Language in Thought and Action

From Wikiquote
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Language in Thought and Action is a book on semantics by Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa, based on his previous work Language in Action published in 1939. Early editions were written in consultation with different people. The current 5th edition was published in 1991.


  • The original version of this book, Language in Action, published in 1941, was in many respects a response to the dangers of propaganda, especially as exemplified in Adolf Hitler's success in persuading millions to share his maniacal and destructive views. It was the writer's conviction then, as it remains now, that everyone needs to have a habitually critical attitude towards language — his own as well as that of others — both for the sake of his personal well-being and for his adequate functioning as a citizen. Hitler is gone, but if the majority of our fellow-citizens are more susceptible to the slogans of fear and race hatred than to those of peaceful accommodation and mutual respect among human beings, our political liberties remain at the mercy of any eloquent and unscrupulous demagogue.
    • p. ix
  • Insight into human symbolic behavior and into human interaction through symbolic mechanisms comes from all sorts of disciplines: not only from linguistics, philosophy, psychology, and cultural anthropology, but from attitude research and public opinion study, from new techniques in psychotherapy, from physiology and neurology, from mathematical biology and cybernetics. How are all these separate insights to be brought together and synthesized? This is a task which I cannot claim to have performed here, but I have examined the problem long enough to believe that it cannot be done without some set of broad and informing principles such as is to be found in the General Semantics of Korzybski.
    • p. x

Ch 1. Language and Survival[edit]

  • People who like to think of themselves as tough-minded and realistic, among them influential political leaders and businessmen as well as go-getters and hustlers of smaller caliber, tend to take it for granted that human nature is "selfish" and that life is a struggle in which only the fittest may survive. According to this view, the basic law by which people must live, in spite of his surface veneer of civilization, is the law of the jungle. The "fittest" are those people who can bring to the struggle superior force, superior cunning, and superior ruthlessness.
    • p.4
  • Indeed, most of the time when we are listening to the noises people make or looking at the black marks on paper that stand for such noises, we are drawing upon the experiences of others in order to make up for what we ourselves have missed. Obviously the more an individual can make use of the nervous systems of others to supplement his own, the easier it is for him to survive. And, of course, the more individuals there are in a group cooperating by making helpful noises at each other, the better it is for all -- within the limits, naturally, of the group's talents for social organization... Societies, both animal and human, might almost be regarded as huge cooperative nervous system.
    • p.11
  • A human being, then, is never dependent on his own experience alone for his information. Even in a primitive culture he can make use of the experience of his neighbors, friends, and relatives, which they communicate to him by means of language. Therefore, instead of remaining helpless because of the limitations of his own experience and knowledge, instead of having to discover what others have already discovered, instead of exploring the false traits they explored and repeating their errors, he can go on from where they left off. Language, that is to say, makes progress possible.
    • p.12
  • Language, that is to say, is the indispensable mechanism of human life -- of life such as ours that is molded, guided, enriched, and made possible by the accumulation of the past experience of members of our own species. Dogs and cats and chimpanzees do not, so far as we can tell, increase their wisdom, their information, or their control over their environment from one generation to the next. But human beings do. The cultural accomplishment of the ages, the invention of cooking, [...] and the discovery of all the arts and sciences come to us as free gifts from the dead. These gifts, which none of us has done anything to earn, offer us not only the opportunity for a richer life than our forebears enjoyed but also the opportunity to add to the sum total of human achievement by our own contributions, however small they may be.
    • p.13
  • To be able to read and write, therefore, is to learn to profit by and take part in the greatest of human achievements -- that which makes all other achievements possible --namely, the pooling of our experiences in great cooperative stores of knowledge, available to all. From the warning cry of primitive man to the latest newsflash or scientific monograph, language is social. Cultural and intellectual cooperation is the great principle of human life.
    • p.14
  • We live in a highly competitive society, each of us trying to outdo the other in wealth, in popularity or social prestige, in dress, in scholastic grades or golf scores... One is often tempted to say that conflict, rather than cooperation, is the great governing principle of human life.
    • p.14
  • What such a philosophy overlooks is that, despite all the competition at the surface, there is a huge substratum of cooperation taken for granted that keeps the world going... We may indeed as individuals compete for jobs, but our function in the job, once we get it, is to contribute at the right time and place to that innumerable series of cooperative acts that eventually result in automobiles being manufactured, in cakes appearing in pastry shops, in department stores being able to serve their customers, in the trains and airlines running as scheduled. And what is important for our purposes here is that all this coordination of effort necessary for the functioning of society is of necessity achieved by language or else it is not achieved at all.
    • p.14-15
  • From the moment [Mr. T.C. Mits -- The Celebrated Man In The Street, creation of Lillian Rosanoff Lieber] switches on an early-morning news broadcast until he falls asleep at night over a novel or a magazine, he is, like all other people living in modern civilized conditions, swimming in words. Newspaper editors, politicians, salesmen, disc jockeys, columnists, luncheon club speakers, and clergymen; colleagues at work, friends, relatives, wife and children; market reports, direct-mail advertising, books, and billboards -- all are assailing him with words all day long.
    • p.15
  • Mr. Mits is representative not only of the general public, but also of many scientific workers, publicists, and writers. Like most people, he takes words as much for granted as the air he breathes, gives them about as much thought. ... But Mr. Mits, like the rest of us, also adjusts himself automatically to changes in the verbal climate, from one type of discourse to another, from one set terms to another, from the listening habits of one kind of social occasion to those of another kind of social occasion, without conscious effort. He has yet, however, to acknowledge the effect of his verbal climate on his mental health and well-being.
    • p.16
  • With words woven into almost every detail of his life, it seems amazing that Mr. Mits' thinking on the subject of language should be so limited.
    • p.17
  • Whether he realizes it or not, however, Mr. Mits is affected every hour of his life not only by the words he hears and uses, but also by his unconscious assumptions about language. [...] Such unconscious assumptions determine the effect that words have on him -- which in turn determines the way he acts, whether wisely or foolishly. Words -- the way he uses them and the way he takes them when spoken by others -- largely shape his beliefs, his prejudices, his ideals, his aspirations. They constitute the moral and intellectual atmosphere in which he lives -- in short, his semantic environment.
    • p.18
  • The relation between language and thought are discussed in Stuart Chase, Power of words (1954), especially Chapter 10; the important sourcebooks in this area are Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, 4th ed. (1958), and John B. Carroll, ed., Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf (1956).
    • p.22


