Barbarian Tongues Old and New
Essays Society

Barbarian Tongues Old and New

Ian Edward Caveny

What Vico Teaches About Language Under Social Media

Once, we could not speak. However human origins are construed with whatever illustrations, be they theoretical, mythopoetic, or theological, time and again we return to a barely recognizable being. Consider how young children, even at extremely early ages, demonstrate by signs that they, albeit primitively, understand language: the words spoken to them in utero, parents intuit, gain depth as babies mature. Yet, if we could also view the pre-linguistic human being that was our ancestor, what would we apprehend? Would we, like Lemuel Gulliver at the Yahoos, convulse in revulsion, or see something else? Curiosity beckons. With what starting attempts did this homosapien finally begin to speak, and with what kind of words? Surely, it can be conjectured, it was not done by prepositions, conjunctions, contractions, or modal verbs. Even if I can speak, let alone write, words such as “around,” “and,” or “refuse,” with such ease of clarity about how they relate to each other, these words remain useless. That is, unless I first have nouns, verbs, and, before them, sounds, sounds of artificial creation, for, remember, language is a human invention.

Not only is it made by us, but, like so many of our creations—whether wheels or combustion engines or computers—language also makes us. Perhaps, early humanity was armed solely with nouns. At that time, their world was one in which everything became “nouned”: fire does not burn, it fires, while rocks are not thrown, they are rocked. Consequently, there would be a concreteness to every human idea. In this sense, the “nouned” cosmos is substantive. But then, in this primordial history, things change: let there be verbs, which are introduced to understand the relations of movement and change. And maybe, movement and change, those classic Kantian categories, were conceptually created by verbs to be prepositions to understand time and space. And further down the road, whole new concepts of language come into being—metaphor, allegory, lyric, and the like. With them, human-mindedness is reshaped, with the ancestral consciousness reformed and refitted following these new deployments of language.

Human language in its particular tongues and dialects is constantly shifting. This protean ever-reinventing of language was always more primal, more dangerous than even the ancient uses of fire. You can behold the fire in your hand; touch it, it burns; drop it, it ignites the village; but it cannot be hidden, only extinguished. Language, however, is invisible when exercised. Before you the protoman even know what they have done when your words are expressed, those utterances altered the comprehension of a thing at a level that cannot be undone. Why is that the case? Well, any effort to undo what was spoken would be done within the framework of language. Fire cannot put out fire. Old comprehension cannot be restored: the flame only grows.

Unsurprisingly, that paranoid marxist, Louis Althusser, saw language as the chief site of human ideologization. Consider when a police officer points at you, for example, and says “hey, you!” Both the words “hey” and “you” are always and already interpolated as the subject, with “subject” as both human subject and the subject of a sentence. The two are tethered together. Seen this way, language is a metaphorical prison constantly reinforced by the hegemonic ruling power. Yet it appears, ironically, that hegemons, like everybody else, can never fully anticipate the plurality of language. Not only does language, our invention, reshape modes of human thinking, it also never ceases in its activity. New linguistic forms are born every moment, not only new deployments of old words in new orders, but also new kinds of language activity, from words to idioms and vernaculars. Such processes, in the digital age, are only magnified. We human beings are bound by the limits of thought which specified language imposes, but, perhaps contra Marcuse, we are certainly not imprisoned by it. For, it would appear, language as the ultimate human invention affords us the capacity to reinvent it, and with it, ourselves as well.

It is helpful to distinguish in the evolution of human language its primordial origins, retained still in most basic speech functions, from its elevated fashioning of words to express abstract ideas. Consider a traditional account of the latter notion of language. Human speech, in this civilized sense, subsists above mere utterance with syntax and semiotics. “Speech,” Harvey Mansfield argues, “consists in giving reasons.” (Ed. note: read our interview with Prof. Mansfield.) Mere animals can effectively communicate with each other “without supplying reasons; only humans give reasons.” Speaking means appealing to fellow people who can also reason. So, human speech “presupposes that man is a rational animal.” With this Aristotelian definition, speech means appeal, appeal assumes reason, and reason gains assent in society. Specifically, Mansfield writes, “more than a cry of pain or a grunt of pleasure,” human speech issues in a statement of complaint or gratitude “that lifts the communication above your private feeling.” Rational persons rise above mere animality by speech. In this sense, speech is defined as “a claim upon the attention of another,” as with “a prayer or a demand to be heard.” Rational speech implies society: “it is an argument, if nothing else, against indifference.”[1]

If we are social animals and rational animals, then human speech connects reason with society. But this account assumes we have been civilized. This Aristotelian account of human speech as higher and civilized rather than barbarous babel is a historical product. Such notions of language arose while human language, and we humans with it, developed. Perhaps this civilized speech is not essential to human nature but a phase of human existence. Rather, proper language is not so stable, but a consequence of lower forms we still retain. Consider Samuel Johnson, who, Boswell notes, after dining with friends, when “asked if there was good conversation,” quipped: “No, Sir; we had talk enough, but no conversation; there was nothing discussed.” Here, Dr. Johnson, distinguishing mere talk from substantive conversation, illustrates modern, civilized forms of language constraining inherited, primordial ways of speaking. With “great aversion to gesticulation in company,” Boswell says, Johnson told one gesturing man, “Don’t attitudenise.” And as another was expressively “giving additional force to what he uttered,” Johnson seized and held down those hands.[2] Below those civilized conversations we retain in our human talk: those gesticular utterances, signs by hand movements, and barbaric emphasis of primeval speech.

