For more than a decade, I’ve had in the back of my mind a blog post called “The Power of Naming” to remark that bestowing a name gives something power, substance, and in a sense, reality. That post never really came together, but its inverse did. Anyway, here’s a renewed attempt.

The period of language acquisition in early childhood is suffused with learning the names of things, most of which is passive. Names of animals (associated closely with sounds they make) are often a special focus using picture books. The kitty, doggie, and horsie eventually become the cat, dog, and horse. Similarly, the moo-cow and the tweety-bird shorten to cow and bird (though songbird may be an acceptable holdover). Words in the abstract are signifiers of the actual things, aided by the text symbols learned in literate cultures to reinforce mere categories instead of examples grounded in reality. Multiply the names of things several hundred thousand times into adulthood and indeed throughout life and one can develop a formidable vocabulary supporting expressive and nuanced thought and speech. Do you know the differences between acute, right, obtuse, straight, and reflex angles? Does it matter? Does your knowledge of barware inform when to use a flute, coupe, snifter, shot (or shooter or caballito), nosing glass (or Glencairn), tumbler, tankard, goblet, sling, and Stein? I’d say you’ve missed something by never having drunk dark beer (Ger.: Schwarzbier) from a frosted schooner. All these varieties developed for reasons that remain invisible to someone content to drink everything from the venerable red Solo cup. Funnily enough, the red Solo cup now comes in different versions, fooling precisely no one.

Returning to book blogging, Walter Ong (in Orality and Literacy) has curious comparisons between primarily oral cultures and literate cultures. For example:

Oral people commonly think of names (one kind of words) as conveying power over things. Explanations of Adam’s naming of the animals in Genesis 2:20 usually call condescending attention to this presumably quaint archaic belief. Such a belief is in fact far less quaint than it seems to unreflective chirographic and typographic folk. First of all, names do give humans beings power over what they name: without learning a vast store of names, one is simply powerless to understand, for example, chemistry and to practice chemical engineering. And so with all other intellectual knowledge. Secondly, chirographic and typographic folk tend to think of names as labels, written or printed tags imaginatively affixed to an object named. Oral folk have no sense of a name as a tag, for they have no idea of a name as something that can be seen. Written or printed representations of words can be labels; real, spoken words cannot be. [p. 33]

This gets at something that has been developing over the past few decades, namely, that as otherwise literate (or functionally literate) people gather more and more information through electronic media (screens that serve broadcast and cable TV, YouTube videos, prerecorded news for streaming, and podcasts, and most importantly, audiobooks — all of which speak content to listeners), the spoken word (re)gains primacy and the printed word fades into disuse. Electronic media may produce a hybrid of orality/literacy, but words are no longer silent, internal, and abstract. Indeed, words — all by themselves — are understood as being capable of violence. Gone are the days when “stick and stones ….” Now, fighting words incite and insults sting again.

Not so long ago, it was possible to provoke a duel with an insult or gesture, such as a glove across the face. Among some people, defense of honor never really disappeared (though dueling did). History has taken a strange turn, however. Proposed legislation to criminalize deadnaming (presumably to protect a small but growing number of transgender and nonbinary people who have redefined their gender identity and accordingly adopted different names) recognizes the violence of words but then tries to transmute the offense into an abstract criminal law. It’s deeply mixed up, and I don’t have the patience to sort it out.

More to say in later blog posts, but I’ll raise the Counter-Enlightenment once more to say that the nature of modern consciousness if shifting somewhat radically in response to stimuli and pressures that grew out of an information environment, roughly 70 years old now but transformed even more fundamentally in the last 25 years, that is substantially discontinuous from centuries-old traditions. Those traditions displaced even older traditions inherited from antiquity. Such is the way of the world, I suppose, and with the benefit of Walter Ong’s insights, my appreciation of the outlines is taking better shape.

  1. Greg Knepp says:

    “In the beginning was the Word…” (Gospel of John, 1:1). It’s true; eclipsing even prehensile hands, bipedalism, superb vision, and advanced social skill sets, language is humankind’s most precious possession. Indeed, linguist/anthropologist Derek Bickerton, in his masterful work ‘Adam’s Tongue’, suggests that language was the primary driver of the evolution of higher intelligence rather that visa-versa.

    As language becomes dummied down by AI, a deteriorating education system, a proliferation of ‘quaint’ sub-cultural dialects, and a loss of consensus as to exactly what our common language even is, society relinquishes its primary cohesive mechanism – the Word. Biblically speaking, we are now approaching Genesis,11:1-7 – The Tower of Babel.

    Really good post, Brutus!

    • Brutus says:

      Thanks for your comment. I always thought “the Word” (capital W) was understood as the word of god — a combination of sacred law and teaching — rather than a reference to language itself. Folks compile lists of what makes humans distinct from other animals, language being among the primary attributes but easily skipped over in favor of one of its byproducts. I can’t opine about evolution (biology or culture?) being driven by language. Seems like a chicken-and-egg problem.

      • Greg Knepp says:

        The full sentence: “In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God.” Pretty definitive. The ancient Greeks were an amazing people; they invented packaging as we know it. The packaging of ideas (such as, say, Christianity) involves an expert use of language – both written and spoken. Ancient Greek, with its enormous vocabulary and nuanced syntax, was the gold standard of its time, and the Greeks knew it. And they cherished it almost as much as an American cherishes his automobile. Your god is what you worship.

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