The Long Room of the Old Library at Trinity College Dublin. By David Iliff @Wiki Commons

We communicate with people every day, by phone, letters, email, Whatsapp, Facebook, or tête-à-tête. It’s something we learned when we were young and try to shape when we grow older. In day-to-day life, we usually don’t really think about the origins of language or its significance for the world we live in.

Likewise, we mostly don’t think about the consequences when the primacy of language, especially written language, is losing ground.

For millennia, we used language to communicate with one another, and through it, we created artistic wonders. Poems, literature, philosophical treatises, all the elements that defined us as civilised beings. But with the coming of the 20th century, the essence of language itself was questioned. The philosopher George Steiner, explains in his book Real presences the degeneration of written language and what it means for civilised societies.

First, let’s take a look at the evolution of language and the different aspects of language in the history of Western civilization.

Primitive Language

Language makes us what we are: human. Language was the first step in distancing ourselves from our animal nature and spirit.

From the first phase of civilisation onwards, we needed language to understand and structure the more complicated forms of being together as a group of human beings. Language had a pragmatic purpose in a community to express the needs of people. It was a tool to survive and structure communities. No longer needing to track and hunt, we could stay in one place because of the new agricultural skills we developed.

This technology needed to be explained and the harvest needed to be administrated; How much of everything did we have and how much did each member of the group get? One sees how primitive and technical the use of language was in the age of tribes and early empires. It was a tool, used for administration, production and redistribution. 

Language, Ideas, and Politics in Ancient Greece

Besides the use of language in mysticism, language also became a political tool. In ancient Greece, the sophists, for whom language was a rhetoric tool, used words for their own purposes. Lawyers and politicians became experts in transforming language into something subjective. The sophists defined what language meant, what words meant, what grammatical structures meant. They transformed language into something primitive and they deconstructed the essence of words into pragmatic and subjective meanings. To them, words didn’t have a transcended truth anymore, they could mean anything that the person wanted it to mean.

However, speaking rather roughly here, the rise of sophists in society also led to the rise of philosophers. Philosophers, like Socrates and Plato, despised the sophists because they strove towards earthly gain and shaped language and the truth as they saw fit.

Philosophers, on the other hand, strove for wisdom and the essence of life and virtue. According to them, concepts and words were a vague representation of Ideas, or the True Essence. To them, these are not subjective, but have a transcendent essence, and although humans cannot fully grasp their meaning, it’s something we should always strive for. This was Plato’s Idealism, as explained in his book the Republic.

Concepts and words became something greater and because of the rise of philosophers, civilisations made huge progress and developed an understanding of the world through science and philosophy. From the Greek philosophers, to the Roman philosophers, to the Scholastics and Romanticists, Idealism brought tremendous immaterial wealth in the form of culture, literature, and poems.

Likewise, because of priests, artist and mystics, language became a tool to civilise people. It made them less primitive and it made them yearn for something greater than themselves. Myths of Gods, men, and virtues became the guidelines for ordinary people and showed them there was more to life than their earthly impulses and materialistic needs.

The Deconstruction of language

George Steiner (1929-), a French-born American conservative philosopher, wrote the book Real Presences, which was published in 1986. Steiner wrote many essays and books about the connection between language, literature, and society. In Real Presences, he explains the evolution of language and the gradual degeneration of future written language. 

He states that in the 18th and 19th century, philosophical and artistic progress led to such great heights, that we as Western Civilization thought we had reached a maximum. The emphasis of rationality in science secularised philosophy and with the Death of God, as Nietzsche proclaimed, we humans were from now on supposed rule our own lives and create our own values. 

But with the death of God came something else. With the progress of science, we started to separate natural and traditional phenomena from a transcendent meaning or purpose. The secularisation of our civilisation led to an attack on almost every tradition, sociological structure and mentality. 

In the 20th century, Steiner proposes, we stopped creating and started deconstructing. He doesn’t only mean this in a semantic way, but also in a philological way. One of the reasons, Steiner explained, was that the academic world in Europe adopted American academic culture.

That culture was more pragmatic and positivistic, meaning that everything can and needs to be explained in universal denominators and steps. In turn, this entailed that in the ‘science’ of music or literature, compositions and books needed to be deconstructed. Stating universal rules through which to explain and interpret the musical and literary world became the new academic mandate. 

Papers about the deconstruction of famous essays, literature, poetry were written by the hundreds. On the life and bibliography of Dostoyevsky alone, are thousands of essays and philological explanations. From creating primary works of literature Western civilisation became the creator of mere secondary literature. Literature about literature. Essays about essays. But this level of ‘deconstruction’ wasn’t the end.

The Age of Tertiary Literature

We arrive at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, in which we entered a new age. The age, as Steiner calls it, of tertiary literature. It seems that in the 20th century we couldn’t overcome the deconstruction of classical literature and philosophy, so we abandoned the path of creation altogether.

As Steiner explains, philosophers like Ludwig von Wittgenstein (1889-1951) began to deconstruct language itself. Wittgenstein was a philosopher of language who created two of the most famous philosophical treaties about language, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations. In summary, Wittgenstein said in these two books that the meaning of words and sentences are subjective to the person using that word, as well as to the person reading or hearing that word. When you picture a horse, you are likely to have a different picture of a horse in mind than the next person.

That was one of the reasons, for Wittgenstein, why people most of the time didn’t fully understand each other. The same thing can be said about sentences. The meaning of a sentence, albeit the same structure, can mean something else for every person. That depends on the language game you’re playing. When you say, to comfort someone, ‘everything is going to be fine’, that doesn’t mean that it’s rationally going to be fine. That person is merely playing the comforting language game. But like the prior example, you can interpret that sentence in a completely different way. One could, for example, interpret that sentence as ‘everything is going to be literally fine’.

This deconstruction gave way to more analysis and deconstruction of concepts in language. After Wittgenstein, the deconstructivists, like the philosopher Jacques Derrida, went even further in their crusade to deconstruct language. To him, words had no other essence or meaning than that which a person subjectively understands. Grammar is a social structure which can be overthrown.

In Real Presences, Steiner claims that with the deconstruction of words and their essence, a ‘contract’ has been broken between words and the higher reality they refer to, like Plato explained with his Idealism.

Language and words have always been a gateway to the reality surrounding man. Words give comfort and understanding of our surroundings and of our lives. That is the ‘contract’ Steiner is referring to. The deconstructivists aimed to break this contract and with it, they sought to degenerate language into something less than the elevation of human beings.

They aimed to question every essence or truth and create chaos. It left a void of surrealism and alienation.

The Preservation of Language

The examples of degeneration are plenty. Language, just like in ancient Greece, is politicised and can mean anything someone wants it to mean. Words are micro-aggressions when the person perceives the essence of a word or sentence as aggressive or offensive.

Another threat to the proper use of written language comes from the rise of computers. The importance of language is declining. Steiner explains that computers brought the use of math and numbers in binary codes, which made written language less important. Numbers have the future. In the information age, people with knowledge of the binary code and math are the future, a new elite, which decides what truly matters in their civilization. With the degeneration of language, according to Steiner, the binary elite may usher in a soulless, pragmatic society where transcendent concepts will be disregarded as ‘nonsense’.

What kind of pragmatic purpose does art, literature, or culture have in a society which is focused on short-term results, efficiency, and material gains? None really, and that’s a potential hazard.

If we create a world in which we no longer have an interest in the transcendent, while at the same time give rise to a technocracy which aims to replace and become ‘the transcendent’, we do so at our own peril. After all, The Tower of Babel story was articulated, remembered and passed down generations for a reason.