The Language of Social Cohesion

Hayakawa, Samuel Ichiye 1949. Language in Thought and Action. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Full text of Ch. 5. "The Language of Social Cohesion" (p. 69-81), which is an intermediate between Malinowski and Jakobson, to be analyzed further elsewhere on this blog.

[p. 69] Noise as Expression - What above all complicates the problems of interpretation is the fact that informative uses of language are intimately fused with older and deeper functions of language, so that only a small proportion of utterances in everyday life can be described as purely informative. We have every reason to believe that the ability to use language for strictly informative purposes was developed relatively late in the course of linguistic evolution. Long before we developed language as we now know it, we probably made, like the lower animals, all sorts of cries, expressive of such internal conditions as hunger, fear, loneliness, triumph, and sexual desire. We can recognize a variety of such noises and the conditions of which they are symptoms in our domestic animals. Gradually such noises seem to have become more and more differentiated, consciousness expanded. [p. 70] Grunts and gibberings become language. Therefore, although we have developed language in which accurate reports may be given, we almost universally tend to express our internal conditions first, then to follow up with a report of necessary: "Ow! (expression) My tooth hurts" (report). Many utterances are, as we have seen with regard to "snarl-worlds" and "purr-words," vocal equivalents of expressive gestures, such as crying in pain, baring the teeth in anger, nuzzling to express friendliness, dancing with delight, and so on. When words are used as vocal equivalents of expressive gestures, we shall say that language is being used in presymbolic ways. These presymbolic uses of language coexist with out symbolic systems, and the talking we do in everyday life is a thorough blending of symbolic and presymbolic.

Indeed, the presymbolic factors in everyday language are always most apparent in expressions of strong feeling of any kind. If we carelessly step off a curb when a car is coming, it doesn't much matter whether someone yells, "Look out!" or "Kiwotsuke!" or "Hey!" or "Prends garde!" or simply utters a scream, so long as whatever noise is made is uttered loudly enough to alarm us. It is the fear expressed in the loudness and tone of the cry that conveys the necessary sensations, and not the words. Similarly, commands given sharply and angrily usually produce quicker results than the same commands uttered tonelessly. The quality of the voice itself, that is to say, has a power of expressing feelings that is almost independent of the symbols used. We can say, "I hope you'll come to see us again," in a way that clearly indicates that we hope the visitor never comes back. Or again, if a young lady with whom we are strolling says, "The moon is bright tonight," we are able to tell by the tone whether she is making a meteorological observation or indicating that she wants to be kissed.

Very small infants understand the love, the warmpth, or the irritation in a mother's voice long before they are able to understand her words. Most children retain this sensitivity to presymbolic factors in language. Some adults retain and refine this sensitivity as they grow older; they are the people credited with "intuition" or "unusual tact." Their talent lies in their skill in interpreting tones of voice, facial expressions, and other symptoms of the internal condition [p. 71] of the speaker: they listen not only to what is said, but to how it is said. On the other hand, people who have spent much of their lives in the study of written symbols (scientists, intellectuals, book-keepers) tend to be relatively deaf to everything but the surface sense of the words. If a lady wants a person of this kind to kiss her, she usually has to tell him so in many words.

Noise for Noise's Sake - Sometimes we talk simply for the sake of hearing ourselves talk; that is, for the same reason that we play golf or dance. The activity gives us a pleasant sense of being alive. Children prattling, adults singing in the bathtub, are alike enjoying the sound of their voices. Sometimes large groups make noises together, as in group singing, group recitation, or group chanting, for similar presymbolic reasons. In all this, the significance of the words used is almost completely irrelevant. We may, for example, chant the most lugubrious words about a desire to be carried back to a childhood home in old Virginny, when in actuality we have never been there and haven't the slightest intent of going.

