Integrationist Notes and Papers. No.26 © Roy Harris 2010

Language Myths, East and West

   •Roy Harris

If integrationism has achieved nothing else, it has at least focussed attention on the ways in which Western orthodox linguistics of the 20th century had lost touch with its own linguistic roots. These roots sprang, as they do in all linguistic traditions, from the lay understanding of everyday linguistic experience. Instead of mining this rich and accessible seam, Western academic linguists turned their backs on it and invented their own ‘theoretical’ jargon for discussing language. In so doing they set up for themselves bogus linguistic problems which have nothing to do with the genuine problems of verbal communication encountered in everyday life. Discussions of these theoretical pseudo-problems (mostly to do with the metalinguistic formalization of phonological and grammatical description) make up a large part of the subject-matter of 20th-century orthodox linguistics.

        The irony, as many now realize, is that this policy was allegedly pursued in the interests of making linguistics a ‘science’, whereas in practice it accomplished nothing of the kind. Nothing less ‘scientific’ than the abstract mumbo-jumbo that was ushered in under the auspices of ‘phonemes’, ‘morphemes’, ‘transformation rules’ and the like would it be possible to imagine. Integrationism aims, among other things, to redirect the attention of linguists to the fundamentals of linguistic inquiry that 20th-century linguistics resolutely ignored.

        When I first started using the term language myth some thirty years ago (Harris 1981), I was thinking exclusively of the Western tradition. There are, however, language myths in other parts of the world.

        There are some remarkable parallels between current integrationist thinking and the arguments advanced centuries ago by Nagarjuna in the Buddhist tradition of discussions about language. I first drew attention to these parallels in a paper published seven years ago (Harris 2003). Nagarjuna, whose thinking was introduced into China by Kumarajiva in the 4th century, was clearly a philosopher of remarkable independence of mind. I now think that Nagarjuna’s heretical views about speech were in all probability a protest against an indigenous ‘language myth’ current in his own day (although the extent to which that would have been appreciated by his Chinese disciples must be dubious). Be that as it may, Nagarjuna’s radical approach to language was the foundation of his celebrated doctrine of the Middle Way, to which he owes his place in the history of Buddhism. It is not difficult, I suggest, to reconstruct the kind of language myth against which Nagarjuna was probably reacting. By emphatically denying the possibility of linguistic repetition, Nagarjuna is in effect rejecting the myth of semantic invariance.

        The two principal components of the Western language myth – the fallacy of telementation and the fixed code fallacy – are dual aspects of the myth of semantic invariance. Telementation guarantees semantic invariance as between speaker and hearer. The fixed code guarantees semantic invariance as between all members of a linguistic community.

        Other Eastern cases where we seem to be dealing with an indigenous language myth of some kind are discussed in Chapter 4 of The Language Connection (Harris 1996). They include the Confucian doctrine of cheng ming and Kung-sun Lung’s famous paradox of the white horse. In the case of cheng ming we encounter the myth that the world of words is a mirror-image of the natural order of things. In the case of the white horse, the myth requires us to believe that each individual expression corresponds to a unique concept or class of things. Hence a white horse can never be the same as a horse, because being a horse does not entail being any particular colour.

        These cases in turn lead on to the more general question of whether all philosophical traditions, Western or Eastern, whenever they become sufficiently advanced to demand explicit linguistic articulation, do not come to construct ‘language myths’ of their own. If so, how do these various myths independently arise and what, if anything, do they have in common?

* * *

The arguments I shall put forward do not depend on joining me in rejecting those linguistic propositions that I regard as manifestly mythological. What I have always regarded as mythological are two principal tenets of traditional Western thinking about language that I have already referred to. One is that the primary function of language is the conveyance of thoughts from one human mind to another. The other is that this process is made possible – and is possible only – through the social establishment of public codes of verbal signs shared in common by all members of a given community.

        I have always regarded these as myths for the simple reason that there is no non-circular evidence in support of either. But if you prefer to regard them as unquestionable truths about human communication, there will be little anyone else can do to convince you otherwise, or to induce you to think, as I do, that these are misguided beliefs which actually prevent your mind from coming to grips with understanding the kind of verbal interaction in which you and I are at this moment engaged, and which most of us engage in, in some form or other, every day of our lives.

