Language: A servant turned master

I have been reading the debate, about the existence of the Taino, on Dienekes’ blog.  The debate pretty much revolves around semantics.  They argue over the definitions of “ethnic group”, “extinction”, “religion” and “language”.  It seems to me that the debate could be solved by simply agreeing to disagree about the definitions.  There was a discontinuity of the original Taino tribe; in other words, they became extinct.  The people who call themselves “Taino” today have every right to call themselves whatever they want.  If they wish to found their own ethno-state and call it “Tainoland”, let them do so.
Are they the same Taino tribe that inhabited the Caribbean in the 15th century?  Of course not.  The Greeks of today are not exactly the same Greek people that existed in the 15th century either.  Both the Taino and the Greeks have changed.  It’s only a matter of degree.  As far as I know, there is no scientific litmus test, or threshold, that can determine who is a “real Greek” or a “real Taino”.  Each of us is free to draw the line wherever we choose.  This is not to say that Dienekes’ point is not a valid one; the Greeks have remained a living ethnic group continuously for a very long time.  Today’s “Taino” have been an “ethnic group” for only the last few years and any link between today’s Taino and 15th century Taino is tenuous at best.
Like so many other things in our world, an ethnic group has no clear borders, and it is always changing.
It is not only races and ethnic groups that change.  Individuals change too.  Most of the cells in our bodies replace themselves every few years.  George Wright was on the lamb for 41 years, long enough for most of his body to have been replaced.  It could be argued that the guilty George Wright no longer exists, since it was mostly a different body (and certainly a different mind) that did the crime so many years ago.  Of course, by this token no criminal could ever be punished for his crimes.  Wives would be right when they say, “You’re not the same man I married” and no divorce would be necessary.  Parents wouldn’t have to pay child-support and children wouldn’t have to honor their parents.  Contracts would have no meaning and elections would not be valid.
We get around the above complications by recognizing continuity* as a valid reason to apply old labels.  Thus, there is still a Jewish people even though it would be unrecognizable to the Jews of 2,000 years ago.  But this consistency of labeling is merely a human trick; it helps us cope with an ever-changing reality but does not change that reality one bit.  The pace of change, and its agents, help us distinguish between what we consider the natural course of nature and crime.  For example, we are all slowly dying, but when a person accelerates this natural process in another, we call it “murder”.  Similarly, all races and ethnic groups are slowly dying, but when people accelerate this natural process, we call it “genocide”.
In order for us to make sense of reality, and for any sort of civilization to exist, humans were forced to distinguish between various stages of existence.  Language was an essential tool for this end.  We had to have a name for “lion” and “cub” in order to express varying degrees of danger and harmlessness.  But over time, this tool transitioned from a system of labeling external realities to acquiring the power to determine reality in the mind of its users.  While magic incantations, prayer and curses are good examples of this, sophisticated/educated people never truly abandoned this frame of mind.  We easily become confused between the words we use to express ideas and the ideas themselves.  Our habit of using language to neatly label various stages of change has made us lose sight of the fact that we live in a fluid reality.  The words we use to describe any given state of being can only be approximations.
It seems to me that the longer a culture has been literate, the more it tends to lose sight of the distinction between reality and the words we use to express it.  Many of the debates in the Talmud focus on the meanings of words.  Even then it was assumed that words must have precise meanings, and that this was necessary in order to understand Jewish law.  Later, the Kabbalists claimed that Hebrew words actually capture the essence of the things they describe (the ultimate precision).  The ancient Greek sophists exploited this confusion for their own profit.  In our own time, we are also becoming subservient to the vagaries of language – when our courts use the word “manslaughter” for “murder” and let criminals off with a slap on the wrist.  Or when President Clinton was creative with his definition of the word “sex” or “is”.
Language is a very special tool;  Without it, we would not be fully human.  But, if we take it too seriously, it limits our minds and oppresses us.  Here’s an interesting post from science chat forum:

