e. Language


“No matter how abstractly formulated are a general theory of systems, a general theory of evolution and a general theory of communication, all three theoretical components are necessary for the specifically sociological theory of society. They are mutually interdependent.”
– Niklas Luhmann, The Differentiation of Society (1982), quoted in

The German sociologist and systems theorist, Niklas Luhmann (1927 – 1998), regarded social systems as systems of communication, i.e., he believed human society to be based largely on the transmission and processing of information. In this regard animals, particularly human beings, are unusual. Unlike other physical entities, except perhaps the machines we have created, information can lead to action. For example, we may reason that “there may be an accident so I will drive carefully”. In this statement, “there may be an accident” is information and “I will drive carefully” is a physical event. This does not apply to other physical entities, such as boulders, which cannot roll carefully due to information received. Evolution is undoubtedly the source of this ability, and we can see its progressive emergence as nervous systems become ever more complex. Its pertinence to people is largely a consequence of our social nature and the evolutionary advantages that this gives us.

The flow of information is what binds human beings together into society. However, the flow of goods and services also has a part to play. As might be expected from a characteristic that has evolved, there is a strong correlation with the hierarchy of needs. Satisfiers for our existence and procreation needs are largely material, i.e., air, water, food, shelter, etc. However, we do rely on information to know where and how to acquire these satisfiers. As we climb the hierarchy, material satisfiers become ever less important, and information plays an ever-increasing role. For example, although an exchange of material satisfiers has a part to play, relatedness is largely based on communication between the parties. At the top of the hierarchy, the growth of an individual is based almost entirely on knowledge or information. This is something that many religions stress.

The transmission and replication of information, an important feature of social systems, requires language. Language can take many forms: written or spoken words, icons or diagrams, the stream of bits in the internet, or even the formal language of mathematics. Language is not the sole preserve of human beings. Many animals communicate using a very basic language. For example, bees communicate by dancing, and ants communicate via scent pheromones. It is even thought that trees communicate with one another via mycelium, a thread like fungus, between their roots. What distinguishes human languages, however, are their complexity, versatility, and adaptability.

Typically, a language comprises:

  • Symbols such as words, images, sounds, etc. which represent the entities that we encounter in the world around us.
  • A grammar, i.e., the way in which these symbols are concatenated or otherwise laid out and connected. This represents the relationships between the entities.

Natural spoken language has evolved alongside our minds. This is evidenced by the fact that there is no central language processing part of the brain. Rather, language processing is distributed throughout it. Any processing centre is concerned only with motor functions, i.e., turning language into speech.

Language must be efficient, and so, resonate with the way that we think and understand the world we inhabit. Thus, it must reflect the structure of thought. Natural languages contain “universals”, therefore, i.e., features common to every language, and the most notable of these is the proposition. This comprises two entities and the relationship between them. For example, a simple natural language proposition comprises a subject (entity 1) an object (entity 2) and a verb (relationship). For example, “The apple (entity 1) is (relationship) green (entity 2)”. Here “green” is a simplification of the phrase “a green thing”. The same is true of formal languages such as mathematics. For example, 1 (entity 1) < (relationship) 2 (entity 2). Propositions are fundamental to the way that we reason. They reflect our understanding of the universe, which comprises physical things and the relationships between them.

An extreme interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is that thought or mental content is constrained by natural language, i.e., that we can only think of things that can be expressed in that way. However, this is demonstrably not the case. We have the ability to form and remember visual, sound, or taste images of physical objects and events. Furthermore, we can manipulate and combine these in our imagination to create, for example, images of unicorns or mermaids. Using iconic analogues or visual representations, we can also manipulate more abstract concepts, although, due to the constraints of geometry, this can lead us astray.

The use of imagery is known as the iconic mode of representation. Natural spoken language is our symbolic mode. We use it to communicate efficiently, and translation from iconic mode is often necessary. When doing so, we often search for, or even invent, appropriate words. An example is the word “contra-satisfier”, used in these articles. It was invented by the author because no suitable word pre-existed. “Dissatisfied” and “unsatisfied” mean not satisfied, and every antonym of satisfy has its own specific colouration that disqualifies it. A contra-satisfier, on the other hand, reduces existing satisfaction or makes an unsatisfied state worse. In this way, new words are created, and a language evolves. Were the extreme interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis true, then no new words would enter a language.

All human languages are structured in a way which provides us with logical reasoning skills, although this is often obscured by the simplifications we use to express ourselves efficiently. Few of us are taught formal logic, and it is the preserve of those who study mathematics or philosophy at university level. Nevertheless, all of us can reason logically when we choose to. This skill is acquired through our use of natural language, which has evolved to represent, reasonably accurately, the world in which we live. Our native language can, therefore, affect us through our reasoning skills, and in other more subtle ways. For example, we mentally translate between imagery and language. If a translation is relatively frequent and easy, then this will reinforce the concept being translated. If it is relatively infrequent and difficult it will have the opposite effect.