        That is why, as an integrationist, I hold out no serious hope for the academic study of language until linguists are prepared to undertake a thorough-going demythologization of their own discipline. That programme may have to take somewhat different forms in different traditions, since the dominant fallacies about language are not necessarily the same in all cases.

        It is important to realize that what I call a language myth is not just any old misconception about the way people speak. For example, in their rather disappointing ‘anthology’ entitled Language Myths (Bauer and Trudgill 1998), the editors include such myths as that ‘women talk too much’. They advance no general theory to explain what a language myth is. The alleged twenty-one myths identified in their collection are all misconceptions current in Europe or America. It is not apparently envisaged that language myths are to be found elsewhere than in Western cultures, and it would be interesting to speculate on why the editors assume this. However, the first point that needs to be made is that the belief that women talk too much is no more a myth about language than the belief that women spend too much on clothes is a myth about economics. Similarly, to take another example from Bauer and Trudgill, the belief that it is incorrect to say ‘It’s me’ isn’t a language myth, but simple ignorance of English usage.

        For anyone who takes a serious interest in linguistic theory, the reason why the study of language myths is important is that language myths are not just common cases of ignorance or stupidity by language-users. On the contrary, a language myth has its own internal logic and it purports to capture some eternal or necessary truth about words. This is why language myths come to be incorporated into systems of epistemology, and feature in such diverse philosophical doctrines as those of Locke, Frege and Confucius. Nothing as trivial as the condemnation of a particular English word or construction could possibly fulfil this role, or any complaint, however misguided, about the loquacity of women, or any other group of speakers.

        My former Oxford colleague Gilbert Ryle once remarked: ‘Myths often do a lot of theoretical good, while they are still new’ (Ryle 1949: 24). The proviso ‘while they are still new’ is important. The kind of good Ryle had in mind was the debunking of earlier and even more primitive myths. One of his examples was the replacement in physics of the Aristotelian myth of Final Causes by the myth of Occult Forces operating in ways not amenable to measurement or observation. But of course the time came when that myth too had to be discarded if physics was to make any further progress. Once a myth hardens into dogma, it ceases to do any good at all. And that is what has happened in the case of academic linguistics.

        As is well known, Ryle described the Cartesian theory of mind as ‘Descartes’s myth’, and characterized it in a famous phrase as the myth of ‘the ghost in the machine’ (Ryle 1949: 13-25). I use the term myth in consonance with Ryle’s usage. The error Descartes made Ryle called a ‘category-mistake’, and that label aptly fits the kind of mistake I believe a language myth to be. Language myths are attempts to reconcile apparently paradoxical properties of language.

        As the case of Descartes illustrates, category-mistakes can often be provided with elaborate supporting arguments put forward by very influential thinkers. This has certainly happened in the case of linguistics. The entire history of generative grammar during the second half of the last century offers a striking example of the detailed and painstaking elaboration of a language myth. The problems that generative grammar deals with, and their proposed solutions, are entirely internal to the grammatical model adopted, just as the Cartesian ghost in the machine solves problems entirely internal to the psychological model Descartes adopted. The myth in the generative case was the myth that a language consists of a closed set of units and rules. Once that basic assumption is questioned, generative grammar has no relevance to the kind of activity that we engage in when we hold a conversation or write a letter to someone, any more than the Cartesian myth throws any light on what goes on when we make an inference or work out a simple mathematical sum.

* * *

The form a language myth takes will depend in any given historical circumstances on the reasons why certain linguistic questions become a focus of inquiry. I would like to illustrate this by reference to the myth of semantic invariance which I think Nagarjuna was rejecting. It turns up earlier in the form of a question much discussed by Sanskrit grammarians, including Patanjali, famous commentator on Panini. It sounds very odd to modern Western ears. The question is: ‘Are words eternal?’ It is first raised, as far as I am aware, by Yaska in the treatise generally known as the Nirukta, but he was certainly not the first to raise it. According to Lakshman Sarup, the editor of the 1920 edition of the Nirukta, Yaska probably lived at least a century before Plato, and the Nirukta is consequently the earliest extant work of etymology to have survived either in the East or in the West.

