 on: January 09, 2015, 11:03:29 AM »
Of course you are right, Daniel, that words refer to mental constructs (i.e., mental representations), but many have some sort of link with existing entities that you may find out there.

Those that do not have these links, may be filled with dynamite or not. You will seldom see people fighting to death over the length of the tail of mermaids, or the colour of unicorns' horn. However, people seem to be ever fighting over some other dynamite loaded words, "god", "patriotism", "freedom", and so on.

Aldous Huxley said that wars waged by greed were relatively manageable: they ceased as soon as people got what they wanted. However, wars over abstract concepts (what I called "empty concepts" above) only end by liquidation of the people holding different views from ours. They are TOTAL wars.

To think that this can happen with human words that point to empty concepts and may be charged with some sort of dynamite (?) is an unsettling thought --especially on days like today!

Offline freknu

  • Forum Regulars
  • Serious Linguist
  • *
  • Posts: 397
  • Country: fi
    • Ostrobothnian (Norse)
Re: how empty words may become mortal
« Reply #6 on: January 09, 2015, 11:08:57 AM »
Which would be ideological wars (versus resource wars), some just hide it behind religion, others behind something else, others don't hide it at all.

And you don't need "empty" words or concepts to wage ideological war, only ideology.

Offline Daniel

  • Administrator
  • Experienced Linguist
  • *****
  • Posts: 1495
  • Country: us
    • English
Re: how empty words may become mortal
« Reply #7 on: January 09, 2015, 11:45:54 AM »
Quote from: freknu
god — any person or thing that is worshipped
troll — 1. a strange/charming/mysterious (*cough*"crazy"*cough*) character, e.g. Daffy Duck, Björk, Willow from Buffy; 2. something unknown or mysterious, e.g. the troll in the well, or when used similarly to English "gremlins"
Very interesting!
But still, I wonder if the words in English couldn't slightly more indirectly be defined as such-- "god" = that which is associated with the Christian idea of god (or whatever other variation on the definition you prefer). But clearly there is something that at least feels more literal about those cases.

It also suggests that if the world were to change or "god" were to not exist that those would still apply to something. In that sense, they are not hypothetically referential to some particular idea, but to a relationship.
(Proper names have been given a similar account, that they refer to the person who holds that name.)

Quote from: Guijarro
Those that do not have these links, may be filled with dynamite or not. You will seldom see people fighting to death over the length of the tail of mermaids, or the colour of unicorns' horn. However, people seem to be ever fighting over some other dynamite loaded words, "god", "patriotism", "freedom", and so on.
Is it the words or the concepts, though?

Quote from: freknu
And you don't need "empty" words or concepts to wage ideological war, only ideology.
Indeed.
Welcome to Linguist Forum! If you have any questions, please ask.

Offline freknu

  • Forum Regulars
  • Serious Linguist
  • *
  • Posts: 397
  • Country: fi
    • Ostrobothnian (Norse)
Re: how empty words may become mortal
« Reply #8 on: January 09, 2015, 12:16:42 PM »
Quote from: freknu
god — any person or thing that is worshipped
troll — 1. a strange/charming/mysterious (*cough*"crazy"*cough*) character, e.g. Daffy Duck, Björk, Willow from Buffy; 2. something unknown or mysterious, e.g. the troll in the well, or when used similarly to English "gremlins"
Very interesting!
But still, I wonder if the words in English couldn't slightly more indirectly be defined as such-- "god" = that which is associated with the Christian idea of god (or whatever other variation on the definition you prefer). But clearly there is something that at least feels more literal about those cases.

It also suggests that if the world were to change or "god" were to not exist that those would still apply to something. In that sense, they are not hypothetically referential to some particular idea, but to a relationship.
(Proper names have been given a similar account, that they refer to the person who holds that name.)

That's why I think it's so fascinating... it's kind of like "vocabulary fashion" or whatever I should call it... tinted words? If the "fashion" ever dies out, then so too do the words (hypothetically). The words are, assumptively, derived from the "fashion" (ignoring etymology/historical usage and focusing only on current usage), rather than something more concrete. If the "fashion" dies out, then the words no longer have any meaning.

Wow... did I just describe religious "memes"? :D

Offline Guijarro

  • Forum Regulars
  • Linguist
  • *
  • Posts: 97
  • Country: es
    • Spanish
    • Elucubraciones de José Luis Guijarro
Re: how empty words may become mortal
« Reply #9 on: January 09, 2015, 01:27:31 PM »
Freknu: And you don't need "empty" words or concepts to wage ideological war, only ideology.

And what is ideology if not the assumption of some particular meaning for empty words?

Or concepts?

You are right, Daniel. It was unclear whether the words or the concepts were empty. Let me now clarify things a bit by proposing that the words be just pointers (so, they couldn't have content). It is the concepts pointed to by words, then, that are empty and apt to be filled in any ideological way one likes.

There must be a way to explain why some of these concepts are so dangerous, but I have no clear idea as to what this explanation could really be.

