As the written word began speaking,
the stones fell silent… the trees became mute, the other animals dumb. 1
It has been shown that in traditional kinship-based hunter-gatherer societies, sharing and gifting lie at the heart of the human community. This appears to be a defining character trait among even the earliest of Paleolithic economies. As Morton Fried stated in his classic work, The Evolution of Political Society,
The paramount invention that led to human society was sharing because it underlay the division of labor that probably increased early human productivity above the level of competitive species in the same ecological niches.2
Cultural anthropologist, Elman Service, confirms this in his own work on Primitive Social Organization: An Evolutionary Perspective, “The more primitive the society… the greater the emphasis on sharing, and the more scarce or needed the items the greater the sociability engendered.”3 As social anthropologist, Tim Ingold, concludes, what is important is “that food ‘go around’ rather than that it should ‘last out’. Whatever food is available is distributed so that everyone [in the group] has a share.”4 As Fried further suggests,
Of almost equal importance was the concomitant reduction in the significance of individual dominance in a hierarchical arrangement within the community. In part, the structural possibility for such a hierarchy was undermined by the demands of sharing. [Even] cooperative labor parties, whether for hunting or gathering, [took] place with very little apparent leadership.5
Now what does all of this have to do with cognitive or functional linguistics, with language and ego-development, with one’s conceptual worldview or cultural interaction; with how we communicate, and what that means in terms of human community and experience?
Among contemporary linguistic theoreticians, Noam Chomsky stands out as a seminal and transformative figure. He argues that there is, in the human constitution, a universal generative grammar, an organic capacity providing the possibility of sophisticated language development and communicative potential. And what makes this “internal language” or universal grammar uniquely human is a process that Chomsky calls “recursion,” that is to say, the embedding or ‘nesting’ of phrases or clauses within larger linguistic wholes at each strata of a language scheme – semantic, syntactic, and logistic subordination.
In short, recursion enables the construction of complex hypotactic language units rather than just simple paratactic ones. Parataxis, as I am sure you are all aware, is when each of your sentences in a larger grammatical unit carries equal weighting. Paratactic units usually have few, if any clauses, and more importantly, none of the clauses are subordinated one to another in a hierarchical scheme. Hypotaxis, on the other hand, occurs when clauses in sentences, or in larger grammatical wholes, are subordinated to one another, focusing attention on what is considered of greater importance or value within the semantic, syntactic, or larger logistic unit. In other words, recursion, by means of subordination, allows for the rudimentary and foundational element of hierarchization. Hierarchy, socio-economic and political, we might here add, is also one of the hallmarks of post-traditional societies, as was intimated in our opening paragraphs above.
So, the question we now raise is the following. Is recursion, that is to say, linguistic subordination, essential to all human language, or is it only a property of some language families, or of some forms of language usage? For example, is there any relationship between linguistic recursion and the development of literacy (writing), between hypotactic subordination and the emergence of socio-political hierarchies, not to mention the radicalized sense of individualism to which hierarchy gives rise? Furthermore, is the hierarchical ordering and syntactic subordination we find in the linguistic field of textuality either a ‘model of’ or a ‘model for’ the subordination we find on the battlefield, in a corporate boardroom or government bureaucracy, or in the theatre of political debate? Everything about today’s dominant global culture reeks of hierarchy, whether in democratic dress or military uniform. As Chomsky himself admits, no government is truly representative; each has its “own power, serving segments of the population that are dominant and rich,” that is to say, at the top of the socio-economic power hierarchy!6
In short, are social, economic, and political hierarchies connected in some way to the recursive linguistic hierarchies (semantic, syntactic, grammatic, and logistic) embedded in our written tongues? And was there some prior, precedent condition before the birth of literacy where hypotactic recursion and hierarchy did not yet exist, or at least did not dominate the field of human cognition and communication? Finally, does any of this have any bearing on our understanding or experience of time, place, self, and world?
