A black and white photograph shows a woman on the edge of a sand dune overlooking the sea leaning back into a strong wind

Photo by Jean Gaumy/Magnum


Cathedrals of convention

Humans have a strong impulse to see things that are arbitrary or conventional as natural and essential – especially language

by Reuben Cohn-Gordon + BIO

Photo by Jean Gaumy/Magnum

It must be this rhapsody or none,
The rhapsody of things as they are.
– from ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’ (1937) by Wallace Stevens

Cratylus and Hermogenes disagree about language. As only the format of a fictional debate will allow they hold opposing and extreme positions. Cratylus believes that the sound of each word is a reflection of what it describes in the world. The sliding sound of the /l/ in liparon, for instance, is there precisely because the word means ‘sleek’ or ‘slippery’ in Cratylus’ native Greek. If he spoke English, he might argue in the same vein that the word ‘wind’ acquires its meaning from its sound, which resembles what it describes. Nothing is arbitrary.

Everything is arbitrary, counters Hermogenes. The relationship between the sound and meaning of a word is the product of a wildly stochastic process that plays out differently every time, to which the variety of languages is a testament. The flow of air happens to be called ‘wind’ in English, and ‘viento’ in Spanish, but neither betrays a special connection between form and meaning. They both could have been otherwise.

The positions represented by these two characters, appearing in Plato’s Cratylus, go well beyond language. Astrology, in its Western incarnation at least, is premised on the idea that the time you are born – an apparently incidental fact of your life – profoundly shapes who you are. That is, your zodiac sign is linked to who you love, what you achieve, and so on. This has the flavour of Cratylus’ naturalism, with the similar implication that, if a person’s life played out again from birth, it would tend inexorably towards the same paths.

Then there is gender, an arena where this tug-of-war between what is natural and what is arbitrary persists today. The ‘Cratylus’ view is that gender, a smorgasbord of behaviours, preferences and ways of being in the world, is a direct manifestation of a biological characteristic. ‘An essence defined with as much certainty as the sedative quality of a poppy,’ as Simone de Beauvoir describes this view (which she rejects). Dressing in floral colours, passivity, and compassion? Consequences of being biologically female. Answering questions with unearned confidence, the potential for powerful and singular genius, and ambition? Consequences of being biologically male.

What is the source of this impulse to naturalise, to perceive an underlying natural essence in what is fundamentally arbitrary? And what, if anything, does the answer have to do with language?

The sociologists Judith Irvine and Susan Gal offer an insight into these questions. They explore the racist colonial pseudoscience of relating grammatical features of Senegalese languages such as Fula to purported differences in the character of their speakers:

Fula’s linguistic characteristics, such as its syllable structure and its noun classification system, were taken, by European linguists such as de Guiraudon (1894) and Tautain (1885), as emblems of its speakers’ ‘delicacy’ and ‘intelligence’ as compared to speakers of Wolof

This is an idea with a distressingly long history. As the American literary critic James C McKusick notes in Coleridge’s Philosophy of Language (1986):

A variant of the doctrine of linguistic naturalism, attributable to Epicurus and Lucretius (De Natura, 5:1031ff), asserts that language arises spontaneously from human nature, just as beasts naturally emit cries … they are outward manifestations of man’s inner nature … To the obvious objection that there are many different human languages, [Lucretius] replies that there are a great variety of peoples, each with its own distinct characteristics. Linguistic variation is, in this view, an index of the variability of human nature.’ [emphasis mine]

Irvine and Gal coined the term iconisation to describe this kind of thinking, conveniently suited to racist ideologies, where ‘a linguistic feature somehow depicted or displayed a social group’s inherent nature or essence’. Take the example of the coastal city of Cartagena. Tour guides like to describe the light pronunciation of final /s/ in the local dialect as being taken away by the strong sea wind, an iconisation in which the people, like their city, are windswept. Meanwhile, a heavy medial /t/ (think of ‘water’) signals Britishness in the United States, but the iconisation, à la Cratylus, would be to think this sound is a manifestation of an inherently British characteristic of fastidiousness.

In Meaning and Linguistic Variation (2018), the sociolinguist Penelope Eckert explores how we rely on these iconisations in our efforts to construct a social identity:

Whether the speaker is a teenage girl adapting a Valley girl feature to position herself as cooler than her interlocutors or a fisherman on Martha’s Vineyard … centralising the nucleus of /ay/ to position himself as an opponent to the incursion of the mainland economy on the island, stylistic moves are ideological.

