Introduction (Psychology and Mental Health)
Language is a system of arbitrary symbols that can be combined in conventionalized ways to express ideas, thoughts, and feelings. Language has been typically seen as uniquely human, separating the human species from other animals. Language enables people of all cultures to survive as a group and preserve their culture. The fundamental features of human language make it extremely effective and very economical. Language uses its arbitrary symbols to refer to physical things or nonphysical ideas; to a single item or a whole category; to a fixed state or to a changing process; to existent reality or to nonexistent fiction; to truths or to lies.
Language is systematic and rule-governed. Its four component subsystems are phonology, semantics, grammar, and pragmatics. The phonological system uses phonemes (the smallest speech sound units capable of differentiating meanings) as its building blocks to form syllables and words through phonemic rules. For example, /m/ and /n/ are two different phonemes because they differentiate meaning as in /mĪt/ (meat) versus /nĪt/ (neat), and “meat” has three phonemes of /m/, /Ī/, and /t/ placed in a “lawful” order in English to form one syllable. The semantic system makes language meaningful. It has two levels: Lexical semantics refers to the word meaning, and grammatical semantics to the meaning derived from the combinations of morphemes (the smallest meaning units) into words and...
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Language Acquisition and Development (Psychology and Mental Health)
Views on language acquisition and development are diverse. Some tend to believe that language development follows one universal path, shows qualitatively different, stagelike shifts, proceeds as an independent language faculty, and is propelled by innate factors. Others tend to believe in options for different paths, continuous changes through learning, and cognitive prerequisites for language development.A Universal Pathway in Language Development
Stage theories usually suggest a universal path (an invariant sequence of stages) for language development. A typical child anywhere in the world starts with cooing (playing with the vowel sounds) at two to three months of age, changes into babbling (consonant-vowel combinations) at four to six months, begins to use gestures at nine to ten months, and produces first words by the first birthday. First word combinations, known as telegraphic speech (content word combinations with functional elements left out, such as “Mommy cookie!”), normally appear when children are between 1.5 and 2.5 years. Meanwhile, rapid addition of new words results in a vocabulary spurt. Grammatical rules are being figured out, as seen in young children’s application of regular grammatical rules to irregular exceptions (called overregularization, as in “I hurted my finger”). Later on, formal education promotes further vocabulary growth, sentence complexity, and subtle usages....
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Theories of Language Development (Psychology and Mental Health)
With an emphasis on language performance (actual language use in different situations) rather than language competence (knowledge of language rules and structure), learning theories contend that children learn their verbal behavior (a term suggested by the behaviorist B. F. Skinner in 1957 to replace the vague word of “language”) primarily through conditioning and imitation, not maturation. Classical conditioning allows the child to make associations between verbal stimuli, internal responses, and situational contexts to understand a word’s meaning. It also enables the child to comprehend a word’s connotative meaning—whether it is associated with pleasant or unpleasant feelings. Operant conditioning shapes the child’s speech through selective reinforcement and punishment. Adults’ verbal behaviors serve as the environmental stimuli to elicit the child’s verbal responses, as models for the child to imitate, and as the shaping agent (through imitating their children’s well-formed speech and recasting or expanding their ill-formed speech).
Nevertheless, learning theories have difficulty explaining many phenomena in language development. Imitation cannot account for children’s creative yet logical sayings, such as calling a gardener “plantman,” because there are no such models in adult language. Shaping also falls short of an adequate explanation, because adults do not always correct...
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Language and Cognition (Psychology and Mental Health)
Cognitive theorists generally believe that language is contingent on cognitive development. The referential power in the arbitrary symbols assumes the cognitive prerequisite of understanding the concepts they signify. As a cognitive interactionist, Jean Piaget believed that action-based interaction with the world gave rise to the formation of object concepts, separation of self from the external world, and mental representation of reality by mental images, signs, and symbols (language). Language reflects the degree of cognitive maturity. For example, young children’s immature egocentric thought (unable to understand others’ perspectives) is revealed in their egocentric speech (talking to self)—children seem to show no realization of the need to connect with others’ comments or to ascertain whether one is being understood. Older children’s cognitive achievements of logical thinking and perspective-taking lead to the disappearance of egocentric speech and their use of socialized speech for genuine social interaction. Although language as a verbal tool facilitates children’s interaction with the world, it is the interaction that contributes to cognitive development. Piaget gave credit to language only in the later development of abstract reasoning by adolescents.
In L. S. Vygotsky’s social-functional interactionist view, language and cognition develop...