Even Pavlov agreed animals are versatile, adapt their behavior to novel and unpredictable situations, and seem to anticipate and plan for the future. Their versatility is evidence of calculating minds. For example, wolves cruising about their immense territories are believed to navigate by learning mental maps of the land. This explains how wolves are able successfully to take short cuts through regions of their territories they have not previously explored.
A major difference between animals and humans is language. Our use of language enables us to label ideas and think about them. The view is that animals have no language and therefore cannot think. But thoughts need not be based on human language. After all, how do people think who are completely deaf and blind from birth and have never heard a word spoken?
How many kinds of thought are there? We are so used to human-style thought that we may not realize our language-based thinking is not the only mode of thought. If animals do not have language and yet think, then they must think without words. They think in a kind of non-linguistic, non-verbal thought.
Get a measure of what non-verbal thought is like. Simply suppress your urge to think in words. Suppress the stream of words constantly running through your head by repeating over and over to yourself a short rhythm, like “one, two”. Buddhist will know a lot about non-verbal thinking.
Whereas language excels at abstract thought, you may find your non-verbal thoughts Think non-verbally of a problem and solve it by non-verbal reasoning or by insight.
An understanding of animal way of thinking is important for a complete understanding of ourselves.
In so many ways the possession of language stops us in understanding many things.!!!

I agree.  It would be nice if we could benefit from language in our relations with the outside world, but prevent it from taking over our minds completely.  One of the pitfalls of verbal thought is that we expect reality to conform to our words.  We should visit a sandy beach.
Let us ask ourselves where the ocean begins and dry land ends.  Though it may seem clearly marked on a map, the reality is that it varies with the tides.  Each wave brings a new reality and each grain of sand would have its own say as to whether it belongs to the ocean or dry land.  The boundaries are fuzzy – and yet we will drown if we venture too far out into the water; at that point, there is no doubt.  Further inland, we know we are safe.  Thus we fully recognize the validity of “dry land” and “ocean” even though there is no clear demarcation between the two.  Perhaps this is one reason the beach is so popular.  In a sense, it takes us back to our pre-verbal existence.
*What if George Wright had suffered, at some point during his 41 years on the run, total amnesia.  A brick fell on his head, he lost consciousness and woke up with a totally different personality.  When the law caught up with him, should he still be punished for the crimes of George Wright #1?

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5 Responses to Language: A servant turned master

  1. Andrei says:

    This discussion could go on and on, in an efflorescent fashion, but it would be futile and quite frustrating for all of the parts involved. Hence the only position one should adopt is not to express their views, but their stance. In my case, I think that for all intents and purposes, the Taino are indeed extinct. The mechanisms by which a number of people call themselves today “Taino” (cloning of ancient Taino individuals, survival of figments of DNA, assumed identity, etc.) interests me scarcely at all. Whomever is in the mood for semantic flogging of dead horses, or debates on the philosophy of language, I say they should shove it.

  2. a random user name says:

    This is a really good article. I remember thinking about such things as a kid – where is the trunk of a tree and where are the branches? Where does the trunk end and the roots begin? When you really get to the hair splitting point, it’s hard to say.
    However, I will say that someone like Wright needs executing. Once someone takes the life of an innocent, they should not be graced with the life that their victim no longer has. And criminals are notorious for doing and saying whatever it takes to fool whoever it takes into getting them released somehow, so allowing that loophole is a mistake.

  3. WMarkW says:

    Yeah, the Left has co-opted the strategy from religion about attaching whatever meaning they want to words. “Racism” used to be the belief in discrimination against minorities because they were inferior, then it turned into the belief in genetic differential intelligence, even if one doesn’t advocate discrimination for it.
    When feminism needed a term for the practice of requiring sexual favors to retain employment, they called it “harassment,” which allowed them to expand the concept to any behavior women don’t like. “Offensive” speech was supposed to non-protect the right call a black person the N-word, but the concept was vague enough to encompass socio-political beliefs that don’t help the black agenda, like blaming poor parenting skills instead of oppression for low education attainment.

  4. Pingback: Again: The limits of verbal thinking « Jewamongyou's Blog

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