        So the first question that has to be addressed by any linguist seriously interested in language myths is: ‘Why on earth should anyone of Yaska’s generation be worried about whether or not words are eternal?’ Presumably because something important hinges on the answer. But what is that? And what exactly does the question itself mean?

        I would like to propose that the emergence of this question relates specifically to the rise of religious scepticism in India. The etymologies which preoccupy Yaska are those of words occurring in passages in the Vedic hymns. The text of the Nirukta contains several hundred Vedic quotations, and the treatise itself opens by reference to a traditional list of words extracted from the Vedic hymns and handed down by tradition. From this we can reasonably infer that the practice of compiling and commenting on lists of problematic Vedic terms was already one of respectable antiquity in Yaska’s day.

        Let us try to put this practice in the context of its time. There is no doubt about the importance attached in early Indian religious ritual to exact word-for-word repetition of the relevant Vedic texts. The ability to recite these texts by heart played a central role in Indian religious life, since they were regarded as being of divine origin. Thus detailed familiarity with the Vedas was inestimably more important for the education of the Brahman caste than knowledge of Homer was for upper class Greeks of the pre-Socratic era. The Homeric poems were never regarded as being divinely inspired. In Greece there were no religious cults based on the Iliad or the Odyssey. Homer was regarded by the Greeks as a great poet and a historian, but he was a human poet, not a god.

        It is from this specific Vedic context, I suggest, that the question ‘Are words eternal?’ derives its significance. Significant also is the fact that Yaska, who raises the question, is also the first Sanskrit scholar to mention the existence in ancient India of a current of anti-Vedic religious scepticism. According to Yaska, the authenticity of Vedic scholarship was rejected lock, stock and barrel by Kautsa, who held that the Vedic hymns were meaningless mumbo-jumbo. Yaska himself, on the contrary, regards them as revealed texts. Clearly there would be no point in placing this value on the Vedic hymns unless they could be understood, and the whole purpose of the Nirukta is to assist in their comprehension, despite the obscurity of many passages.

        Etymology is for Yaska the key to understanding the Vedic texts. The semantic theory – if one can call it that – underlying his approach to etymology is that the true meaning of a word can be shown by tracing the word back to its original root. The basic semantic assumption is that the original meaning does not change, even if subsequent alterations in the form of the word conceal it. Needless to say, this is an assumption for which Yaska offers no evidence whatsoever. As far as he is concerned, it is an unprovable but axiomatic truth about language.

* * *

The features I have mentioned so far are enough to persuade me that we are dealing with an issue that has all the hallmarks of a language myth. It functions in a parallel way to the myth of telementation in Western linguistic thought. The most obvious feature distinguishing the two is that telementation is a secular myth, which has no basis in the interpretation of a sacred text, or even a traditional text.

        So my answer to the question ‘Why should anyone of Yaska’s generation be worried about whether words are eternal?’ is that this thesis is intimately bound up with acceptance or rejection of the Vedic texts as divinely inspired, and hence with the accurate preservation of the originals as a philological task that is at the same time a religious duty. The situation is roughly parallel to what might have been the case in the West if Greek grammarians had been exclusively concerned with the study of the New Testament.

* * *

It is interesting to compare the way the Sanskrit grammarians discuss semantic invariance with the following argument that concludes Plato’s dialogue Cratylus.

                SOCRATES: Is not, in our opinion, absolute beauty always such as it is?

                CRATYLUS: That is inevitable.

                SOCRATES: Can we, then, if it is always passing away, correctly say that it is this, then that it is that, or must it inevitably, in the very instant while we are speaking, become something else and pass away and no longer be what it is?

                CRATYLUS: That is inevitable.

                SOCRATES: How, then, can that which is never in the same state be anything? For if it is ever in the same state, then obviously at that time it is not changing; and if it is always in the same state and is always the same, how can it ever change or move without relinquishing its own form?

                CRATYLUS: It is as you say.