In the case of Cratylus’ explanations, the idea is that the information words express about the world is latent in their form, discoverable with enough thought. In the cases of iconisations, it is instead information about the words’ speakers that is imagined, falsely, to be latent. Irvine and Gal’s view is that iconisations tend to be wrapped up in an ideological project. In the examples they discuss, it is a convenient tool in the colonial project of ranking peoples according to their race.

It’s typical of Jewish theology that certain texts are built into nature

In Revivalistics (2020), the linguist Ghil‘ad Zuckermann highlights another example of the ideological convenience of the Cratylus worldview in the medieval Jewish practice of etymythology (‘the lexical version of the urban legend,’ in the words of Laurence Horn, who coined the term). The explanation of the name of the Polish town of Radom is a typical case. A site of historical antisemitic violence, it would be fitting if its name came from the Hebrew ‘ra dam’ (of bad blood), and this was indeed an etymology offered by Jews at the time. The implication is that God, in creating Hebrew, had anticipated the violence that would take place millennia later in Poland, an event that, by this logic, is built into the structure of the world.

Etymythologies key into a broader worldview, typical of Jewish theology, that certain texts are built into nature. In a confusingly recursive act, the Torah (or Old Testament) tells how it itself is handed down to the Jews from God. This is often interpreted to mean not the general content of the text, but the exact sequence of words, which enshrines its position not only as a book, but as a part of nature, a sort of ‘source code’ for the Universe. Run history again, and the Torah would be the same, not just in content, but word for word.

In that vein, one Talmudic story has King Ptolemy make 72 scholars translate the Torah from its original Hebrew to Greek. Each does so in a separate room. When they compare the results afterwards, each translation is, to a word, identical. It is as if the text of the Torah is a latent truth about the Universe that can be discovered exactly in any language, just as disparate people could eventually deduce the laws of physics, despite their different frames of reference.

The same kind of linguistic naturalism is found in more everyday settings. Folk etymologies of how ‘bae’ is an acronym for ‘before anyone else’, or even the totally plausible ‘Save our ship’ or ‘Save our souls’ for SOS, play a similar game of taking something arbitrary and fitting it into an elegant system. Neither is true – ‘bae’ is an abbreviation of ‘baby’, and SOS is simply easy to identify in Morse code – but both suggest that the form of the word bears a relationship to its meaning that is more than a historical accident.

But again, what are these ‘Cratylus’ style views really doing, whether as a playful pretence or a genuine conviction?

The trademark of these kinds of explanations, linguistic or otherwise, is a placing of human concerns into the fabric of nature. The move is framed nicely by a distinction made by the philosopher Wilfrid Sellars, between the scientific and the manifest image. The former is the world of fields and particles moving around, governed by mathematically beautiful and precise laws. The second is the world inhabited by the objects in the human purview: emotions, events, stories, toys, surprises, wardrobes and so on.

The fundamental laws of nature rarely speak directly about objects in the manifest image. There is a law that two fermions (a kind of particle) cannot occupy the same state simultaneously, but there is no law that two physicists called Fermi cannot be in the same room at the same time. Nature might ensure an invariant like the total energy of a closed system but not an invariant like the amount of enthusiasm for racquetball in Peru. Love of ball sports, and the presence of Italian physicists, are not pronounced upon by nature.

You could imagine a world where this was otherwise, and belief systems like astrology or fate carry out precisely that counterfactual. Origin stories too. Rudyard Kipling (notably a staunch believer in the colonial project) writes a ‘just-so’ story about the origin of the elephant’s trunk, which is stretched as it stubbornly resists being pulled into the Limpopo river by a crocodile. The logic of the story is that this feature of its body is a manifestation of its essence, in particular its stubbornness, which makes it stand firm as its trunk is yanked to its full length by a crocodile. The physical form of the elephant is explained in terms of the essence of its character, just as the form of the word ‘Radom’ is explained by the tragic history of the place it denotes.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses predates Kipling by millennia, but displays just the same flavour of logic regarding the manifest image and essences. The loose weave of a narrative wends its way from the origin of the Universe to the advent of the Roman Empire, one story at a time. If a narcissus flower is pretty, that is a consequence of the beauty of the man Narcissus, who became one. Events take place not because of physical forces, but by the force of will of various mortal and immortal agents. The Sun’s periodic movement is the result of a timely ride in a chariot each day by the sun god Helios. When he falters, time goes out of order. And when Icarus falls to his death (in what we now call the Icarian Sea) after flying too close to the Sun, another law is being gestured at: retribution for hubris is built into nature, to follow as directly from the transgressive act as the pull of gravity or the melting of waxy wings in the heat.

