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Language and Society

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Effect of Change on Society

Language incorporates social values. What is of value to society is incorporated into language to produce standards, ideals and goals. Society changes when that which is of value to society changes. Social changes produce changes in language.

However, social changes affect values in ways that have not been accurately understood. Social values are only the same as linguistic values when the society is a stable and unchanging one. Once society starts changing, then language change produces special effects.

In the article Problems of Language, I presented the view that language was created so that the person could fulfill long-term desires.

Sub - Headings
Diagram 4 - Sequence of Social Change
Two examples of Language Phenomena Ethnic Destruction.
The Pursuit of Truth.

The primary basis of social interaction is psychological and centres on the loop of  projection and introjection, which forms a closed loop of desire and feeling/emotion (see diagram). [¹]. This loop is the way of handling long-term desires. The use of language forms a closed loop too, since it is modelled on this loop of projection and introjection. The difference between the two loops is simply that the psychological one is based on individual meanings and the linguistic one on social values.[²]. This link between language and social values is one of identity, but only as long as society is static or is evolving slowly. In a static society, the language is the society. Society is its language. The two are one.

To explain why the two are one, I bring in an idea from semiology. Language is a system of signs, and by using signs we can communicate ideas. The sign has two parts : the name of something plus an idea. These parts are termed the signifier and the signified. The sign is a compound of a word that signifies, and the idea in the mind which is the signified.

In my view, language as a system of signs is modelled on consciousness, and so consciousness itself can be considered to be a sign system. Hence there are two sign systems, those of language and of consciousness. In the two sign systems, consciousness is fundamental and language is only derivative. There is another difference. Consciousness is dynamic and so it can change fairly easily, whilst language is fairly static. [³]

Now I return to the comparison between language and society.
In times of stability the dynamic structure of consciousness is put on hold, so linguistic values and social values are one. Tradition rules: the values of society do not vary. However, as society changes so the dynamic structure of consciousness gradually comes into the foreground. Perhaps it is more accurate to put this effect the other way around: as the dynamic structure of consciousness becomes accentuated, so society begins to change.

As society changes, social values and linguistic values begin to diverge.

Language contains traditional values – this is what is implied in the ideas of social conditioning and social learning. In a static society, traditional values are unquestioned. Hence social learning takes the form of social conditioning. Social conditioning is the unquestioned or confused adherence to social norms, and occurs when society is taken to be self-referential. Society is the judge of its own needs.

The only circumstance that normally breaks social conditioning in some degree is change. Therefore in a period of fast social change, chaos occurs as social norms are questioned, altered and perhaps even rejected. New norms are slowly generated. This chaos ensures that society can no longer be regarded as being self-referential.

In this situation of chaos, language is grasped as being self-referential.[4]. Then language is no longer necessarily tied to social reality. In such times, values change as the values within language change and we may witness radical innovation in artistic genres.

For example, the nineteenth century saw the focus on art for art’s sake, along with science for science's sake (neither art nor science were to be dependent on values external to themselves, such as social usefulness). Then the problem of grappling with the new possibilities of language produced the dense symbolism of the French poet Mallarmé. In twentieth-century literary theory the text has become autonomous and self-contained, and/or the reader has acquired total freedom in his interpretation of the text.

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To explain how this process happens I bring in politics. Consider a static, unchanging society. This has conservative, even right-wing, social values and a rigid hierarchy of authority or power. Society and politics have coalesced into a uniform model of conformism.

Initially this model suited contemporary needs. But as evolution progresses and new needs appear, which cannot be met under this model, so the existing social norms become a handicap. This restrictiveness on human development eventually becomes challenged. Activists and non-conformists begin to initiate social change by confronting the system of authority. Thinkers give direction to new ideas on freedom and justice. Left-wing politics are born.

Social change intensifies emotional responses. These new intensities bring forth creative abilities in art. Change is always handled intuitively before it can be expressed in intellectual ideas. Art is the herald of linguistic change. New art is usually born in the catharsis stage of  social abreaction.

Once new genres of art have become established, the intellectual attempts to verbalize their meanings and the reasons for their birth start to separate language values from social values. The clarification of such intellectual ideas is a slow process. Language is no longer necessarily tied to social reality: language becomes self-referential.