                SOCRATES: But we cannot even say that there is any knowledge, if all things are changing and nothing remains fixed; for if knowledge itself does not change and cease to be knowledge, then knowledge would remain, and there would be knowledge; but if the very essence of knowledge changes, at the moment of the change to another essence of knowledge there would be no knowledge, and if it is always changing, there will always be no knowledge, and by this reasoning there will be neither anyone to know nor anything to be known. (Cratylus 439-40)

        In short, the clinching argument for Socrates is that knowledge itself presupposes an invariant standard, by which claims to know can be judged. Otherwise, knowledge itself is an illusion, and philosophy the misguided search for a will-o’-the-wisp.

* * *

It is interesting to note that all the language myths I have mentioned have to do in some way with the relation between language and the passage of time. This suggests to me that there is some common factor underlying them.

        Language myths, East and West, are, in their most sophisticated versions, philosophical attempts to deal with language sub specie aeternitatis, to ignore the fact that in all linguistic communities speakers inevitably live, die and change; in short, to exclude time from the structure of a linguistic system in order to make it possible for an eternal truth to be expressed in the transitory vehicle of words. That exclusion is the theoretical basis of the Saussurean concept of a synchronic linguistic system, which Chomsky took over as the basis for his generative grammar.

        Defenders of the synchronic myth usually present it nowadays as a scientifically justified idealization: in Chomsky’s words, the postulation for theoretical purposes of ‘an ideal speaker-listener, in a completely homogeneous speech-community’ (Chomsky 1965: 3). This defence conveniently overlooks the fact that Chomsky based his generative grammar on a profound misreading of Saussure. What he failed to understand was that Saussurean synchrony presupposes a holistic identification of both forms and meanings. Chomsky thought he could just take over ‘the system’ (naively recast as a set of ‘rules’) and reject the holism that underpins it.

* * *

So what is the underlying factor that triggers this problematization of language and temporality at various times and places? My suspicion is that the source of language myths can in most cases be traced, in all parts of the world, to the advent of literacy. Preliterate societies, as far as I can see, may well entertain fanciful notions about the origin of speech, as they do about the origin of many other things. But preliterate peoples are not confronted with an institution like writing, access to which is not freely available, and which demands a dedicated, systematic training under a specialist teacher. A training, furthermore, which in turn requires the trainee to accept certain analytic beliefs about speech which would not otherwise be entertained at all.

        The connexion between literacy and the problem of time is that writing foregrounds in the writer’s experience the evident contrast between the ephemerality of speech and the relative permanence of the written word. Writing would only be a direct analogue of speech if what you wrote disappeared the moment you finished writing.

        The importance of this for Yaska hardly needs underlining. For Vedic commentators, the problem of meaning takes centre stage as soon as there is any question of preserving the Vedic texts in writing. It would clearly be a disaster if inaccurate versions were allowed to circulate in an authoritative written form. With hymns of such antiquity, even the suspicion that there might be errors in a text that had not been passed on by word of mouth by appropriately qualified priests would be enough to fuel doubts about authenticity.

        The integrationist concept of cotemporality remains the most radical contribution that has so far been made to modern philosophy of language. Only the concept of cotemporality allows the linguist to realize the full implications of the role that context plays in human communication. It holds the key to developing a comprehensive theory of linguistic knowledge which, one day, will finally lay to rest all the epistemological ghosts that still inhabit the machines of so-called ‘cognitive science’.


Bauer, L. and Trudgill, P. (eds) (1998), Language Myths, London, Penguin.

Chomsky, A.N. (1965), Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Harris, R. (1981), The Language Myth, London, Duckworth.

Harris, R. (1996), The Language Connection, Bristol, Thoemmes.

Harris, R. (2003), ‘Nagarjuna, Heracleitus and the problem of language’. In H.G. Davis and T.J. Taylor (eds), Rethinking Linguistics, London, RoutledgeCurzon, pp. 171-188.

Harris, R. (2009), Rationality and the Literate Mind, New York, Routledge.

Matilal, B.K. (1990), The Word and the World, Delhi, Oxford University Press.

Plato, Cratylus, trans. H.N. Fowler, Loeb Classical Library, London, Heinemann, 1926.

Ryle, G. (1949), The Concept of Mind, London, Hutchinson.

Ryle, G. (1966), Plato’s Progress, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Sarup, L. (ed.) (1920), The Nighantu and the Nirukta, Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass.

© Roy Harris, Emeritus Professor of General Linguistics, Oxford, 2010