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Conclusion (Psychology and Mental Health)
As Thomas M. Holtgraves said in 2002, “It is hard to think of a topic that has been of interest to more academic disciplines than language.” Language can be analyzed at its pure, abstract, and symbolic structural level, but it should also be studied at biological, psychological, and social levels in interconnected dynamic systems. Continued endeavors in interdisciplinary investigations using multiple approaches will surely lead to further understanding of language.
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Sources for Further Study (Psychology and Mental Health)
Blackwell, Arshavir, and Elizabeth Bates. “Inducing Agrammatic Profiles in Normals: Evidence for the Selective Vulnerability of Morphology Under Cognitive Resource Limitation.” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 7, no. 2 (1995): 228-257. Raises caution about the interpretation of agrammatic aphasia as evidence for a grammar module and proposes global resource diminution as an alternative explanation.
Boroditsky, Lera. “Does Language Shape Thought? Mandarin and English Speakers’ Conceptions of Time.” Cognitive Psychology 43, no. 1 (2001): 1-22. Three empirical studies to test the Whorfian hypothesis of language’s ability to shape speakers’ abstract conceptions.
Chomsky, Noam. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998. Explains the innate universal grammar and how the transformational grammar works to map the deep structures to surface structures.
__________. “Language from an Internalist Perspective.” In The Future of the Cognitive Revolution, edited by David Johnson and Christina E. Erneling. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Explains why the author insists on language being modular.
Daniels, Harry, ed. An Introduction to Vygotsky. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2005. A collection of articles about Soviet psychologist Vygotsky’s theoretical position on thought and speech.
Gleason, Jean Berko, and...
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Language (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
Human mental life includes biologically unprecedented ways of experiencing and understanding the world, from aesthetic experience to spiritual contemplation. Nevertheless, the origins of many of the most distinctive human mental attributes are likely intertwined with the origins of language. Language is without doubt the most distinctive human adaptation. There is almost no realm of human cognition unaffected by it. Yet there is still debate over even the most basic aspects of its nature, including the degree to which linguistic competence can be coaxed from other species (e.g., apes, dolphins, and parrots); what the neural basis for this distinctive capacity is; and when exactly in human ancestry this capacity emerged and matured to its modern level. There is little doubt that some substantial role is played by distinctive aspects of human biology. Both the special adaptations for language and language itself have played important roles in the origins of human moral and spiritual capacities.
The evolution of language ability in humans
The relative contributions of biological versus cultural aspects of language cognition depend on its evolutionary antiquity. If languages have a shallow prehistory (less than one hundred thousand years), we can expect little correlated biological restructuring of cognition as a result, except insofar as required to get this capacity off the ground. In this case, most of its influence will be traced through cultural processes. If languages have a deep pre-history (on the order of a million years), however, then we can expect that human cognitive and emotional systems have been substantially shaped by its ubiquitous presence in all aspects of human social life. This also should correlate with the extent to which human ethical and spiritual sentiments have become a part of human nature, as opposed to mere cultural overlays on ape nature.
Assessing the origins of these abilities is complicated by the fact that no direct consequences of language use are preserved in the fossil record. Paleolithic archeological evidence for symbolic expression that may signal well-developed linguistic and spiritual activities is well known from European cave paintings and carvings and Australian rock paintings, and from evidence of intentional burials (possibly including Neanderthal burials, as well as the burials of anatomically modern humans). Though the creation of icons and burial of the dead are not guarantees of shamanistic or religiouslike activities, they do suggest the existence of sophisticated symbolic reasoning, and this is a crucial correlation. The first sculpted and pictorial forms can be dated to no earlier than about sixty thousand years ago, and the most well known date to within thirty thousand years ago. This is quite recent, considering that hominids have been on a separate evolutionary track from other African apes for at least five million years, that members of species similar enough to be included in the genus Homo have been around for 1.8 million years, and that the human species Homo sapiens is at least two hundred thousand years old. In general, these earliest samples of expressive symbolism must be understood not as evidence for the initial evolution of symbolic abilities but rather for their first expression in durable media. They likely had long been incorporated into conventionalized social activities by that time. The origins of the symbolic traditions that these works express in material form could easily anticipate this data by an order of magnitude.