What we call social conversation is again largely presymbolic in character. When we are at a tea or dinner party, for example, we all have to talk - about anything: the weather, the performance of the Chicago White Sox, Thomas Mann's latest book, or Ingrid Bergman'ss last picture. It is typical of these conversations that, except among very good friends, few of the remarks made on these subjects are ever important enough to be worth making for their informative value. Nevertheless, it is regarded as rude to remain silent. Indeed, in such matters as greetings and farewells - "Good morning" - "Lovely day" - "And how's your family these days?" - "It was a pleasure meeting you" - "Do look us up the next time you're in town" - it is regarded as a social error not to say these things even if we do not mean them. There are numberless daily situations in which we talk simply because it would be impolite not to. Every social group has its own form of this kind of talking - "the art of conversation," "small talk," or the mutual kidding that [p. 72] Americans love so much. From these social practices it is possible to state, as a general principle, that the prevention of silence is itself an important function of speech, and that it is completely impossible for us in society to talk only when we "have something to say."

This presymbolic talk for talk's sake is, like the cries of animals, a form of activity. We talk together about nothing at all and thereby establish friendships. The purpose of the talk is not the communication of information, as the symbols used would seem to imply ("I see the Dodgers are out in the lead again"), but the establishment of communion. Human beings have many ways of establishing communion among themselves: breaking bread together, playing games together, working together. But talking together is the most easily arranged of all these forms of collective activity. The togetherness of the talking, then, is the most important element in social conversation; the subject matter is only secondary.

There is a principle at work, therefore, in the selection of subject matter. Since the purpose of this kind o talk is the establishment of communion, we are careful to select subjects about which agreement is immediately possible. Consider, for example, what happens when two strangers feel the necessity or the desire to talk to each other:

"Nice day, isn't it?"

"It certainly is." (Agreement on one point has been established. It is safe to proceed.)

"Altogether, it's been a fine summer."

"Indeed it has. We had a nice spring, too." (Agreement on two points having been established, the second party invites agreement on a third point.)

"Yes, it was a lovely spring." (Third agreement reaced.)

The togetherness, therefore, is not merely in the talking itself, but in the opinions expressed. Having agreed on the weather, we go on to futher agreements - that it is nice farming country around here, that it certainly is scandalous how prices are going up, that New York is certainly an interesting place to visit but it would be awful to have to live there, and so on. With each new agreement, no matter how commonplace or how obvious, the fear and suspicion [p. 73] of the stranger wears away, and the possibility of friendship enlarges. When further conversation reveals that we have friends or political views or artistic tastes or hobbies in common, a friend is made, and genuine communication and co-operation can begin.

The Value of Unoriginal Remarks - An incident in the writer's own experience illustrates how necessary it sometimes is to give people the opportunity to agree. Early in 1942, a few weeks after the beginning of the war and at a time when rumors of Japanese spies were still widely current, he had to wait two or three hours in a small railroad station in a strange city. He became aware as time went on that the other people waiting in the station were staring at him suspiciously and feeling uneasy about his presence. One couple with a small child was staring with special uneasiness and whispering to each other. The writer therefore took occasion to remark to the husband that it was too bad that the train should be late on so cold a night. He agreed. The writer went on to remark that it must be especially difficult to travel with a small child in winter when train schedules were so uncertain. Again the husband agreed. The writer then asked the child'' age and remarked that the child looked very big and strong for his age. Again agreement - this time with a slight smile. The tension was relaxing.

After two or three more exchanges, the man asked, "I hope you don't mind my bringing it up, but you're Japanese, aren't you? Do you think the Japs have any chance of winning this war?"

"Well," the writer replied, "your guess is as good as mine. I don't know any more than I read in the papers. (This was true.) But the way I figure it, I don't see how the Japanese, with their lack of coal and steel and oil and their limited industrial capacity, can ever beat a powerfully industrialized nation like the United States."

The writer's remark was admittedly neither original nor well-informed. Hundreds of radio commentators and editorial writers were saying exactly the same thing during those weeks. But because they were, the remark sounded familiar and was on the right [p. 74] side, so that it was easy to agree with. The man agreed at once, with what seemed like genuine relief. How much the wall of suspicion had broken down was indicated in his next question, "Say, I hope your folks aren't over there while the war is going on."

