On the Careful Use of Language

Although primates in general are among the most social of mammal species, very few primate groups are capable of supporting more than eighteen males. Beyond this threshold, interpersonal tensions and relations of hierarchical dominance become unbearable to individuals, causing the groups to split apart. But humans have been living in cities containing tens of thousands of individuals for several millennia, effectively making us the most sociable of all hominids. How did this happen?

Part of the answer is likely to be found in the evolution of language. The linguist Noam Chomsky argues that language originated in a single genetic mutation called “merge.” This mutation gave us the cognitive capacity to combine concepts in order to form new ones, and was so advantageous that it quickly spread to all members of our species. The consequences of this mutation were profound.

According to the anthropologist Robin Dunbar, language allowed humans to gossip, a practice that replaced that of grooming in primate societies. Just like grooming among apes, gossip allows individuals to service relationships and maintain alliances. It allows people to map out social relations, by letting them figure out who does what in society. But unlike grooming, which can only be performed between a few individuals, gossip scales and works in groups of any size. It can accommodate an increasing number of interactions.

Gossip has a number of benefits. First, it facilitates the creation of strong social bonds. Second, those who gossip are better informed on what others are up to. Even today, nearly two thirds of conversations are about social matters: who did what? Why? Was it allowed? As the philosopher Gloria Origgi explains,

For Dunbar, the real function of language is not to produce an Einstein or Shakespeare but rather to spread an endless blabla, a “basso continuo” akin to the buzzing of bees, which maintain social cohesion by helping identify a group’s free-riders, that is, those who take advantage of the altruism of others without giving anything back in return.

In a similar vein, the South African anthropologist Max Gluckman once pointed out: to know nothing about, or be uninterested in, the scandals pertaining to a society’s distinguished members is to be an outsider. Gossip preserves an informal community that recognizes itself in moral norms and values; it makes cooperation possible at a larger scale, precisely because it shames free-riders and villains.

But the significance of language does not stop here. Social interaction also requires that we sometimes subdue our impulses in order to get along, through the use of non-confrontational speech, or indirect speech acts. Indirect speech acts do not say what we actually want, but they imply it. The philosopher Paul Grice called these unspoken intentions implicatures.

Implicatures have enormous importance for human cooperation. The psychologist Daniel Levitin illustrates this with the following scenario. Imagine that two people, John and Martha, are sitting in an office, and Marsha is next to the window. John feels hot. He could say, “Open the window,” which is direct and may make Marsha feel a little weird. If they are workplace equals, who is John to tell Marsha what to do or to boss her around, she might think.

If instead John says, “Gosh, it’s getting warm in here,” he is inviting her into a cooperative venture, a simple but not trivial unwrapping of what he said. He is implying his desire in a nondirective and non-confrontational manner. Normally, Marsha plays along by inferring that he’d like her to open the window, and that he’s not simply making a meteorological observation. At this point, there is a multitude of possible responses:

Cooperation. She smiles back at John and opens the window, signaling that she’s playing this little social game and that she’s cooperating with the charade’s intent.

Cooperative disagreement. She says, “Oh really? I’m actually kind of chilly.” This signals that she is still playing the game but that they have a difference of opinion about the basic facts. Marsha’s being cooperative, though expressing a different viewpoint. Cooperative behavior on John’s part at this point requires him to either drop the subject or to up the ante, which risks raising levels of confrontation and aggression.

Confirming without acting. Marsha can say, “Oh yes – it is.” Depending on how she says it, John might take her response as flirtatious and playful, or sarcastic and rude. In the former case, she’s inviting John to be more explicit, effectively signaling that they can drop this subterfuge; their relationship is solid enough that she is giving John permission to be direct. In the latter case, if Marsha uses a sarcastic tone of voice, she’s indicating that she agrees with the premise – it’s not in there – but she doesn’t want to open the window herself.

Uncooperative alternative proposal. Marsha can say, “Why don’t you take off your sweater.” This is non-cooperative and a bit confrontational – Marsha is opting out of the game.

Cooperative alternative proposal. Marsha can say, “I was hot, too, until I took off my sweater. I guess the heating system finally kicked in.” This is less confrontational, Marsha is agreeing with the premise but not the implication of what should be done about it. It is partly cooperative in that she is helping John to solve the problem, though not in the way he intended.

Confrontation. Marsha can say, “Screw you.” This signals that she does not want play the implicature game, and moreover, she is conveying aggression. John’s options are limited at this point – either he can ignore her (effectively backing down) or he can up the ante by getting up, stomping past her desk, and forcefully opening the damn window (now it’s war).

This showcases the complexity of speech acts. According to Daniel Levitin,

The simplest cases of speech acts are those in which the speaker utters a sentence and means exactly and literally what he says. Yet indirect speech acts are a powerful social glue that enables us to get along. In them, the speaker means exactly what she says but also something more. The “something more” is supposed to be apparent to the hearer, and yet it remains unspoken.

Hence the act of uttering an indirect speech act can be seen as an act of play, an invitation to cooperate in a game of verbal hide-and-seek of “do you understand what I’m saying?” According to philosopher John Searle, indirect speech acts invoke in both the speaker and the hearer a shared representation of the world; they rely on shared linguistic and social knowledge.

Hence human cooperation fundamentally rests upon a number of shared assumptions. When Martha says “Oh really? I’m actually kind of chilly,” she does it while assuming that John will understand what she is really trying to say – that she disagrees with his suggestion, but that she is willing to hear him out. This is a smooth approach, one that is more likely to trigger a cooperative reaction. She thus displays a skillful use of language.

The subtleties of language are part of what allows us to live and act in a world of multitude and differing opinions. We can effectively disagree while implying good intentions towards others. Being conscious of one’s choice of language is a primordial yet often neglected skill, one without which cooperation would certainly be difficult.

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