Run history again, and you would be unlikely to see humans emerge as a species

Nothing is arbitrary, and everything has an explanation that ties human concerns into the fabric of nature. It’s not that a savage person is like a wolf, it’s that they are literally a wolf, whose savage essence is laid bare. Metamorphosis, instead of metaphor.

Scientific theories of the world, not unlike Ovid’s, also paint a picture in which the blooming, buzzing confusion of the world we observe is the result of latent forces and rules. But the key difference is that these rules tend not to speak about the manifest image.

Evolution explains the diversity of flora and fauna not in terms of a hardwired and immutable set of plants and animals, created by a human-like designer, but as the result of a process of natural selection. Run history again, and though the dynamics of competition and evolution would repeat, you would be unlikely to see humans emerge as a species. (In the worldview of the Metamorphoses, by contrast, on replaying the world, you would not only get the same species, but the same cultures, the same Roman Empire, and the same emperor, Augustus, ruling it.)

In fact, the origin of scientific theories is often bound up in determining what does and doesn’t belong in the scientific image. Galileo’s cosmology was so controversial because, by positing that Earth was not the centre of the solar system, he was suggesting that the importance of Earth was not a feature of the scientific image. The fundamental laws of physics did not have any special awareness of humans and their lives.

Language is no exception to this trend. In the early 20th century, Ferdinand de Saussure postulated the ‘arbitrariness of the sign’ as a foundational premise of linguistics. He meant exactly what Hermogenes meant, that the phonological form of a word bears a totally arbitrary relationship to its meaning. And for all the cleverness of Cratylus, it’s not hard to see that Saussure and Hermogenes are right. Hegel and Schlegel did not have similar professions because their names rhymed, and you can’t work out the meaning of ‘wind’ by thinking hard, you just have to know what it refers to. Rerun human history and there would still be languages, but the way words and meanings are related in each would be completely different.

But there is something strange about language that this assessment of arbitrariness does not capture. A language might exhibit an arbitrary relationship between words and their meanings, but its existence depends on its speakers acting as if it is in some way natural.

The notion of a social convention is at the heart of this strangeness. The fact that people drive on the left-hand side of the road in the UK is a convention. The colours and cuts of clothing worn by men and women respectively are a convention. About 60 years after Saussure, the philosopher David Lewis characterised convention as a relationship between a type of agent and a behaviour that is stable, collectively known, and of course, arbitrary.

The left-hand driving convention is stable in the sense that people do not wake up on a Sunday morning and all decide to drive on the right. It is collectively known in the sense that they not only know which side of the road to drive on, but take advantage of the assumption that everyone else knows too – no need to worry about oncoming traffic if you’re driving on the left. And lastly, it is arbitrary in the sense that there is nothing necessary about the fact that the convention has chosen the left rather than the right. There is nothing about the shape of the roads, or England’s green and pleasant land that compels them to drive on the left. In fact, you can go to other countries and see traffic working just fine on the right. Rerun history and it could have ended up the other way. (If you were Cratylus, on the other hand, you might argue that the left-side driving reflects a leftward gaze, towards the Atlantic and the New World, and could not have been otherwise.)

This all makes sense on the surface, but raises a difficult question: how does a convention come to be in the first place? The reason this is a difficult question is that a convention is commonly known. This is not the same as saying that everyone independently knows it. For example, imagine you are at a party, where across the room you see someone who is in the dance class you have been attending for the past month. You have never talked before. As it happens, you know their name, and of course, they know their own name too. And yet, despite both of you knowing their name, it isn’t common knowledge. You have no idea whether they know that you know, for instance, or even whether they would recognise you at all.

Each time someone speaks to us, the choices of words, their intonation, the idioms are presupposing a language

So how does information become common knowledge? It is a question that is particularly striking when the convention is language. Because after all, languages are the cathedrals of conventions. Each is a vast relationship between the form of words (sequences of them, really) and the information that those words convey. In English, the word ‘water’ conventionally denotes a particular liquid, and the way that you pronounce it conventionally links you to a particular place, social status and so on.

