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Language as Symbolism

Animals struggle with each other for food or for leadership, but they do not, like human beings, struggle with each other for things that stand for food or leadership: such things as our paper symbols of wealth (money, bonds, titles), badges of rank to wear on our clothes, or low-number licence plates, supposed by some people to stand for social precedence. For animals, the relationship in which one thing stands for something else does not appear to exist except in very rudimentary form.

The process by means of which human beings can arbitrarily make certain things stand for other things may be called the symbolic process. Whenever two or more human beings can communicate with each other, they can, by agreement, make anything stand for anything. For example, here are two symbols:



We can agree to let X stand for buttons and Y stand for bows: then we can freely change our agreement and let X stand for Chaucer and Y for Shakespeare, X for the CIO and Y for the AFL. We are, as human beings, uniquely free to manufacture and manipulate and assign values to our symbols as we please. Indeed, we can go further by making symbols that stand for symbols. If necessary we can, for instance, let the symbol M stand for all the X's in the above example (buttons, Chaucer, CIO) and let N stand for all the Y's (bows, Shakespeare, AFL). Then we can make another symbol, T, stand for M and N, which would be an instance of a symbol of a symbol of symbols. This freedom to create symbols of any assigned value and to create symbols that stand for symbols is essential to what we call the symbolic process.

Everywhere we turn, we see the symbolic process at work. Feathers worn on the head or stripes on the sleeve can be made to stand for military leadership; cowrie shells or rings of brass or pieces of paper can stand for wealth; crossed sticks can stand for a set of religious beliefs; buttons, elks' teeth, ribbons, special styles of ornamental haircutting or tattooing, can stand for social affiliations. The symbolic process permeates human life at the most primitive as well as at the most civilized levels.

Of all forms of symbolism, language is the most highly developed, most subtle, and most complicated. It has been pointed out that human beings, by agreement, can make anything stand for anything. Now human beings have agreed, in the course of centuries of mutual dependency, to let the various noises that they can produce with their lungs, throats, tongues, teeth, and lips systematically stand for specified happenings in their nervous systems. We call that system of agreements language. For example, we who speak English have been so trained that, when our nervous systems register the presence of a certain kind of animal, we may make the following noise: 'There's a cat.' Anyone hearing us expects to find that, by looking in the same direction, he will experience a similar event in his nervous system-one that will lead him to make an almost identical noise. Again, we have been so trained that when we are conscious of wanting food we make the noise 'I'm hungry.'

There is, as has been said, no necessary connection between the symbol and that which is symbolized. Just as men can wear yachting costumes without ever having been near a yacht, so they can make the noise, 'I'm hungry', without being hungry. Furthermore, just as social rank can be symbolized by feathers in the hair, by tattooing on the breast, by gold ornaments on the watch chain, or by a thousand different devices according to the culture we live in, so the fact of being hungry can be symbolized by a thousand different noises according to the culture we live in: J'ai faim', or 'Es hungert mich', or 'Ho appetito', or 'Hara ga hetta', and so on.

However obvious these facts may appear at first glance, they are actually not so obvious as they seem except when we take special pains to think about the subject. Symbols and things symbolized are independent of each other: nevertheless, we all have a way of feeling as if, and sometimes acting as if, there were necessary connections. For example, there is the vague sense we all have that foreign languages are inherently absurd: foreigners have such funny names for things, and why can't they call things by their right names? This feeling exhibits itself most strongly in those English and American tourists who seem to believe that they can make the natives of any country understand English if they shout loud enough. Like the little boy who is reported to have said: 'Pigs are called pigs because they are such dirty animals', they feel that the symbol is inherently connected in some way with the things symbolized. Then there are the people who feel that since snakes are 'nasty, slimy creatures' (incidentally, snakes are not slimy), the word 'snake' is a nasty, slimy word.

(From Language in Thought and Action, by S. Hayakawa)