The Institution of Language

6 January 2011


Asked to recite some examples of institutions, it is not likely that language would be among the examples cited, but language is an institution, and moreover the institutions of language are the institutions of communication, cooperation, reasoning, and understanding. In so far as human experience involves communication, cooperation, reasoning, and understanding (inter alia), it is pervasively linguistic. That is to say, human experience is institutionalized in language.

I find the institutionalization of human experience in language interesting at present because language provides an excellent example of the distinction between formal institutions, based on an explicit social contract, and informal institutions, based on an implicit social contract, that I recently discussed in Twelve Theses on Institutionalized Power. Roughly speaking, spoken language is an informal institution while written language is a formal institution. We ought also to note in this context that spoken language has a deep history that goes far back into the Paleolithic, may be coextensive with biologically modern human beings, and which may also be shared by other species (both extant and extinct). On the other hand, written language is historically recent (from the perspective of the longue durée), emerging within the Agricultural Paradigm, seems to be exclusively human, and marks the distinction between prehistory and history proper (at least, in traditional historiography).

The institution of language demonstrates quite vividly how implicit social contracts can and do change quite rapidly, and, more importantly, more rapidly than explicit social contracts. The formal institutions of explicit social contracts often possess explicit mechanisms for recognizing change (for example, in relation to language, whether or not an English word appears in the Oxford English Dictionary, or, in French, whether some usage is recognized by L’Académie française) — a due process, as it were, that is most familiar in the case of the explicit social contract of legal codes. The existence of explicit mechanisms for change suppresses spontaneous change, whereas spoken language thrives on spontaneous change.

One of the most familiar ways in which inter-generational conflict is expressed is in the different linguistic usages of older and younger generations. The implicit social contract of spoken language can be spontaneously changed by a single clever remark, coinage, or pronunciation. Since the ordinary business of life is largely driven by the fashion of the moment, a spontaneous change may be picked up and imitated by others quite quickly (this is now known as “going viral”). I read somewhere that the Castilian Spanish shift to pronouncing “s” and “c” with a lisp (i.e., pronouncing them as “th” as in “Barthelona,” which some Castilians say, but no Catalonian says) was the result of the imitation of a particular aristocrat who spoke with a lisp.

With the example in mind of language expressed both as a formal and as an informal institution, it is then interesting to consider socio-political social contracts in this context. I think we find that, as with language, implicit social contracts can and do change with some degree of rapidity, while explicit social contracts tend to change much more slowly. As observed above in relation to the law, if due process must be followed in, for example, changing the constitution of a nation-state, this will happen much more slowly than political opinion changes in those areas of social and political life not subject to formal institutions. At times this tension between formal and informal institutions, and their different rates of change, can result in revolution, when the implicit socio-political contract has changed very rapidly over a large proportion of a population even while the explicit socio-political contract has not changed (or not changed enough to satisfy public opinion).

In a couple of posts (The Totemic Paradigm and Why Revolutions Happen) I have mentioned Nietzsche’s idea of a “morality of mores” (In German: “die Sittlichkeit der Sitte”, also translated as the “morality of custom”), which Nietzsche compelling described thus:

“…those tremendous eras of ‘morality of custom’ which precede ‘world history’ as the actual and decisive eras of history which determined the character of mankind: the eras in which suffering counted as a virtue, cruelty counted as a virtue, dissembling counted as a virtue, revenge counted as a virtue, denial of reason counted as a virtue, while on the other hand well-being was accounted a danger, desire for knowledge was accounted a danger, peace was accounted a danger, pity was accounted a danger, being pitied was accounted an affront, work was accounted an affront, madness was accounted godliness, and change was accounted immoral and pregnant with disaster!”

Nietzsche, Daybreak, Preface, section 18

In his lectures, Joseph Campbell does not use Nietzsche’s terminology, but it is obvious in describing the rituals of early human societies that he has something very similar in mind, especially in his discussions of what Yeats called the “primary mask” that societies impose upon their members. Many of these rituals of social initiation and communal conformity are horrendous to modern eyes, and they embody much of what Nietzsche described in the above-quoted passage.

The social rituals of proto-civilizations lack the intellectual and conceptual infrastructure to emerge as fully formal institutions; however — and this is important — these institutions were formalized in the only way that it was possible to formalize an institution prior to the emergence of written language and explicit legal codes: by way of ritual. The extreme taboos that applied to the violation of ritual was itself a reaction to how easily practices can change when there is no permanent point of reference (like a written text) to secure consistency over time. One could argue the horror of pre-literate ritual culture was given its horrendous form precisely because it had to make an unforgettable impression at a time when there was no other way to preserve tradition.

Which brings us back to the evanescent nature of implicit social contracts. When I was musing over the above ideas yesterday, I realized that the only reason that we have in our history the “morality of mores” and horrific initiation rituals is because of the all-too-real and constant possibility of change. That is to say, these are reactionary developments — a social embodiment of the Freudian Verneinung, i.e., the negation that in its violence paradoxically confirms exactly what it seeks to deny: “I had a dream of an old man, but it was not my father!”

The situation of early peoples attempting to preserve their traditions and way of life — preserving life itself, as it were, the only life than they knew — was deeply problematic, and they knew it. They did what they could with their limited technology to preserve what could be preserved, but this presented insuperable problems. Civilization emerged as a “solution” to some of these insuperable problems.

These problems persist today in different forms. I discussed the desire of dictators to preserve their personal or dynastic rule in The Imperative of Regime Survival. There I quoted one of my favorite passages from Gibbon:

“In earthly affairs, it is not easy to conceive how an assembly equal of legislators can bind their successors invested with powers equal to their own.”

Edward Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. VI, Chapter LXVI, “Union Of The Greek And Latin Churches.—Part III.

The principle that Gibbon expresses here (a principle I have elaborated elsewhere in Gibbon, Sartre, and the Eurozone) is formulated in terms of formal legal institutions — an assembly of legislators — but it is equally true in pre-literate proto-civilizations that possess only the informal institutions of spoken language and social ritual, both of which, without some method for the preservation of tradition, would rapidly mutate beyond recognition due to the openness to change of informal institutions.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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