To get some idea of the possible extremes of this range of possible dates consider the following. The earliest direct archeological evidence of language is, of course, in the form of early forms of writing, which are all less than ten thousand years old, and most considerably more recent (about five thousand years ago). Since not even the most radical theorists among archeologists and paleontologists would date the appearance of modern languages more recently than about fifty thousand years ago, this late externalization of language offers a curious challenge: Why did it take so long for this most important means of communication to exhibit direct external expression? The same question can be asked of the first evidence of pictorial and carved forms, which date back about sixty thousand years in Europe and Australia and possibly earlier in Africa (though this African evidence is currently less well known). Assuming some comparable difficulties in externalizing these different modes of symbolic expression, we might suggest that, most conservatively, the corresponding distinctively human symbolic communication must be at least ten times as old; that is, 5,000 to 50,000 years for modern language, and 50,000 to 500,000 years for some form of language.
At the other end of the spectrum, there is a series of apparently linked paleontological transitions evident between 1.6 and 2.4 million years ago in Africa that suggest that the beginnings of symbolic communications in some form may date to this fossil epoch. The first clear evidence for the regular production of stone choppers, at a site called Gona, can be dated to about 2.4 million years ago. These are associated with fossil species of the genus Australopithecus (possibly A. garhi). Australopithecines exhibited ape-sized brains, relatively large jaws with heavy dentition (evidence of a vegetarian dietary adaptation), relatively modern bipedal locomotion, and also a characteristic sexual dimorphism (males much larger on average than females), which is indicative of male competition over females in a polygynous mating system that is fairly typical of monkeys and great apes. By 1.8 million years ago a number of fossil sites begin to demonstrate hominid species with larger brains and reduced dentition, correlated with extensive stone tool assemblages. These features have prompted paleontologists to cite this as the point where our genus, Homo, begins. By 1.6 million years ago members of our genus, with brains beginning to cross into the low end of the modern range, had left Africa to spread into Asia, Southeast Asia, and possibly throughout more temperate Asian regions as well, taking with them more sophisticated tools. Given these unprecedented features, there can be little doubt that some significant changes in communication and cognition also are contemporaneous with these transitionshe first forms of crude symbolic communicationhough it is likely that the evolution of modern forms of linguistic communication took much longer to develop.
If symbolic communication has been around in some form for as much as two million years then we can expect it to have had significant consequences not just for human culture but also for human brain function. The evolutionary biological effect of a behavioral adaptation such as this may be usefully compared to that of dam building in North American beavers. The evolution of this ability has changed the niche in which beavers mature and live, and this has changed the natural selection forces affecting beaver physiology and behavioral propensities in succeeding generations. Thus, beavers exhibit extensive aquatic adaptations as a feed-forward result of beaver behaviors. This evolutionary process has been called niche construction. The effects of human symbolic communication and culture can also be understood as a form of niche construction, though symbolic culture is in many ways a far more all-encompassing niche than a beaver pond. This niche likely favored the evolution of certain cognitive capacities and social predispositions relevant to symbolic learning and communication, but also, as in the case of beavers, there may be many special features of this artificial niche that are idiosyncratic to it. Thus, there is good reason to expect that human brains have been reorganized in response to language, a reorganization that included changes affecting emotional, social, and communicative tendencies, as well as mnemonic, attentional, and motor capacities supportive of symbolic communication. Anatomical hints of this effect are evident in the changes in regional brain proportions (e.g., disproportionately expanded prefrontal cortex), cortical vocal control (unprecedented among mammals), and lowered laryngeal position. Hints from behavior are even more extensive. These include the convergent contributions of many systems to this capacity, its robustness in the face of variations in learning conditions and the effects of early brain damage, its highly predictable developmental progression, the remarkable universality of many of the structural features of languages, and its unprecedented efficiency. These effects need to be understood also with respect to the complex cultural dynamic of language change, which itself is a kind of quasi-evolutionary process. The ways different languages carve up the meaning and reference "space" and the syntactic systems that organize linguistic expression clearly change and evolve over historical time, and probably with respect to these biological predispositions and abilities as background.
Consequences of language ability for religious and spiritual development
The consequences of this unprecedented evolutionary transition for human religious and spiritual development must be understood on many levels as well. There are reasons to believe that the way language refers to thingsymbolic referencerovides the crucial catalyst that initiated the transition from species with no inkling of meaning in life to a species where questions of ultimate meaning have become core organizers of culture and consciousness. Symbolic reference is reference to things and ideas that is mediated by an intervening system of symbol-symbol relationships, as well as conventions of use that allow there to be considerable conceptual "distance" between a sign vehicle and its object of reference. Unlike icons, which refer by means of structural similarities between a sign vehicle and its object, or indices, which refer via their physical contiguity or invariant causal correlation with their object, this conceptual "distance" is an intermediate referential step that allows the form of symbols to be entirely independent of the objects to which they refer. Symbolic reference is thus both arbitrary and capable of providing considerable displacement and abstraction. Displacement refers to the capacity to refer to things distant in space or time, and abstraction refers to the ability to represent only the more spare and skeletal features of things, including their logical features, such as whether they are even ontologically existent. So it is with the evolution of this symbolic capacity that it first becomes possible to represent the possible future, the impossible past, the act that should or shouldn't take place, the experience that is unimaginable even though representable. These capacities are ubiquitous for humans and largely taken for granted when it comes to spiritual and ethical realms, but this is precisely where crucial differences in ability mark the boundary that distinguishes humans from other species.