This larger account follows the basic thought of Giambattista Vico. In The New Science (1744), Vico proposes the sources of human languages by telling an origin myth. After the Flood, men and women devolved into mute giants, roaming around full of violence and sexual excess, until came the lightning. A lighting bolt from the heavens caused humanity to usher forth its first word: “Iu!” (or, as one professor of mine quipped, “Oh, s***!”). From this initial pious exclamation, Vico argues, humanity began changing in direct relation to linguistic alterations. We slowly across generations put off those gigantic forms to become proper humans again. As we began to change thusly, language did too. At first, language was a guttural, gestural mode of grunts and expressions. Then, it became a symbolic or hieroglyphic vernacular of archetypes and ideals. Finally, language had developed to be sufficiently clear, direct, and articulate so that we could write letters and convey abstract ideas. Now, Vico resisted strict schemas in his work, for his historicist telling was a rebuke to essentialist and Aristotelian accounts, like the one Mansfield gives above. In each of these “stages,” the churning of humankind's reinventing language also produces new kinds of people. Humanity by its languages was itself reinvented through the archetypes of the giant, then the hero, until the philosopher.

Now, why recount the ideas of this Italian? Personally, I turn to this Vichean origin-story of human language in order to make sense of America in our current century, with all of its protean, electrified politics, culture, and social history. What should be made, for instance, of “memification”? Consider the contrasting effects of this process. Through a medium such as Twitter, a phrase is amplified and repeated with minor modifications as a new amusement each time—surely a sign of creativity and freedom. In journalism, on the other hand, an idea gets aired and repeated ad nauseum by multiple venues, each with their own slight emendation, but all effectively saying the same thing—surely a sign of imaginative stagnation. In politics, perhaps the most notable subject of memes, slogans undergo linguistic evolution, sometimes until they are unrecognizable to those who initially championed that expression. Of course, memification has been a part of American history, as well as that of human language, from the start: when the giants first cussed at the lightning bolt, inevitably, other nearby giants heard and repeated the curse, developing its shared meaning. As a social tool, language develops through mimicry, the repetitive processes of human behavior.

On this point, Vico aids our understanding of this crazy century with one essential insight. It concerns how human nature is shaped in its agonizing conflict with the postdiluvian language it invented. Grunting gutturally, the giants live fully embodied in their senses, drowned in their experiential worlds by raw viscerality. Jump ahead many centuries, long after poetry was invented and prose appeared on the world stage, all the way to Cicero. He is the paradigmatic civilized man for Italian philologists from Petrarch onwards. Here, the philosopher pens his powerful letters in clear, abstract prose with an authoritative command over the Latin tongue. From the times of giants to the likes of Cicero, we observe two antipodes of linguistic development. One is sensational, inarticulate, and repetitive, while another is thoughtful, clear, and original. However, this shift is not a progressive history of ideas, for Vico or for us. It appears, as he notes near the end of the New Science, that humanity often relapses into gargantuan modes of discourse. In the Middle Ages, for example, there were armies led about by hero-kings and which communicated through banners and flags and sent messages by symbols—as it is also the case in our own day as well, with the internet.

After all, if we still retain these primordial speaking patterns, why not think that the cycle is coming full circle in our own digital age? If humans began as giants, then became heroes, and turned into philosophers, but find ourselves today backsliding into internet giants and memetic heroes, we lose that command over language and live by signs and particulars. The particulars internal to language, Eva Brann notes, undergo a transmutation in verbal articulation. The function of language smooths out concrete particulars into abstract concepts: “you give up singularity for intelligibility.” This is “the duality of language,” both in “broadcasting to the world to the world and gathering-in of the mind, as a medium for telling and precipitate of thinking.” Yet most human utterances are not high declarations of Ciceronian philosophers, but rather the self-expressions of the giants: “the most formal speech,” she writes, is “employed in unuttered self-communing, where unfiltered literacy is allowed to reign, without boundaries of time, language, or vocabulary.”[3] Consequently, human language on our private digital devices traverses boundaries of time, language, or vocabulary. Notably, the giants for Vico, as with the Cyclops in the Odyssey, were unsocialized and thereby uncivilized. It would seem the “telling” overtakes the “thinking” in software symbols without physical society but with gesticular memes and grunting tweets. The self-communing is supreme, and we are each our own tech giants.

Further, what, after all, is a better way to describe the social and technological upheavals of the last forty years or more than to describe it as a media revolution? Although not the first of such revolutions, it is a notable one in the sheer volume of various mediums it has produced. Not only the Internet has unalterably changed our language, but all its subcategories of possible discourse as well, from AOL messenger, to the chatroom, networking websites, e-zines, digital journals, Substack, the DM, the Discord server, the chat box on WoW, et cetera and ad finitum. All of these media and more are sites of linguistic innovation: each one constitutes a new context for language deployment. It is, as though, humanity encountered a hundred new lightning bolts and shouted “Iu!” a hundred new times, each time generating another hundred new forms and modalities and potentialities of language, and with them, potentialities of human consciousness.

We have built a digital tower to babel our might and our power. Should we be so surprised that God has brought about a confusion of our tongues?

  1. Harvey Mansfield, “The Value of Free Speech,” National Affairs (Fall 2018), online. ↩︎

  2. “Conversation,” The Table Talk of Samuel Johnson, Ed. James Boswell, Volume 1 (London: 1818), Google Books. ↩︎

  3. Eva Brann, Doublethink / Doubletalk: Naturalizing Second Thoughts and Twofold Speech (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2016), 47-48. ↩︎

Featured image: The Tower of Babel painting (1594) by Lucas van Valckenborch via Wikimedia Commons.

Ian Edward Caveny is a graduate student and writing instructor at the University of Chicago, studying the history of religions and Victorian literature. He writes at The Poet in Babylon. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.