In the past several years, Dr. Daniel Everett, Dean of Arts and Sciences at Bentley University in Massachusetts, and former Chair of the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Illinois State University, (one time Chomsky adherent), published several works on the remote Piraha tribe, a group of hunter-gatherers who live on the edge of the rain forest along the Maici River in Brazil’s Amazon region. Everett lived with the tribe and studied their language and culture for thirty years. The Piraha’s unwritten tongue (spoken, sung and hummed) consists of just eight consonants and three vowels, and lacks many of the grammatical characteristics found in other languages. Especially noteworthy, it lacks the phenomenon of recursion ( of linguistic subordination) that Chomsky claimed was essential to all human languages. As Everett said in a 2012 interview:
All languages have unique characteristics, but the Pirahã just seems to have so many unique characteristics. Things that we didn’t expect. I mean the absence of numbers, the absence of counting and colours, the absence of creation myths, and the refusal to talk about the distant past or the distant future. A number of things like this, including, the special characteristic of recursion, the ability to keep a process going in the syntax forever.7
And, according to Everett, this has significant implications on what is important in Piraha culture. As Everett depicts things, the locus of their concern and attention is on…
[t]he immediacy of experience, not to worry about the future or past, and not talk about what you have not seen or heard. They hunt, fish and share their food; the rest of the time they laugh, talk, spend time enjoying themselves… What struck me was their lack of superstition, their contentment with life as they found it. And their happiness. I have never seen people facing so many difficulties, with so much grace: it deeply impressed me.8
Here is where I suggest we find a turning point in human history, what social anthropologist Jack Goody called, in his groundbreaking work, The Domestication of the Savage Mind,9 or the birth of literacy. It is here I wager that we find the complete and final ascendancy of linguistic hierarchy, and hypotactic space-time over paratactic presence, the future, over the present, law over custom, and history over myth. I would like to spend just a few minutes on the differences in perception and worldview.
As cultural historian Marvin Bram contends in The Recovery Of The West, “Parataxis suggests coordination more than subordination, and any number of sequences rather than a single correct sequence. Parataxis de-hierarchizes the world,” where the flat, coordinate, and non-orderliness of a paratactic world seems rather primitive or prosaic to the ever more civilized and tightly structured hypotactic logistic. Bram continues:
Parataxis is concerned with the concrete thing itself, the local and contained, and the moment, rather than with relationships among abstract things and over-arching spatial and temporal schemes… Paratactic space and time make dramatic antitheses to their hypotactic counterparts.10
For example, a person walking down a forest path seeing paratactically will see much more than a person looking hypotactically along the same path but only seeing what is of interest to him. The paratactic visual space will be fuller. As Bram concludes,
This phenomenon of paratactic persons taking in more of the world, living in a fuller world than hypotactic persons, has been reported time and time again by (hypotactic) travelers among (paratactic) traditional peoples. 11
Is it not interesting how the well domesticated, orderly and perfectly sequenced rows of plowed fields, those ‘amber waves of grain,’ led to urban surpluses, which in turn were stored and accounted for through the production of linear tables and rows of numbers in the written records of our earliest kingdoms and nation states – the very first signs of written language, along with documented codes of social control? The haphazard (disorderly) plots of early-Neolithic pre-urban horticulturalists were simply not comparable with the tilled and plowed rows of the agriculturalist, just as the meandering herds of sheep among the earliest shepherds cannot compare to the meticulously aligned metal stalls of the modern abattoir. And the language of control, the written document, was key to building the assorted hierarchies that would henceforth manage the herds, the fields, the supplies, and the citizens, as well as the outsiders. (And Russian certainly understand the documents of control). Legal institutions, advocates and judges, guilt and innocence, along with police forces and the military were born in that self-same moment of our earliest history. It is here that the trajectory of the West was born and we lost our way.
Even in the language of Genesis, the story of the Tower of Babel is not really about the multiplicity of tongues. It is rather a depiction of the overarching structural integrity of a burgeoning universal linguistic, and its ability to subordinate and unify disparate members of the citizenry within a shared foundational grammar and worldview. I would say it is a mythic recognition of the univocal trajectory of the written word – its capacity for disambiguation and hierarchization, thus enabling greater displays of command and control. The story of Babel was possibly an expressed regret over the loss of freedom, of polysemy, and the natural intimacy that preceded the birth of cities, kings, and written codes. Why else would the story speak so directly about some divine intervention to confuse yet again the tongues of man?