Consider the ethical dimension of humanness. Though the family cat may gleefully torment a small animal causing its terrifying and painful death, few among us would consider this a moral issue concerning the cat, though whether to intervene may be a moral dilemma for us. Even when a large predator, say dog or bear, happens to maul and kill a human being, efforts to destroy the animal are not accompanied by moral outrage, just a desire to prevent further harm. But the situation is very different in cases where humans perform similar actions. It is not merely that we consider non-human predators to be guiltless because it is in their nature to kill. We hold them guiltless because we believe they lack a critical conception of the consequences of their actions on their victim's experience. This ability to anticipate and to some extent imagine the experience of another are critical ingredients in this moral judgment.
This does not mean that other creatures are merely selfish robots. Selfless behaviors of a sort are not at all uncommon in other species. Care-giving behaviors by parents are nearly ubiquitous in birds and mammals, and what we might call prosocial emotional responses and predispositions that cause individuals to behave in ways conducive to social solidarity are especially widespread among social mammals. However, there need be little or no role played by intersubjective considerations in the generation of these emotions and their associated care-giving, protective, and comforting behaviors. And if that is so, then it may not be appropriate to consider these as moral or ethical, even incipiently.
There is good reason to believe that the capacity to represent the intentions and experiences of others is deeply dependent on human symbolic capacity. This is because it is a difficult cognitive task. It involves generating something like a simulation of oneself in different circumstances (i.e., projected from another individual's point of view), and it must include the emotional experiences this would invoke as well. This representation is perhaps supported by recall of images from analogous past experiences, juxtaposed against the images and emotions of current experience. But the salience of direct experience, especially one's current emotional state, poses a difficult impediment to simultaneously representing the perspective of this other simulated emotional experience. Holding such mutually contradictory representations in mind at once is a difficult task, even when there is little emotion involved, but it becomes deeply challenging when the exclusive states are heavily emotion-laden.
All such cognitive tasks depend critically on the prefrontal lobes of the cerebral cortex. This brain region is essential to any mental process that requires holding the traces of alternative associations and behavioral options in mind to be compared, so that one can act with respect to likely consequences and not merely with respect to their general reinforcement value or their stimulus salience. Reduction of such stimulus drives allows the most effective sampling of options. It is suggested that the prefrontal lobes are disproportionately enlarged in human brains as an evolutionary adaptation to the demands imposed by symbol learning and use. The indirectness of symbolic reference demands a shift of attention away from immediately associated features and to the relational logic behind the symbols, which binds them into a system. So this neuro-anatomical divergence from the ancestral condition likely contributes to the capacity and perhaps even a predisposition to generate the "simulations" required for the representation of others' experiences.
But it is the referential displacement provided by symbols themselves that is probably critical to reducing the differential in salience of competing emotional state representations to make this mental comparison possible. Studies with primates and children have shown, for example, that failures to make optimal choices when highly arousing stimuli (e.g., candy) are presented can be overcome by substituting representations for the actual thing. By a somewhat ironic logic, then, it may be the capacity to use representations to reduce the emotional salience of particular experiences that has enabled the development of intersubjective empathic abilities.
Symbolic reference also provides a critical support for an additional element of ethical cognition: the need to project forward the consequences of different possible alternative actions. Projecting the plausible physical consequences with respect to one's own needs and desires is difficult enough, but simultaneously projecting the likely affect on another's experience is doubly complicated. This is the mental equivalent of running simulations of the effects of simulated actions on simulated emotions, all in conflict with current experiences and emotional states. As the numbers of potentially interfering images and the intensities of the potentially conflicting emotions increase, the importance of symbolic support grows. For this reason, not only do we recognize that young children have difficulty performing anything beyond simple moral assessments, but all cultures actively provide narrative and ritual exemplars for guiding its members in handling ethical matters. The symbolic traditions that constitute cultures almost universally transmit the expectation that one is responsible for considering experiential consequences for others before acting moral imperative. Of course, it is also this capacity for imagining the experiences of others that makes possible the most heinous of human acts, such as extortion and torture. The emergence of good and evil are not, then, just mythically linked. Both are implicit in the symbolic transfiguration of emotional experience and the gift of intersubjectivity that results.