"Yes, they are. My father and mother and two young sisters are over there."

"Do you ever hear from them?"

"How can I?"

"Do you mean you won't be able to see them or hear from them till after the war is over?" Both he and his wife looked troubled and sympathetic.

There was more to the conversation, but the result was that within ten minutes after it had begun they had invited the writer to visit them in the city and have dinner with them in their home. And the other people in the station, seeing the writer in conversation with people who didn't look suspicious, ceased to pay any attention to him and went back to reading their papers and staring at the ceiling.

[Footnote:] Perhaps it should be added that the writer was by no means consciously applying the principles of this chapter during the incident. This account is the result of later reflection. He was simply groping, as anyone else might do, for a way to relieve his own loneliness and discomfort in the situation.

Maintenance of Communication Lines - Such presymbolic uses of language not only establish new lines of communication, but keep old lines open. Old friends like to talk even when they have nothing especially to say to each other. In the same way that long-distance telephone operators, ship radio officers, and army signal corps outposts chatter wit heach other even when there are no official messages to communicate, so do people who live in the same household or work in the same office continue to talk to each other even when there is nothing much to say. The purpose in both cases seems to be partly to relieve tedium, but partly, and more importantly, to keep the lines of communication open.

[p. 75] Hence the situation between many a married couple:

WIFE: Wilbur, why don't you talk to me?

HUSBAND (interrupted in his reading of Schopenhauer or The Racing Form): What's that?

WIFE: Why don't you talk to me?

HUSBAND: But there isn't anything to say.

WIFE: You don't love me.

HUSBAND (thoroughly interrupted, and somewhat annoyed): Oh, don't be silly. You know I do. (Suddenly consumed by a passion for logic.) Do I run around with other women? Don't I turn my paycheck over to you? Don't I work my head off for you and the kids?

WIFE (way out on a logical limb, but still not satisfied): But still I wish you'd say something.


WIFE: Well, because.

Of course, in a way the husband is right. His actions are an extensional demonstration of his love. They speak louder than words. But, in a different way, the wife is right. How does one know that the lines of communication are stil lopen unless one keeps them at work? When a radio engineer says into a microphone, "One... two... thre... four... testing..." he isn't saying anything much. But it is nevertheless important at times that he say it.

Presymbolic Language in Ritual - Sermons, political caucuses, conventions, "pep rallies," and other ceremonial gatherings illustrate the fact that all groups - religious, political, patriotic, scientific, and occupational - like to gather together at intervals for the purpose of sharing certain accustomed activities, wearing special costumes (vestments in religious organizations, regalia in lodges, uniforms in patriotic societies, and so on), eating together (banquets), displaying their flags, ribbons, or emblems of their group, and marching in processions. Among these ritual activities is always included a number of speeches, either traditionally worded or specially composed for the occasion, whose principal [p. 76] function is not to give the audience information it did not have before, not to create new ways of feeling, but something else altogether.

What this something else is, we shall analyze more fully in Chapter 7 on "The Language of Social Control." We can analyze now, however, one aspect of language as it appears in ritual speeches. Let us look at what happens at a "pep rally" such as precedes college football games. The members of "our team" are "introduced" to a crowd that already knows them. Called upon to make speeches, the players mutter a few incoherent and often ungrammatical remarks, which are received with wild applause. The leaders of the rally make fantastic promises about the mayhem to be performed on the opposing team the next day. The crowd utters "cheers," which normally consist of animalistic noises arranged in extremely primitive rhythms. No one comes out any wiser or better informed than he was before he went in.

To some extent religious ceremonies are equally puzzling at first glance. The priest or clergyman in charge utters set speeches, often in a language incomprehensible to the congregation (Hebrew in orthodox Jewish synagogues, Latin in the Roman Catholic Church, Sanskrit in Chinese and Japanese temples), with the result that, as often as not, no information whatsoever is communicated to thos present.