The Symbolic Process[edit]

  • 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:
          X      Y
    We can agree to let X stand for buttons and Y for bows; then we can freely change our agreement and let X stand for [...] North Korea, and Y for South Korea. 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. [...] 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. (p.24)
  • All fashionable clothes, as Thorstein Veblen has pointed out in his Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), are highly symbolic: materials, cut, and ornament are dictated only to a slight degree by consideration of warmth, comfort, or practicability. The more we dress up in fine clothes, the more we restrict our freedom of action. But by means of delicate embroideries, easily soiled fabrics, starched shirts, high heels, long and pointed fingernails, and other such sacrifices of comfort, the wealthy classes manage to symbolize, among other things, the fact that they don't have to work for a living. (p.24-25)
  • We select our furniture to serve as visible symbols of our taste, wealth, and social position. We often choose our residences on the basis of a feeling that it "looks well" to have a "good address." We trade in perfectly good cars for later models, not always to get better transportation, but to give evidence to the community that we can afford it.2 (p.26)
  •     2The writer once had an eight-year-old car in good running condition. A friend of his, a repairman who knew the condition of the car, kept urging him to make it for a new model. "But why?" the writer asked. "The old car's in fine shape still." The repairman answered scornfully, "Yeah, but what the hell. All you've got is transportation."
        Recently, the term "transportation car" has begun to appear in advertisements; for example, "'48 Dodge -- Runs perfectly good; transportation car. Leaving, must sell. $100." (Classified section of the Pali Press, Kailua Hawaii.) Apparently it means a car that has no symbolic or prestige value and is good only for getting you there and bringing you back -- a miserable kind of vehicle indeed! (Footnote, p.26)
  • Such complicated and apparently unnecessary behavior leads philosophers, both amateur and professional, to ask over and over again, "Why can't human beings live simply and naturally?" Often the complexity of human life makes us look enviously at the relative simplicity of such lives as dogs and cats lead. But the symbolic process, which makes possible the absurdities of human conduct, also makes possible language and therefore all the human achievements dependent upon language. The fact that more things can go wrong with motorcars than with wheelbarrows is no reason for going back to wheelbarrows. Similarly, the fact that the symbolic process makes complicated follies possible is no reason for wanting to return to a cat-and-dog existence. A better solution is to understand the symbolic process so that instead of being its victims we become, to some degree at least, its masters. (p.26)