In my courses, I used the parable of the three kinds of human thinking (i.e., common sense, traditional thinking, scientific thinking). But a parable can hardly be an explanation of the causes that turn traditional thinking into a social pedigree which specifies our belonging to a group or not. I haven't been able to figure out how to tackle this explanatory problem, I am afraid, so I won't bother you with the parable.

Offline Daniel

  • Administrator
  • Experienced Linguist
  • *****
  • Posts: 1495
  • Country: us
    • English
Re: how empty words may become mortal
« Reply #10 on: January 09, 2015, 01:56:43 PM »
At the same time does a word not give a concept an illusory boost in legitimacy? Some argue that we need words even to have concepts. So there may be something to that after all.
Welcome to Linguist Forum! If you have any questions, please ask.

Offline freknu

  • Forum Regulars
  • Serious Linguist
  • *
  • Posts: 397
  • Country: fi
    • Ostrobothnian (Norse)
Re: how empty words may become mortal
« Reply #11 on: January 09, 2015, 02:26:44 PM »
And what is ideology if not the assumption of some particular meaning for empty words?

It is the concepts pointed to by words, then, that are empty and apt to be filled in any ideological way one likes.

I don't remember who said it, but don't we all have ideologies?

The right to free speech is an ideology, the right to vote is an ideology, the separation of church and state is an ideology, the application of science is an ideology.

Are these bad concepts? Are these concepts "empty"?

Offline jkpate

  • Forum Regulars
  • Linguist
  • *
  • Posts: 130
  • Country: us
    • American English
    • jkpate.net
Re: how empty words may become mortal
« Reply #12 on: January 09, 2015, 06:40:45 PM »
And what is ideology if not the assumption of some particular meaning for empty words?

It is the concepts pointed to by words, then, that are empty and apt to be filled in any ideological way one likes.

I don't remember who said it, but don't we all have ideologies?

The right to free speech is an ideology, the right to vote is an ideology, the separation of church and state is an ideology, the application of science is an ideology.

Are these bad concepts? Are these concepts "empty"?

I think this is on the right track. Why do certain ideologies become influential? In the particular case that Guijarro mentioned, I don't think it is an accident that such a murderous ideology towards those who hold Western ideals has arisen in a region that has repeatedly suffered political and economic upheaval at the hands of the West. Of course the words seem "empty" if we ignore their material environment.
« Last Edit: January 09, 2015, 06:48:01 PM by jkpate »
All models are wrong, but some are useful - George E P Box

Offline jkpate

  • Forum Regulars
  • Linguist
  • *
  • Posts: 130
  • Country: us
    • American English
    • jkpate.net
Re: how empty words may become mortal
« Reply #13 on: January 09, 2015, 07:12:34 PM »
However, wars over abstract concepts (what I called "empty concepts" above) only end by liquidation of the people holding different views from ours. They are TOTAL wars.

I'd also like to strenuously disagree with this point. It is overdramatic to say that total wars only end by "liquidation" of the adversary. The most obvious example that comes to my mind is the American civil war, which had aspects of both a resource war (the Confederate states did not want to lose their free labor) and an ideological war (whether the federal government had power to enforce individual freedom over the power of states to deny individual freedom on the basis of race). While the Confederacy was defeated, suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties over the course of the war, and was economically devastated, those holding the ideology of the Confederacy were far from "liquidated." From the KKK to Jim Crow to segregation advocates up to modern attempts to suppress minority voting and use racial profiling in police work, the ideology that states, or other local institutions, have a right to deny individual freedom on the basis of race has been and remains one of the most influential ideologies in the USA.
« Last Edit: January 09, 2015, 07:14:35 PM by jkpate »
All models are wrong, but some are useful - George E P Box

Offline Guijarro

  • Forum Regulars
  • Linguist
  • *
  • Posts: 97
  • Country: es
    • Spanish
    • Elucubraciones de José Luis Guijarro
Re: how empty words may become mortal
« Reply #14 on: January 10, 2015, 04:48:57 AM »
FREKNU: Are these bad concepts? Are these concepts "empty"?

ME: There must be a way to explain why some of these concepts are so dangerous, but I have no clear idea as to what this explanation could really be.

JKPATE: I think this is on the right track. Why do certain ideologies become influential? In the particular case that Guijarro mentioned, I don't think it is an accident that such a murderous ideology towards those who hold Western ideals has arisen in a region that has repeatedly suffered political and economic upheaval at the hands of the West. Of course the words seem "empty" if we ignore their material environment.


All is said and done!

And you are right, JKPATE, Huxley said those wars over ideology were more cruel than those provoked by greed. I exaggerated his statement.

And DANIEL, not all concepts have a lexical entry: For instance, "that pain in the knee that attacks me when taking a nap at 3 in the afternoon" is a concept which doesn't have a pointer-word. Therefore, I need a whole sentence to point to it.

According to RT, concepts are kept in the mind and can be accessed by three links: the lexical, the encyclopaedic and the logical one. When one is missing one may reach the concept through the other links. But of course, you don't like RT.