If we approach these linguistic events from a detached point of view, and if also we examine our own reactions when we enter into the spirit of such occasions, we cannot help observing that, whatever the words used in ritual utterance may signify, we often do not think very much about their signification during the course of the ritual. Most of us, for example, have often repeated the Lord's Prayer or sung "The Star-Spangled Banner" without thinking about the words at all. As children we are taught to repeat such sets of words before we can understand them, and many of us continue to say them for the rest of our lives without bothering about their signification. Only the superficial, however, will dismiss these facts as "simply showing what fools human beings are." We cannot regard such utterances as "meaningless," because they have a genuine effect upon us. We may come out of church, for example, with no [p. 77] clear memory of what the sermon was about, but with a sense nevertheless that the service has somehow "done us good."

What is the "good" that is done us in ritual utterances? It is the reaffirmation of social cohesion: the Christian feels closer to his fellow-Christians, the Elk feels more united with his brother Elks, the American feels more American and the Frenchman more French, as the result of these rituals. Societies are held together by such bonds of common reactions to sets of linguistic stimuli.

Ritualistic utterances, therefore, whether made up of words that have symbolic significance at other times, of words in foreign or obsolete tongues, or of meaningless syllables, may be regarded as consisting in large part of presymbolic uses of language: that is, accustomed sets of noises which convey no information, but to which feeling (often group feelings) are attached. Such utterances rarely make sense to anyone not a member of the group. The abracadabra of the lodge meeting is absurd to anyone not a member of the lodge. When language becomes ritual, that is to say, its effect becomes to a considerable extent independent of whatever signification the words once possessed.

Advice to the Literal-Minded - Presymbolic uses of language have this characteristic in common: their functions can be performed, if necessary, without the use of grammatically and syntactically articulated symbolic words. They can even be performed without recognizable speech at all. Group feeling may be established, for example, among animals by collective barking or howling, and among human beings by college cheers, community singing, and such collectie noise-making activities. Indications of friendliness such as we give when we say "Good morning" or "Nice day, isn't it?" can be given by smiles, gestures, or, as among animals, by nuzzling or sniffing. Frowning, laughing, smiling, jumping up and down, can satisfy a large number of needs for expression, without the use of verbal symbols. But the use of verbal symbols is more customary among human beings, so that [p. 78] instead of expressing our feelings by knocking a man down, we often verbally blast him to perdition; instead of forming social groups by huddling together like puppies, we write constitutions and bylaws and invent rituals for the vocal expression of our cohesion.

To understand the presymbolic elements that enter into our everyday language is extremely important. We cannot restrict our speech to the giving and asking of factual information; we cannot confine ourselves strictly to statements that are literally true, or we should often be unable to say even "Pleased to meet you" when the occasion demanded. The intellectually persnickety often tell us that we ought to "say what we mean" and "mean what we say," and "talk only when we have something to talk about." These are, of course, important prescriptions.

Ignorance of the existence of these presymbolic uses of langugae is not so common among uneducated people (who often perceive such things intuitively0 as it is among the educated. The educated often listen to the chatter at teas and receptions and conclude from the triviality of the conversation that all the guests (except themselves) are fools. They may discover that people often come away from chuch services without any clear memory of the sermon and conclude that churchgoers are either fools or hypocrites. THey may hear political oratory and wonder "how anybody can believe such rot," and sometimes conclude therefrom that people in general are so unintelligent that it would be impossible for democracy to be made to work. Almost all such gloomy conclusions about the stupidity or hypocrisy of our friends and neighbors are unjustifiable on such evidence, because they usually come from applying the standards of symbolic language to linguistic events that are either partly or wholly presymbolic in character.

One further illustration may make this clearer. Let us suppose that we are on the roadside struggling with a flat tire. A not-very-bright-looking but friendly youth comes up and asks, "Got a flat tire?" If we insist upon interpreting his words literally, we will regard this as an extremely silly question and our answer may be, "Can't you see I have, you dumb ox?" If we pay no attention to what the words say, however, and understand his meaning, we [p. 79] will return his gesture of friendly interest by showing equal friendliness, and in a short while he may be helping us to change the tire.