Languages fit well with Lewis’s characterisation. English, for example, is stable. We don’t typically decide en masse to start calling water ‘milk’ (although, like a glacier cutting a path through the Alps, languages do change slowly over time). It is also collectively known. We take advantage of the assumption that everyone else follows it, understanding that the language we produce will be understood by our interlocutor, and vice versa, rather than screaming our thoughts, feelings and opinions to an uncomprehending and baffled listener. And, not least, it is arbitrary, in exactly the sense that Saussure, and Hermogenes, pointed out. As Aristotle says in On Interpretation: ‘Every sentence has meaning, though not as an instrument of nature but, as we observed, by convention.’

So how does a language come to be? The mystery of this question is what historically made Cratylus’ view so plausible, in which words derived their meaning from some natural source, ‘outward manifestations of man’s inner nature’. Because how else?

It is illuminating to go back to the example of the acquaintance at a party whose name is not yet common knowledge. How can it become so? An announcement is one way; coming up to you, they might say: ‘I recognise you from dance class – I’m Leslie!’, and from this point onwards, the fact of their name is common knowledge between the two of you. But there is a second, much more interesting way their name could enter the common ground. You go up to them and say: ‘Hi Leslie, how’s it going?’ You simply presuppose (to use a linguists’ term) that the fact of their name is already common knowledge. Leslie is likely to accommodate this presupposition, and continue the conversation with the fact that you know their name taken as common knowledge. So just by dint of acting as if it already was common knowledge, it now is and will remain in the future. That is the funny thing: it can be willed into existence by believing it was already there.

Language as a whole, a much more elaborate piece of common knowledge, evolves by a similar mechanism. Each time someone speaks to us, the choices of words, their intonation, the idioms they use, and so on are presupposing a language, which we accommodate. But everyone else is doing the same, accommodating the language we produce.

In short, the continual attempt, by each of us, to determine our language’s nature is the force that shapes it over time. Everyone acts as if the rules are already common knowledge, and then – the strangest part! – they gradually try to work out what this common knowledge is. This is strikingly different to determining the position of a planet, or the weight of a large cake, where there is a fact of the matter totally separate from our beliefs about it, which can be reconstructed by investigation through telescopes or scales.

With all this in mind, it is easier to see why a convention would appear to be a natural object, since the real process by which it comes to be is quite counterintuitive. This thought is put into words by Judith Butler. She is coming from a different tradition, building on the ideas of Beauvoir, Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, rather than the analytic philosophers that inspired Lewis. And rather than language, Butler’s topic of study is gender. The ‘Hermogenes’ view – gender as a convention – was a running theme of feminist thought long before Butler of course, in which gender arises from a messy historical process and does not bear a direct or immutable relationship to biological characteristics.

Even more than language though, gender has historically been regarded as bearing just such a relationship to biology, in the spirit of Cratylus’ naturalism. Writing in 1988, Butler conjectures as to why:

The tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions is obscured by the credibility of its own production. The authors of gender become entranced by their own fictions whereby the construction compels one’s belief in its necessity and naturalness.

What Butler is suggesting is that the rules of gender are so effectively followed that it appears they must come from some innate source. Each time someone conforms to the social norms expected of men, say by resisting the urge to cry, it provides evidence for the view that those propensities must be intrinsic to being a man. The appearance of naturalness in the relationship between sex and gender is a byproduct of the success of the convention.

The same insight gives an answer to why language is so often naturalised: it is because we act as if the convention is natural and, in so doing, make that hypothesis plausible. We approach language as if it has a true form to be determined and, in the act of excavating that form, create it.

This perception of naturalness is evident not only in the iconisations and etymythologies but in the idea that there is a true form of a language, one that is slowly weathering and decaying in the hands of the younger generation, and which ought to be saved by efforts to control sloppy usage – a complaint made as early as Cicero, and non-stop since then.

In the end, it all comes back to the manifest and scientific images. Conventions live in the manifest image, but owe their existence to the collective pretence that they are in the scientific image. But perhaps the best way to understand the intuitive appeal of Cratylus’ view is with the story about the Englishman who is trying to demonstrate the intrinsic superiority of his native language. In French, he argues, a spoon is called a cuillère, while in Spanish it is a cuchara, and in Hebrew a כף /kaf/. But in English, it is called nothing other than what it truly is: a spoon!