Tribes and Language
Our belief systems and capacity for knowledge are limited by our language. The smaller the vocabulary of a language, the less the adherents of that language are able to conceive of and develop new ideas. Like in the novel 1984 by George Orwell, the language of Newspeak was used to control the people, and this was done was by decreasing the vocabulary.
“‘It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word, which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take “good,” for instance. If you have a word like “good,” what need is there for a word like “bad”? “Ungood” will do just as well — better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of “good,” what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like “excellent” and “splendid” and all the rest of them? “Plusgood” covers the meaning or “doubleplusgood” if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already, but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words – in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston?…'” (George Orwell, 1984, Book One, Chapter Five.)
I read an article recently about western psychiatrists working with post-Khmer Rouge Cambodians suffering from PTSD. The main frustration of the psychiatrists was that there were no words in the Cambodian (Khmer) vocabulary which properly defined the condition the patients were suffering from. The limitations of the Khmer language prevented the patients from fully understanding what they were experiencing.
Languages keep tribes divided. You can only know what your vocabulary allows for. This doesn’t just refer to your general spoken language – like English – it refers to your definition of certain English words and concepts in comparison to how other English speakers would define those same words and concepts. In order for tribes to combine into one, a common language, with common definitions, would have to be developed and adopted. A common language (words, beliefs, ideas) will create a common worship center as well, which is essential for a group of tribes to join.
Like at Babel, all the people spoke the same language, and as a result, they all worshipped the same and had the same philosophy of life. The division of languages not only caused confusion because they couldn’t understand each other’s words, it caused confusion also because they no longer believed the same way, thought the same way. This didn’t all happen at once of course, but over time the different languages created greater rifts between the tribes.
Once you’re limited to the vocabulary of a certain tribe, any new ideas coming from without the tribe will first have to be translated into your own tribal language. If there are no words to express the new ideas in your tribal language, you will either outright ignore the new ideas, or the new ideas will change to fit the language of your tribe. If the new ideas are changed to fit your language, they will also change to fit your current belief system. So, even if the new idea opposes your beliefs, once translated into your language, it will work to support your beliefs. The original intent of the idea will be lost.
Consider this example:
“‘Two African natives, S. and K., go to the wood to gather honey. S. found four big trees full of honey, whilst K. could find only one. K. went home bewailing his ill luck, while S. had been so fortunate. Meanwhile S. had returned to the wood to bring away the honey, was attacked by a lion and torn to pieces.
The relatives of the lion’s victim at once went to the soothsayer to discover who was responsible for his death. The soothsayer consults the oracle several times and declares that K., jealous of S’s rich harvest of honey, assumed the form of a lion in order to avenge himself. The accused denied his guilt strenuously and the chieftain ordered the matter to be settled by the ordeal of poison. Matters then followed their usual course — says the explorer’s account — the ordeal was unfavourable to the accused, he confessed and succumbed to torture… The accusation appears quite natural to the soothsayer who formulates it, the prince who orders the trial by ordeal, the crowd of bystanders and to K. himself who had been transformed into a lion, in fact to everybody except the European who happens to be present.’
It is clear to us that K. had not actually experienced turning into a lion and tearing S. to pieces, and so at first he denied having done so. But he is confronted with an overwhelming case against himself. The interpretative framework which he shares with his accusers does not include the conception of accidental death; if a man is devoured by a lion there must be some effective reason behind it, such as the envy of a rival. This makes him an obvious suspect and when the oracle, which he has always trusted, confirms the suspicion he can no longer resist the evidence of his guilt and he confesses having turned into a lion and having devoured S. This closes the circle of the argument and confirms the magical framework in which it was conducted, and it thus enhances the powers of this framework for assimilating the next case which will come under its purview.” (Taken from The Stability of Beliefs by Michael Polanyi.)
Within the confines of a tribe’s language, there will be its own justice system. No matter how nonsensical it may appear to the outsider, even the accused will agree with a verdict against him as he himself holds to the same belief system as his accusers. Tribes are bound within their own circular reasoning. New ideas are not able to penetrate this reasoning from without, nor are they able to take seed and grow from within. Only the presuppositional beliefs of the tribe will survive.
In order for new ideas to form within tribes, a systemic logic must be formed to support those ideas. New ideas, all alone, presented to the tribe on a one by one basis will not take root; they will not be understood. A new idea must be built on the framework of less radical pre-existing ideas, and those built on even less radical pre-existing ideas, and so on. This is the systematic step ladder on which the new ideas can climb.
True ideas must last, and false ideas must disappear. For this to happen, ideas cannot remain vague. They must be defined and then put to the test in practical reality. If the idea stands up to the test it will remain.
I can use “speaking in tongues” in Charismatic churches as an example. Most Charismatics have only a vague idea of what they’re doing when speaking in tongues. There is no agreed-upon definition of what tongues truly is within the Charismatic church. Some say there are two different kinds of tongues, others say three, some say one and what modern Charismatics do today is what the disciples did in Acts 2. Some say one does not have the Holy Spirit if they don’t speak in tongues, others would disagree with that, but would say that one is a less mature Christian without tongues.
Tongues is a tribal marker. It is a circular belief within Charismatic theology. In order to determine if it is a true idea or not, first it must be clearly defined within the entire Charismatic movement, then it must be practically applied to the personal lives of the members of the tribe. It will either disappear or its true purpose will be discovered. If it is a true idea and its purpose is clearly known, it can then be an idea which can pass on to other tribes as it is no longer merely a tribal marker. As long as tongues remains vague, its true nature will not be discovered, and it will remain a simple tribal marker easily rejected by non-Charismatic tribes.
The language of the Charismatic church prevents itself from discovering the true nature of tongues. In fact, tongues itself is an unintelligible “language”. Is there a vocabulary to tongues? Are there rules of grammar? If there were, the language could be translated. What can tongues say about itself? Do Charismatics speak in tongues because they have nothing to say?
One can choose his own tribe or one can be chosen for a tribe. To choose, one must increase his vocabulary to the point where he understands a wide range of ideas. He can then choose which ideas he thinks are best for his well being. With a limited vocabulary comes a limited mind, and limited options.
Tribes, Kingdoms, and Empires – Part One