As social change moves into the stage of abreactional backlash the new linguistic values are sifted and only those needed to solve current problems are retained. Society again becomes centred on right-wing politics ; such politics attempt to return society back into a stable, static state. If this attempt is successful, then the new model of stability is more in tune with contemporary needs than the previous model was. This stability occurs when social values have ‘caught up’ with the new linguistic values. Then once again society and language become one.

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The overall sequence is given in diagram 4. The arrows can be read as ‘leads to’. So left-wing politics leads to new art, which in turn leads to intellectual studies, etc.

Diagram 4 :
Sequence of Social Change

The French Revolution misled nineteenth-century political theorists. Due to unusual circumstances, the peasantry became left-wing in their politics. This led some theorists to presume that being left-wing is the normal state of the bottom levels of society. Whereas, in my view, the normal state for all levels of society is to be right-wing, since the majority of people dislike social change and prefer traditional values rather than experimenting with new ones.

Different genres of art may move through this sequence at different speeds and at different times from each other. So there may be mini-sequences of social change overlapping each other.

The sequence of social change that I have outlined shows that any society is really a language community. The individual transforms his subjective meanings into objective social values via language.[5].  Values have to become incorporated into language before they can become incorporated into the stock of social values. Language brings forth the social reality.

Language creates society

This relation is not apparent in static societies ; it is easy to assume that society antedates language. Even ‘primitive’ societies are no exception. A ‘primitive’ society is one where language use is primitive, and indicates hunter-gatherer tribes ; yet a tribe cannot be established until the necessary linguistic signs for authority are created.

Society cannot be created until a group of people has some values in common. And values require a language to embed them and articulate them. It is language that brings people together and keeps them together. Language always precedes society. Even in small groups this relation holds: for example, in a political discussion group the people come together because they already have, or want to learn, a common political language.

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Two Language Phenomena

1). Ethnic Destruction

Language is modelled on the loop of projection and introjection. This makes possible a destructive cultural phenomenon. When a foreign language is imposed on a group (or ethnic minority) that group is eventually destroyed. When a person changes his primary language, or even his culture, he automatically changes his pattern of projection and introjection. Hence his needs change. His old way of life disappears.

There are two qualifications to this view.
The rate of change depends on how related the languages are: the more related they are, the more gradual is the change. Secondly, immigrants may only speak their adopted language in their social roles in the adopted society ; they many retain their ethnic language in their family settings. This retention of the ethnic language slows down the cultural destruction of the group.

Abandoning native languages leads to a ‘ melting pot ’  pattern of immigrant assimilation. This pattern cannot work in the long-term, since the immigrants’ sense of identity is destroyed. A new sense of identity cannot be created without community support, and this is often lacking for the immigrant.

A cosmopolitan culture is much better than a melting pot culture, and is better suited to the widening possibilities in the choice of values that is opening to the modern world. Therefore, in today’s age of cosmopolitanism, it is bad politics and bad psychology to try to persuade immigrants to abandon their native language.

2). The Pursuit of  Truth

Times of change produce a special phenomenon: the pursuit of truth. In times of change, social values (representing tradition) and language values begin gradually to diverge because they begin to reflect different needs, those of tradition and those of modernity. Within this ‘gap’ arises the possibility of pursuing the search for truth. This gap allows the spectator to view both social values and language as separate realities that are running on parallel courses. Truth is always the result of comparing the old with the new.

In a static society, social values and language are one ; there is no means of attempting a re-valuation of existing values. Tradition is the only mode of knowledge.

Hence, in a static society, the pursuit of truth can never arise.

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The number in brackets at the end of each reference takes you back to the paragraph that featured it. The addresses of my other websites are on the Links page.

[¹]. The loop of projection and introjection is described and illustrated in the articles The Loop of Intuition and Origin of Language. There is an article on Projection and Introjection on my websites Discover Your Mind and The Strange World of Emotion. [1]

[²]. See section 5, the article on Meaning and Value. [2]

[³]. For a description of consciousness as a sign system, see the article Structuralism. My articles on sign systems are in section 5, beginning with Semiology. [3]

[4]. For a description of language as a self-referential system, see the article Problems of Language. [4]

[5]. For the connection between subjective meanings and objective values, see the article on Meaning and Value. [5]

Home List of  Articles Links Top of  Page

The articles in this section are :

Problems of  Language

Language and Society

Origin of  Language

Logic of  Consciousness

The Text in Literary Theory

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Ian Heath
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