First Words

Anna Wierzbicka sees her discovery of the Natural Semantic Metalanguage containing all the words found in all languages to be a continuation of Gottfried Leibnez’s project to develop an alphabet of human thought, a universal system of symbols. I’d like to suggest a way of approaching this project, processing it, of course, through Eric Gans’s originary hypothesis and the originary grammar I have derived from it. I’m going to begin by reviewing and following up on some work I’ve done in recent posts on the verbs in the NSM. What originary grammar does to help us articulate rather than simply list the verbs in the metalanguage is ground verbs in the imperative world. Verbs have their origin in what we could call the “evasive object,” the object (or act) the demand or command for which is rejected in the proto-declarative sentence combining the “operator of negation” and the “negative ostensive,” with the demand rejected (and we could even say proscribed) on grounds of the object’s unavailability. Indicating that unavailability is the first, or proto-predicate. Now, an object can be unavailable because of some quality or condition of the object (e.g., the person whose presence is demanded can’t come because he is dead, the tool is broken, the stone is heavy), or because the object is engaged in some other activity. To be engaged in another activity is to be doing something which might be done pursuant to an imperative (ultimately, even conditions and qualities can be viewed as determined by imperatives). I should mention the pertinent philosophical point here: all the questions of “will” and “free will” generated by the alignment of a verb with a subject (he ran, she threw the ball, they danced, we refused to participate, etc.) can be approached in a completely different way by simply positing an imperative initiating these actions. Instead of struggling to figure out what comes between the “he” and the “running” (his will to run!) we can just say he was ordered to run. By whom? Well, that depends—maybe by his coach, but maybe by the institutional order (it was a competitive race), maybe by an oath he took months ago to run every day, maybe by his deceased father who wanted him to fulfill his own ambition of becoming a champion, maybe by his own observation that someone is chasing him. This provides us with an avenue of inquiry far preferable to trying to discover and define the attribute that enabled the choice to run, to throw, to dance, etc. Taking that latter route, one day we’ll end up back with Descartes’s pineal gland.

Here are the verbs among the semantic primes, according to the categories Wierzbicka has grouped them in:

Mental/Experiential Predicates: think, know, want, feel, see, hear

Speech: say

Actions and Events: do, move, happen

Existence and Possession: exist, have

Life and Death: live, die

The best way to organize what is so far just a list is to note the obvious relations between them (of course, there are lots of non-obvious ones as well that will be the subject of further inquiries): we think and know things in order to say them, we say things in order to do them, we think about what we have said and done, etc. My approach is to analyze these words in terms of their possible uses as imperatives, and in that way develop a vocabulary for discussing the relation between imperative and declarative orders. So, “think” works perfectly well as an imperative—you can tell someone to think in perfectly natural speech situations (think about something, think something through, think before you act…). “Know” is a bit trickier: it’s hard to imagine natural situations in which you would order someone to “know” something. We have the idiom, in contemporary English, “know this,” but what usually follows is some kind of oath or promise. “Knowing” doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing, unlike, say, “learning,” that can be commanded. Knowing exists only in the declarative order, then, and it is assumed that one has thought, heard or seen in order to know—so, knowing is the result of faithfully obeying those other imperatives. It also follows that a challenge to someone’s claim to know would take the form of a demand that he think, hear, feel or see. “Know” belongs more in questions and answers: questions, in our grammatical schema, are modified imperatives, imperatives of the form “tell me…,” requests for information rather than commands to act. Asking whether the other knows, then, is a prelude to demanding that one do or move. Knowing is declarative, and takes us from mental imperatives to practical ones.

“Want” is also very difficult to think of in terms of imperatives: how could you order someone to want something? Wanting seems even asocial, prehuman—after all, animals want things too. But we can situate wanting in a couple of ways here: first, as marking resistance to some imperative (I don’t want to; instead, I want…), as a declaration that one is following another imperative; second, and closely related, in an interrogative negotiation over fulfilling the imperative (well, then, what do you want?). This latter use would include situations where items are being distributed (which do you want? How many do you want? I want that one). The implication here is that the “will” is less a “faculty” than a kind of friction point between imperatives. Meanwhile, one can certainly be ordered to “feel,” either something in particular or a particular way—bad or good, for starters (be happy! The Bible has no problem commanding us to love God and our neighbor). “See” and “hear,” meanwhile, go perfectly well with imperatives. As for “say,” one can readily be commanded to say something that has already been said (e.g., a messenger or orator), but more primarily what one thinks, what one has seen or heard, what one feels, but most of all, or as the purpose of all that, what one knows.

So, in an interesting confirmation of Aristotle, “know” seems to be the apex mental verb: seeing, hearing and feeling are transformed by thinking into knowing, while saying serves the purpose of turning what one knows into grounds for doing. We can now move on to action. Here, we have previously noted a continuum from “do” to “move” to “happen”: “do” is as imperative friendly as possible, as being told to “do it” assumes one is in a highly imperative situation in which you already know what needs to be done; meanwhile, it’s almost impossible to imagine commanding someone or something to “happen.” “Happen” seems to refer to the outermost edges of the imperative world—it refers to the results of imperatives so distant or obscured that we can’t perceive them. “Move” is an act that can easily be commanded, and is therefore close to “do”; but “moving” is in the middle of some process, and is therefore encompassed by doing (you move something to get something done)—while also sliding toward the “happen” side of the scale, the more the moving gets detached from the doing (if you push a rock down a hill, by the time it reaches the bottom, it is something that happens). I have suggested that knowing could be said to involve seeing the doing behind the happening, and the happening behind the doing: someone or some power or force is ultimately doing the things that merely appear to happen, while even the closest adherence to the imperative we have been given sets us adrift amongst counter and intersecting imperatives that may deflect us—to that extent, what we do also happens. That continuum do-move-happen, then, is what we do most of our thinking about, and therefore what we discipline ourselves to feel, see and hear signs of.

