Tagged: language


In a time and in a country where everyone goes out of his way to announce opinions or hand down judgements, Mr Palomar has made a habit of biting his tongue three times before asserting anything.  After the bite, if he is still convinced of what he was going to say, he says it.  If not, he keeps his mouth shut.  In fact, he spends whole weeks, months in silence.

Good opportunities for keeping quiet are never in short supply, but there are also rare occasions when Mr Palomar regrets not having said something he could have said at the right moment.  He realizes that events have confirmed what he was thinking and if he had expressed his thoughts at the time, he would have had a positive influence, however slight, on what then ensued.  In these cases his spirit is torn between self-satisfaction for having seen things properly and a sense of guilt because of his excessive reserve.  Both feelings are so strong that he is tempted to put them into words; but after having bitten his tongue three times, or rather six, he is convinced he has no cause either for pride or remorse.

Having had the correct view is nothing meritorious: statistically, it is almost inevitable that among the many cockeyed, confused or banal ideas that come into his mind, there should also be some perspicacious ideas, even ideas of genius; and as they occurred to him, they can surely have occurred also to somebody else.

Opinion on his having refrained from expressing his idea is more open to debate. In times of general silence, conforming to the silence of the majority is certainly culpable. In times when everybody says too much, the important thing is not merely to say what is right, which in any event would be lost in the flood of words, but to say it on the basis of premisses, suggesting also consequences, so that what is said acquires the maximum value. But then, if the value of a single affirmation lies in the continuity and coherence of the discourse in which it is uttered, the only possible choice is between speaking continuously or never speaking at all. In the first case Mr Palomar would reveal that his thinking does not proceed in a straight line but zigzags its way through vacillations, denials, corrections, in whose midst the rightness of that affirmation of his would be lost. As for the other alternative, it implies an art of keeping silent even more difficult than the art of speaking.

In fact, silence can also be considered a kind of speech, since it is a rejection of the use to which others put words; but the meaning of this silent speech lies in its interruptions, in what is, from time to time, actually said, giving a meaning to what is unsaid.

Or rather: a silence can serve to dismiss certain words or else to hold them in reserve for use on a better occasion. Just as a word spoken now can save a hundred words tomorrow or else can necessitate the saying of another thousand. “Every time I bite my tongue,” Mr Palomar concludes mentally, “I must think not only of what I am about to say or not to say, but also of everything that, whether I say it or do not say it, will be said or not said by me or by others.” Having formulated this thought, he bites his tongue and remains silent.

Italo Calvino, Mr Palomar.


We are living through bewildering times where the conduct of education is concerned. There are deep problems that stem from many origins – principally from a changing society whose future shape we cannot foresee and for which it is difficult to prepare a new generation. My topic, the language of education, may seem remote from the bewildering problems that rapid and turbulent change in our society have produced. But I shall try to show before I am done that it is not really so, that it is not so much scholarly fiddling while Rome burns to try to find a key to this crisis in the language of education. For at the heart of any social change one often finds fundamental changes in regard to our conceptions of knowledge and thought and learning, changes whose fulfillment is impeded and distorted by the way in which we talk about the world and think about it in the coin of that talk. My hope is that we may uncover some vexing issues of immediate and practical concern.

I shall begin with a premise that is already familiar: that the medium of exchange in which education is conducted – language – can never be neutral, that it imposes a point of view not only about the world to which it refers but toward the use of mind in respect of this world. Language necessarily imposes a perspective in which things are viewed and a stance toward what we view. It is not just, in the shopworn phrase, that the medium is the message. The message itself may create the reality that the message embodies and predispose those who hear it to think about it in a particular mode. If I had to choose a motto for what I have to say, it would be that one from Francis Bacon, used by Vygotsky, proclaiming that neither mind alone nor hand alone can accomplish much without the aids and tools that perfect them. And principal among those aids and tools are language and the canons of its use.

Most of our encounters with the world are not, as we have seen, direct encounters. Even our direct experiences, so called, are assigned for interpretation to ideas about cause and consequence, and the world that emerges for us is a conceptual world. When we are puzzled about what we encounter, we renegotiate its meaning in a manner that is concordant with what those around us believe.

If this is the basis for our understanding of the physical and biological worlds, how milch truer it is of the social world in which we live. For, to sound another familiar theme, the “realities” of the society and of social life are themselves most often products of linguistic use as represented in such speech acts as promising, abjuring, legitimizing, christening, and so on. Once one takes the view that a culture itself comprises an ambiguous text that is constantly in need of interpretation by those who participate in it, then the constitutive role of language in creating social reality becomes a topic of practical concern.

So if one asks the question, where is the meaning of social concepts – in the world, in the meaner’s head, or in interpersonal negotiation – one is compelled to answer that it is the last of these. Meaning is what we can agree upon or at least accept as a working basis for seeking agreement about the concept at hand. If one is arguing about social “realities” like democracy or equity or even gross national product, the reality is not the thing, not in the head, but in the act of arguing and negotiating about the meaning of such concepts. Social realities are not bricks that we trip over or bruise ourselves on when we kick at them, but the meanings that we achieve by the sharing of human cognitions. 

Jerome Bruner, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds.


So, broadly speaking, we can never be sure of anything, because no one can be sure that he is using words in exactly the same sense as the person he is talking to (even when they are speaking the same language).  Conversation is essentially a game of tennis played with a ball of playdough that changes shape each time it crosses the net.

Laurent Binet, The 7th Function of Language.


So many problems, however infinitely varied they first appear, turn out to be matters of money.  I can’t tell you how much this offends me.  The value of money is a scam perpetrated by those who have it over those who don’t;  It’s the Emperor’s New Clothes gone global.  If chimps used money and we didn’t, we wouldn’t admire it.  We’d find it irrational and primitive.  Delusional.  And why gold?  Chimps barter with meat.  The value of meat is self-evident.

The world runs on the fuel of this endless, fathomless misery.  People know it, but they don’t mind that they don’t see.  Make them look and they mind, but you’re the one they hate, because you’re the one that made them look.

Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.