Language as Symbolism[edit]

  • 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 [...] 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: "That'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." (p.26-27)
  • There is [...] 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. (p.27)
  • 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 [...] there were necessary connections. For example, there is a 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 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 was 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 thing 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. (p.27)

The Pitfalls of Drama[edit]

  • In the case of drama (stage, movies, television ), there appear to be people in almost every audience who never quite fully realize that a play is a set of fictional, symbolic representations. An actor is one who symbolizes other people, real or imagined. [...] Also some years ago it was reported that when Edward G. Robinson, who used to play gangster roles with extraordinary vividness, visited Chicago, local hoodlums would telephone him at his hotel to pay their professional respects. (p.27-28)
  • One is reminded of the actor, playing the role of a villain in a traveling theatrical troupe, who, at a particularly tense moment in the play, was shot by an excited cowpuncher in the audience. But this kind of confusion does not seem to be confined to unsophisticated theatergoers. [...] Paul Muni, after playing the part of Clarence Darrow in Inherit the Wind, was invited to address the American Bar Association; Ralph Bellamy, after playing the role of Frankin D. Roosevelt in Sunrise at Campobello, was invited by several colleges to speak on Roosevelt. Also, there are those astonishing patriots who rushed to the recruiting offices to help defend the nation when, on October 30, 1938, the United States was "invaded" by an "army from Mars" in a radio dramatization. (p.28)

The Word Is Not the Thing[edit]

  • Citizens of a modern society need [...] more than that ordinary "common sense" which was defined by Stuart Chase as that which tells you that the world is flat. They need to be systematically aware of the powers and limitations of symbols, especially words, if they are to guard against being driven into complete bewilderment by the complexity of their semantic environment. The first of the principles governing symbols is this: The symbol is NOT the thing symbolized; the word is NOT the thing; the map is NOT the territory it stands for. (p.29-30) (editor's link)

Maps and Territories[edit]

  • Now, to use the famous metaphor by Alfred Korzybski in his Science and Sanity (1933), this verbal world ought to stand in relation to the extensional world as a map does to the territory it is supposed to represent. If a child grows to adulthood with a verbal world in his head which corresponds fairly closely to the extensional world that he finds around him in his widening experience, he is in relatively small danger of being shocked or hurt by what he finds, because his verbal world has told him what, more or less, to expect. He is prepared for life. If, however, he grows up with a false map in his head [...] he will constantly be running into trouble, wasting his efforts, and acting like a fool. He will not be adjusted to the world as it is: he may, if the lack of adjustment is serious, end up in a mental hospital. (p.31) (editor's link)
  • We all inherit a great deal of useless knowledge, and a great deal of misinformation and error (maps that were formerly thought to be accurate), so that there is always a portion of what we have been told that must be discarded. But the cultural heritage of our civilization that is transmitted to us -- our socially pooled knowledge, both scientific and humane -- has been valued principally because we have believed that it gives us accurate maps of experience. The analogy of verbal words to maps is an important one [...]. It should be noticed at this point, however, that there are two ways of getting false maps of the world into our heads: first, by having them given to us; second, by creating them ourselves when we misread the true maps given to us. (p.32)

Reports, Inferences, Judgments[edit]