The existence/possession and life/death verbs, meanwhile, are subject to higher imperatives: only a god can order someone to exist, to live or to die (your enemy can order you to die, at least in a James Bond or superhero movie, but that’s just a hammy way of telling you he’s going to kill you). Ordering someone to “have” something, meanwhile, can be an ordinary part of a gift exchange, but “have” is also central to all kinds of cooperative activities in which one would ask another whether he “has” something needed. These verbs, these higher imperatives (to order someone to accept a gift is in a sense “higher,” insofar as you refrain from supervising their use) might very well provide the frame within which all the doing and knowing are set. Are we fulfilling the other imperatives in such a way as to fulfill the imperatives to live, to exist, to have (accept, possess) and, perhaps, to die well?

Once we have this model of the relations between the “primal” verbs, we can use it to analyze all the other, more complex verbs: where are “play” and “work,” for example, on the do-move-happen continuum; how do they channel the processing of seeing, hearing and feeling through thinking to knowing; how is wanting provoked and integrated, and what do these activities have us say? What about “remember”? I would say that this kind of thinking, knowing and saying would transcend traditional philosophy and replace it with an originary thinking interested in revealing the center. Wierzbicka’s books are filled with analyses that provide us with a great deal of material. Such an inquiry would simultaneously be a historical and political one. David Olson, in his study of the effects of literacy on cognition, The Mind on Paper, provides a list of Old English mental and speech act verbs (which is to say, for the most part prior to the introduction of literacy) and Latinate words (following that introduction). The pre-literate verbs line up fairly well with Wierzbicka’s primes:  believe, know, mean, say, tell, think (“understand” comes in with Middle English)—Wierzbicka doesn’t tell us which are to be found in, say, 95% of languages, but I would think that “believe,” “mean” and “tell” come pretty close. Meanwhile, what characterizes the post-literate verbs (assert, assume, claim, concede, contradict, declare, doubt, explain, infer, predict, suggest, etc.) involve telling us something about the situation, goals, credibility, perspective, and so on of the thinker or speaker—that is, they are inquiries into the speech situation because writing has to find ways to supplement everything that is lost in the speech situation when discourse is transferred to paper (tone of voice, posture, the relation between interlocutors, a particular setting and context, the social relation between interlocutors, etc.). So, saying “he contended” rather than “he said” tells us that the saying was part of an argument, and other did or might contend otherwise—all things you would know if you were witness to an actual discussion or if the person orally reporting the discussion acted out the dialogue he reported (repeated in an angry voice something originally said in an angry voice, etc.). With verbs representing a speaker within a situation, the imperatives derive from a space of writing, which is also to say a disciplinary space, one in which not only what is said, thought or known is at issue but the status, within that space, of what has been said, thought or known. It’s a difference between ensuring (demanding) that everyone is paying attention to the same thing, on the one hand, and enabling (demanding) everyone to have their attention oscillate back and forth between what we are paying attention to and the means by which we direct that attention.

Olson broadens the inquiry (especially in his recent The Mind on Paper) by defining writing itself as an inquiry into language: all the features of language we are aware of, and that become the topics of linguistics, are results of the need to figure out how to use marks on paper to represent speech. In the process such phenomena as “syllables,” “phonemes,” “sentences” (along with all the attendant grammatical categories) and even “words” were discovered. (Here, I’ll note a disagreement between the two formidable scholars I am working with here: Wierzbicka claims “word” among the primes, while Olson contends it is a post-literate word/concept.) Having what neither Olson nor Wierzbicka does, an originary hypothesis regarding the origin (and subsequent evolution) of language, I can take Olson’s insight further: the declarative sentence is an inquiry into imperative and the ostensive, the imperative is an inquiry into the ostensive, and the ostensive is an inquiry into the center. An inquiry into the center, moreover, is also an inquiry into the relations between all who are constituted by that center and the center itself. Language is inquiry all the way down, and, as I have argued previously, verbs chart the movements, real and metaphorical, of human (and other) “satellites” around the sacred and various attentional centers. And we conduct such inquiries in the presence of such a center, a linguistic presence that represents a real present (that may, of course, have been present 100,000 years ago while being made present to those of us on the scene of inquiry now): a real present stripped and framed according to the question posed on the scene of inquiry.

There is, then a telos to human activity and human life: inquiry into the center. This inquiry into the center situates us within some tradition, that ultimately continues from the origin and preserves and extends the means and modes of inquiry created until now. There is a dialectic to human history: we repeat existing forms, sometimes mistakenly or inappropriately, and those anomalous uses are themselves repeated and become new forms when they provide a way of deferring some novel threat of violence. The new forms prompt further inquiries into the center, and the social order comes to be split between those extracting fresh forms of ancient imperatives and those distracting from such inquiries (“sinners,” who want to weaken some command coming from the center so that more peripheral commands can be obyed). The outcome is unknown, but it will always be possible to retrieve the memory of the originary center and create centers devoted to renewing the inquiry initiated there. And all this can now be done by inquiry through language and inquiry into language. You could always start with the latest thing you heard someone say.

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