Ultimately, humanness may be most clearly marked by this transformation of the merely physical and physiological into the meaningful and implicitly value-laden by virtue of symbolic reference. Under the influence of the generalizing power of symbols this experience of ethical significance can be extended well beyond the social sphere, to recognize an ethical dimension implicit in all things. This suggests a way to think about two additional features that are characteristic of most spiritual traditions: the ubiquitous assignment of symbolic meaning, purpose, and value to things outside human affairs (e.g., origins, places, natural phenomena, and life and death itself), and the presumption that there is something like intentionality or intelligence behind the way that things are and the unfolding of worldly events.
Both of these nearly universal tendencies reflect a complex interaction between the cognitive predispositions that have evolved to ease the acquisition of symbolic communication and the implicit power of symbols to alter conditions of life in the world. Since a prerequisite to symbolic reference is the "discovery" of the logic of the system of inter-symbolic relationships that supports any individual symbolic reference, there are reasons to believe that the changes in prefrontal proportions contributed not just an ability to sample these non-overt relational features, but also a predisposition to look for them. With symbols, what matters is not surface details, but a hidden logic derived from the complex topologies of semantic relationships that constrain symbol use.
So the neuropsychological propensity to incessantly, spontaneously, and rapidly interpret symbols should express itself quite generally as a predisposition to look beyond surface correlations among things to find some formal systematicity, and thus meaning, behind them, even things that derive from entirely nonhuman sources. Everything is thus a potential symbolrees, mountains, star patterns, coincidental eventsnd if the systematicity and intentionality is not evident it may mean merely that one has not yet discovered it. Symbolic meaning is a function of consciousness and symbols are produced to communicate. So if the world is seen as full of potential symbols, it must implicitly be part of some grand effort of communication, and the product of mind. Whether this projected subjectivity is experienced as different personalities resident in hills, groves of trees, or rivers, or as some single grand infinite mind, this personification also taps into the intersubjective drive that is also fostered by symbolic projection.
In summary, the role of symbolic communication, and especially language, in moral cognition is ubiquitous. It has played a role in the evolution of a brain more capable of the cognitive operations required; it has provided critical tools for easing the implicit cognitive strain of performing these mental operations; and it has made it possible for societies to evolve means for developing these abilities (as well as opening the door for the horrors of their abuse). Moreover, the capacity for spiritual experience itself can be understood as an emergent consequence of the symbolic transfiguration of cognition and emotions. Human predispositions seem inevitably to project this ethical perspective onto the whole world, embedding human consciousness in vast webs of meaning, value, and intersubjective possibilities.
See also SEMIOTICS
Deacon, Terrence. The Symbolic Species: The Coevolution of Language and the Brain. New York: Norton, 1997.
Deacon, Terrence. "How I Gave Up the Ghost and Learned to Love Evolution." In When Worlds Converge: What Science and Religion Tell Us about the Story of the Universe and our Place in it, ed. Clifford Matthews, Mary Evelyn Tucker, and Philp Hefner. Chicago: Open Court, 2002.
Dennett, Daniel. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life. New York: Touchstone, 1995.
Katz, Leonard, ed. Evolutionary Origins of Morality: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives. Thorverton, UK: Imprint Academic, 2000.
Langer, Susanne. Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, Vol. 2. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972.
Wilson, David Sloan. Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
TERRENCE W. DEACON
Language (Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity)
Practices of genocide and crimes against humanity emerge from and depend upon a language of genocide and crimes against humanity. Language itself is inseparable from power, and language can facilitate the most violent exercise of power against a people. Linguistic violence directed against a people leads to physical violence against a people. In genocide, such linguistic violence is institutionally sanctioned, and the ensuing physical violence is lethal and aims to be total.
The meanings of terms within semiological systems are based upon the oppositions among the signs. A non-linguistic example is the use of red, yellow, and green lights in traffic signals. In relation to classifications of peoples, many social groups use binary oppositions of an "us-them" type, such as Greeks and barbarians, freedom fighters and terrorists, and culture bearers and culture destroyers. The last example enters the realm of the language of genocide. In a 1988 article, "Language and Genocide," Berel Lang has shown the close connection between this language and the slaughter of millions in the Holocaust. Practices of genocide and crimes against humanity begin with a classification that divides people into two groups, one viewed positively and the other as subhuman or unworthy of existence. The use of condemnatory terms prepares a social group to practice atrocities and is used to perpetuate these atrocities throughout their duration.