But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them.11
The building of cities, the concrete establishment of civilization – the Tower of Babel – was dependent upon the unambiguous univocality of the written word, and the hierarchical control it afforded the literati of the imperial court. No doubt, much was gained with the move to literacy, with the ascendance of univocity, the written record of history, the significance of the past and the value of the future. It provided the mechanism for bureaucratic structures (and laws) to manage the new menagerie of human community, and realize the possibilities that civilized life now afforded. Yet, there was also born regret for the past poorly lived and anxiety over a future still uncertain, in short, the terror of an historical consciousness, and the realization that ‘one-day I too will die.’ As Bram reminds us,
In paratactic time there is little past because there are no complete logistic structures to be sought there, and there is little future because there is no need for a place in which to complete incomplete logistic structures. There is certainly a present, gathering to itself much of the energy that hypotactic persons give to the past and future, and inhabited by full persons and full objects: a full present. The present of hypotactic time often enough takes third place behind the past and the future, depleted of energy: an empty present. 12
But, what was lost in this transformation to the hypotactic word, in the subordination of thought and speech within the apparently universal grammar of literacy, univocity, and its newly appropriated voice – the sterile logic of syllogism and, finally, of mathematics?
I wager that collectively these developments – agriculture, urbanization, and literacy – had an incalculable impact on human perception and consciousness over the ensuing millennia, producing entirely novel ways of constituting and manipulating the world. Consciousness, reflectively detaching itself from the living environment, constituted reality differently after the birth of cities than it had done previously, when humans dwelt there pre-thematically, participating the world, perceptually and paratactically. This cognitive change produced resounding reverberations for all generations to follow, entrenched, as humanity would become, in new organizational hierarchies that appeared — the formal institutions of civil society. Was it not literacy – giving special prominence to a hypotactic, hierarchizing logistic – that provided momentum to both the political and scientific objectification of nature and human relations?
An incipient temperament for this new logistic, and its newly constructed worldview, affected every dimension of life as civilization spread, and cities continued to populate the globe over subsequent millennia. This view of the world established and entrenched itself, memorializing our changed relationship with a reality in which we had originally dwelt paratactically. The world-as-given was emptied of any intrinsic significance or value aside from that which these new humans and the logic of the written word attributed to it. It was first a linguistic and then an early scientific objectification of nature – destroying the power and thickness of a pre-objective present – that led ineluctably to the de-animation of nature and the subsequent theoretical construction of transcendent powers – gods, goddesses, the noumena, or eventually, the abstract laws of physics.
Preliterate humanity on the other hand seemingly drew fewer hard distinctions, apparently experiencing the world as alive, having a power and motility shared with all sentient beings and even with what we now call inanimate nature. It is for this reason that pre-historic consciousness may be called participatory consciousness; tribal members actually could fuse with their totem animal, for example – intertwining with their environment – because from their perspective there was no substantive difference between them and the totem: they were essentially of one substance or consubstantial. We must not be confused here. It is not as if they thought like us, only making incorrect judgments; they did not think the way we do. It was qualitatively a different mode of perceiving and experiencing all together. They did not see things from a wholly detached objective perspective; indeed, we cannot say that they saw any “things” at all in the sense that we speak of things today in geometrical space-time. Rather they participated their world. Their experience may have been qualitatively different from the way we configure the world today.
Hypotaxis and hierarchy, mathematics and the syllogism, in short, literacy has allowed us to slice and dice the world, dissecting it in so many ways. Perhaps it is time to bandage those cuts and let the healing begin, if it is not already too late. In hindsight, perhaps we might all be better off had we never been taught to read, to write, or to paint by numbers in the first place – like the Piraha! Perhaps the globe wouldn’t be quite the mess it is today had it only been otherwise!
1. Abram, David, The Spell of the Sensuous, 1996, p. 131.
2. Fried, Morton, The Evolution of Political Society, Random House, 1967, p. 106.
3. Fried, Ibid
4. Ingold, Tim, The Perception of the Environment, Routladge, 2011, p. 45.
5. Fried, Ibid
6. Chomsky, Noam, Interview with Michael Wilson, Modern Success (http://www.alternet.org/civil-liberties/noam-chomsky-kind-anarchism-i-believe-and-whats-wrong-libertarians)
7. Everett, Daniel, Interview by Robert McCrum, The Observer, (25 March 2012)
8. Godrèche, Dominique, The Amazon’s Pirahã People’s Secret to Happiness: Never Talk of the Past or Future (25 June, 2012)
9. Goody, Jack, The Domestication of the Savage Mind, Oxford
10. Bram, Marvin, The Recovery Of The West: An Essay In Symbolic History, 2002, Exlibris, pp. 25-26
11. Bram, Ibid
12. Genesis (11:5-6)
13. Bram, Ibid, p. 26.