Dr. Karl Menninger, in Love Against Hate (Allen & Unwin, 1942), comments on this passage and offers the following translation of "God a flat tire?" in terms of its psychological meaning: "Hello - I see you are in trouble. I'm a stranger to you but I might be your friend now that I have a chance to be if I had any assurance that my friendship would be welcomed. Are you approachable? Are you a decent fellow? Would you appreciate it if I helped you? I would like to do so but I don't want to be rebuffed. This is what my voice sounds like. What does your voice sound like?" Why does not the youth simply say directly, "I would be glad to help you"? Dr. Menninger explains: "But people are too timid and mutually distrustful to be so direct. They want to hear one another's voices. People need assurance that others are just like themselves." (Italics added.)

In a similar way, many situations in life as well as in literature demand that we pay no attention to what the words say, since the meaning may often be a great deal more intelligent and intelligible than the suface sense of the words themselves. It is probable that a great deal of our pessimism about the world, about humanity, and about democracy may be due in part to the fact that unconsciously we apply the standards of symbolic language to presymbolic utterances.

Applications - I. Try, with a group of friends, the following game. Set aside, during an afternoon gathering or an evening party, a period during which the rules are that no one is permitted to say anything except the word "Urglu" (to be uttered with any variations of pitch or tone necessary to convey different meanings) and that anyone using ordinary language during that period is to be fined. Notice what can and cannot be communicated by the use of such a single nonsense-word, accompanied by whatever gestures or facial expressions seem necessary. (Incidental query: Why is it that party-games, although often interesting when played, sound so silly when described?)

II. At the next meeting of a club or committee where group discussion is expected, notice the occasions when presymbolic language is used. At what points of the meeting does it seem to help the group along? Are there times when it seems to stall the meeting?

[p. 80] Or observe the ways in which an effective chairman at a banquet, an orator at a Farm Bureau or Grange picnic, or a popular master of ceremonies at a night club operates. Don't be too "objective" about this sort of exercise - don't sit there deadpan and detached, like an ethnologist from a different civilization taking notes on native customs. Enter rather into the spirit of the occasion, observing your own reactions as well as the reactions of others to the meaningfully meaningless utterances that are made. The detached approach may be taken on the following day, when you are writing down your observations, with the speeches, the audience reactions, and your own reactions as objects of study.

III. Keep track some day of the number of times a meeting of friends is begun with remarks about the weather. Why does the weather make such an easy opening? Is it true that women are more likely than men to greet each other with complimentary remarks about each other's appearance - "What a lovely new hat!" "Where did you get that bracelet?" "How well you look in that coat." Query: Do men have special patterns of their own in greeting other men?

It is the writer's impression that small children usually have not developed these presymbolic means of getting rapport with others. Observe with special care how children and adults who are sttrangers to each other get conversation started, if at all.

IV. Note the differences in forms of presymbolic usage in different classes of society. In different ethnic groups, in different countries. If the reader is well acquainted with more than one social class, or more than one nationality group, he might compare and contrast the different usages among the groups with which he is familiar. In the United States, there appear to the writer to be marked differences in the style and amount of presymbolic discourse between the general American middle-class culture and the cultures of immigrant groups who retain some of their Old World habits (Scandinavian farmers of the Midwest, Pennsylvania Dutch, Jews of the New York garment district, Italians, Poles, Germans of the Chicago northwest side, and so forth). There are also occupational and class differences: social usages among theatrical people, truckdrivers, women's clubs, artists and writers in urban Bohemias, and naval officers provide some sharp contrasts. An especially graceful ceremoniousness is to be found often in gatherings of American lower middle-class Negroes.

[p. 81] V. Try to live a whole day without any presymbolic uses of language, restricting yourself solely to (a) specific statement of fact which contribute to the hearer's information; (b) specific requests for needed information or services. This exercise is recommended only to those whose devotion to science and the experimental method is greater than their desire to keep their friends.


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