  • Reports are verifiable. We may not always be able to verify them ourselves, since we cannot track down the evidence for every piece of history we know [...]. But if we are roughly agreed on the names of things, on what constitutes a "foot," "yard," "bushel," and so on, and on how to measure time, there is relatively little danger of our misunderstanding each other. Even in a world such as we have today, in which everybody seems to be quarreling with everybody else, we still to a surprising degree trust each other's reports. We ask directions of total strangers when we are traveling. We follow directions on road signs without being suspicious of the people who put them up. We read books of information about science, mathematics, automotive engineering, travel, geography, the history of costume, and other such factual matters, and we usually assume that the author is doing his best to tell us as truly as he can what he knows. And we are safe in so assuming most of the time. With the interest given today to the discussion of biased newspapers, propagandists, and the general untrustworthiness of many of the communications we receive, we are likely to forget that we still have an enormous amount of reliable information available and that deliberate misinformation, except in warfare, is still more the exception than the rule. The desire for self- preservation that compelled men to evolve means for the exchange of information also compels them to regard the giving of false information as profoundly reprehensible. (p.39)


  • Not that inferences are not important -- we rely in everyday life and in science as much on inferences as on reports -- in some areas of thought, for example, geology, paleontology, and nuclear physics, reports are the foundations, but inferences (and inferences upon inferences) are the main body of the science. An inference [...] is a statement about the unknown made on the basis of the known. We may infer from the material and cut of a woman's clothes her wealth or social position; we may infer from the character of the ruins the origin of the fire that destroyed the building; we may infer from a man's calloused hands the nature of his occupation; we may infer from a senator's vote on an armaments bill his attitude toward Russia; we may infer from the structure of land the path of a prehistoric glacier; we may infer from a halo on an unexposed photographic plate that it has been in the vicinity of radioactive materials; we may infer from the sound of an engine the condition of its connecting rods. Inferences may be carelessly or carefully made. They may be made on the basis of a broad background of previous experience with the subject matter, or no experience at all. For example, the inferences a good mechanic can make about the internal condition of a motor by listening to it are often startlingly accurate, while the inferences made by an amateur (if he tries to make any) may be entirely wrong. But the common characteristic of inferences is that they are statements about matters which are not directly known, statements made on the basis of what has been observed. (p.40-41)


  • Many people regard statements such as the following as statements of "fact": "Jack lied to us," "Jerry is a thief," "Tommy is clever." As ordinarily employed, however, the word lied involves first an inference (that Jack knew otherwise and deliberately misstated the facts) and second a judgment (that the speaker disapproves of what he has inferred that Jack did). In other two instances, we may substitute such expressions as, "Jerry was convicted of theft and served two years at Waupun," and "Tommy plays the violin, leads his class in school, and is captain of the debating team." After all, to say of a man that he is a "thief" is to say in effect, "He has stolen and will steal again" -- which is more of a prediction than a report. Even to say, "He has stolen," is to make an inference (and simultaneously to pass a judgment) on an act about which there may be difference of opinion among those who have examined the evidence upon which the conviction was obtained. But to say that he was "convicted of theft" is to make a statement capable of being agreed upon through verification in court and prison records. (p.43)

Snarl-words and Purr-words[edit]

  • Throughout this book, it is important to remember that we are not considering language as an isolated phenomenon. Our concern, instead, is with language in action -- language in the full context of the nonlinguistic events which are its setting. The making of noises with the vocal organs is a muscular activity and, like other muscular activities, often involuntary. Our responses to powerful stimuli, such as to things that makes us very angry, are a complex of muscular and physiological events: the contracting of fighting muscles, the increase of blood pressure, a change in body chemistry, clutching of our hair, and the making of noises, such growls and snarls. We are a little too dignified, perhaps, to growl like dogs, but we do the next best thing and substitute series of words, such as "You dirty double-crosser!" "The filthy scum!" Similarly, if we are pleasurably agitated, we may, instead of purring or wagging the tail, say things like "She's the sweetest girl in all the world!" (p.44)

How Judgments Stop Thought[edit]