Since the 1960s, Anglo-American theory has been strongly influenced by the work of John Austin, particularly his 1962 book, How to Do Things with Words. This approach often describes one set of language statements in terms of speech acts. A speech-act of language, for example, can be used to distinguish peoples who speak different languages. Such a speech-act can go beyond merely differentiating to also judging, such as designating Tutsis as "inyenzi" (a slang epithet meaning cockroaches) in the years preceding the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. A similar effect is achieved by Nazi references to Jews as "bacillus," and even by neo-Nazi calls to "kill faggots" beyond the million "queers" massacred by Hitler until all homosexual "scum" are "wiped out." Raphael Lemkin's coinage of the term genocide in 1943 can also be considered a speech act when it carries a condemnatory tone against and a branding of perpetrators of a practice that aims to kill an entire people. Lemkin suggested ethnocide as another term with the same meaning. Language, however, often relies on euphemisms that mask the reality of persecution, such as using "ethnic cleansing," instead of "ethnocide," to describe slaughters and forcible relocation like the ones that occurred in Bosnia in the 1990s.
Since the 1920s, continental theory, following the lead of Ferdinand de Saussure's 1916 Course in General Linguistics, distinguishes between the established sign system (la langue) and speaking (la parole). The established sign system reigns (synchronic immutability), but over time speaking alters that system (diachronic change). Persons with political power can speak in distinctive ways that become part of the official language, which shapes how citizens think and behave.
Beyond primarily referring to killing of an entire people, genocide is used in at least two other colloquial senses, namely, in reference to linguistic genocide and genocidal weapons. The usage differs from the strictly legal meaning of genocide. By suppressing or even eliminating the language of a people, linguistic genocide destroys a culture but it does not necessarily lead to the slaughter of a people. By contrast, "genocidal" weapons, such as strategic nuclear weapons targeted against cities, are intended to achieve the large-scale or even total killing of a people, although this slaughter could occur within an entire nation rather than being directed against a specific type of people. In principle, although not yet in fact, beyond nuclear weapons, some other weapons of mass destruction, especially biological ones, could be genocidal. However, one characteristic of such weapons is the prospect that their use may not be controllable and could therefore inflict death on the perpetrator along with the intended victims.
In showing the connection of language and power, Friedrich Nietzsche went so far as to say, in his 1887 Genealogy of Morals, that the "right of bestowing names" is a fundamental expression of political power. Governments that seek absolute power over the groups they control use language as a principal support, because they believe that by changing terminology and definitions they can alter the ways individuals and groups think and act. In 1991, in his book Totalitarian Language: Orwell's Newspeak and Its Nazi and Communist Antecedents, John Wesley Young reports that even in the extremes of totalitarian language found in Nazi concentration camps and the Soviet gulags, significant numbers of individuals avoided being fully brainwashed by constructing alternative words and discourses that eluded the understanding of their oppressors. Nevertheless, the one who controls the politics of definition controls the political agenda, and the step from the linguistic dehumanization of a people to their slaughter is rather small. So one important step in the prevention of genocide is the elimination of the names that are used in the perpetration of genocide. However, writing in 1999 on "The Language of War and Peace," William Gay has noted that the elimination of such names may be necessary, but it is not sufficient to achieve the desired results, and may result in a situation that is more like negative peace (the mere absence of war) than positive peace (the presence of justice as well). In this case the difference is between a temporary suspension of name-calling that does not remove the prejudicial attitudes that lie behind it and a permanent removal of any intent or desire to eradicate a people and the achievement of a genuine embracing of the appropriate diversity among peoples.
SEE ALSO Hate Speech; Lemkin, Raphael; Linguistic Genocide; Propaganda
Gay, William (1999). "The Language of War and Peace." In Encyclopedia of Violence, Conflict and Peace, vol. 2, ed. Lester Kurtz. San Diego, Calif.: Academic Press.
Lang, Berel (1988). "Language and Genocide." In Echoes from the Holocaust: Philosophical Reflections on a Dark Time, ed. Alan Rosenberg and Gerald E. Myers. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Young, John Wesley (1991). Totalitarian Language: Orwell's Newspeak and Its Nazi and Communist Antecedents. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.