Language, Rules, Punishment

I studied Spanish during my undergraduate degree and I frequently listen to John McWhorter’s podcast Lexicon Valley. I enjoy thinking about language and I’m sometimes fascinated by the fact that sounds produced by one person can impact so much about the world. The language we have developed can shape so much of how we act and behave and how the world is structured around us.

 

In a short passage Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson reflect on humans, the societies we have built, and the roles we have evolved into over thousands of years in their book The Elephant in the Brain. “We are social animals who use language to decide on rules that the whole group must follow, and we use the threat of collective punishment to enforce these rules against even the strongest individuals. And although many rules vary from group to group, there are some – like those prohibiting rape and murder – that are universal to all human cultures.” 

 

Their quote really describes the state that humans have evolved into, but I think it is interesting to consider the role of language in this evolution. A species without a complex language likely would not have been able to develop the complex system of rules that we have adopted. So many of our rules are written down in statutes, laws, and regulations. Without them, following a collective set of rules and developing shared norms and punishments would be next to impossible. Even with a standard written language, we spend tons of time debating the meaning of the language we use to codify rules, and slight changes in understandings of language can change the outcomes that manifest in the real world.

 

Human societies have existed with rules and norms without written language, but the written word allowed us to build corporations, to organize criminal justice systems, and to develop social contracts that hold everything in place. Our language can boost the strongest and most brash demagogues, but it can also provide the spark to organize resistance and topple that same tyrant. Language allows us to take universal understandings of right and wrong and build outward, to create a system of fairness and justice that we can all operate within. Without our language, and without the evolution of our brain to allow for language, we might be doing just fine as small hunter-gatherer tribes, but we certainly would not be able to thrive in huge social societies with collective rules.

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