  • A judgment ("He is a fine boy," "It was a beautiful service," "Baseball is a healthful sport," "She is an awful bore") is a conclusion, summing up a large number of previously observed facts. The reader is probably familiar with the fact that students almost always have difficulty in writing themes of the required length because their ideas give out after a paragraph or two. The reason for this is that those early paragraphs contain so many judgments that there is little left to be said. When the conclusions are carefully excluded, however, and observed facts are given instead, there is never any trouble about the length of papers; in fact, they tend to become too long, since inexperienced writers, when told to give facts, often give far more than are necessary, because they lack discrimination between the important and the trivial. (p.46)
  • The premature judgment [...] often prevents us from seeing what is directly in front of us, so that cliches take the place of fresh description. Therefore, even if the writer feels sure at the beginning of a written account that the man he is describing is a "real leatherneck" or that the scene he is describing is a "beautiful residential suburb," he will conscientiously keep such notions out of his head, lest his vision be obstructed. (p.46)


  • This process of selecting details favorable or unfavorable to the subject being described may be termed slanting. Slanting gives no explicit judgments, but it differs from reporting in that it deliberately makes certain judgments inescapable. Let us assume for a moment the truth of the statement "When Clyde was in New York last November he was seen having dinner with a show girl . . ." The inferences that can be drawn from this statement are changed considerably when the following words are added: ". . . and her husband and their two children." Yet, if Clyde is a married man, his enemies could conceivably do him a great deal of harm by talking about his "dinner-date with a New York show girl." One-sided or biased slanting of this kind, not uncommon in private gossip and backbiting, and all too common in the "interpretative reporting" of newspapers and news magazines, can be described as a technique of lying without actually telling any lies. (p.48)

Discovering One's Bias[edit]

  • Here, however, a caution is necessary. When, for example, a newspaper tells a story in a way that we dislike, leaving out facts we think important and playing up important facts in ways that we think unfair, we are tempted to say, "Look how unfairly they've slanted the story!" In making such a statement we are, of course, making an inference about the newspaper's editors. We are assuming that what seems important or unimportant to us seems equally important or unimportant to them, and on the basis of that assumption we infer that the editors "deliberately" gave the story a misleading emphasis. Is this necessarily the case? Can the reader, as an outsider, say whether a story assumes a given form because the editors "deliberately slanted it that way" or because that was the way the events appeared to them? (p.48)
  • The point is that by the process of selection and abstraction imposed on us by our own interests and background, experience comes to all of us (including newspaper editors) already slanted. If you happen to be pro-labor, pro-Catholic, and a stock-car racing fan, your ideas of what is important or unimportant will of necessity be different from those of a man who happens to be indifferent to all three of your favorite interests. [...] Nevertheless, the best newspapers, whether owned by "big businessmen" or not, do try to tell us as accurately as possible what is going on in the world, because they are run by newspapermen who conceive it to be part of their professional responsibility to present fairly the conflicting points of view in controversial issues. Such newspapermen are reporters indeed. (p.48-49)
  • The writer who is neither an advocate nor an opponent avoids slanting, except when he is seeking special literary effects. The avoidance of slanting is not only a matter of being fair and impartial; it is even more importantly a matter of making good maps of the territory of experience. The profoundly biased individual cannot make good maps because he can see an enemy only as an enemy and a friend only as a friend. The individual with genuine skill in writing -- one who has imagination and insight -- can look at the same subject from many points of view. (p.49)

Ignoring Contexts[edit]

  • It is clear ... that the ignoring of contexts in any act of interpretation is at best a stupid practice. At its worst, it can be a vicious practice. (p. 62)
  • If we can get deeply into our consciousness the principle that no word ever has the same meaning twice, we will develop the habit of automatically examining contexts, and this will enable us to understand better what others are saying. (p. 63)

The Open and Closed Mind[edit]

  • The person with closed mind is apparently one who finds life threatening. If either the speaker or the statement is unacceptable to him, he rejects both. As the reader will recall, according to Anatol Rapoport's account of Lenin's evaluations, this is exactly the orientation Lenin habitually exhibited: an individual on his side who said anything unacceptable to him was shown to be either muddle-headed or "unconsciously" on the enemy side; anyone on the "enemy" side who said anything acceptable to him was also declared to be either muddle-headed or "masking his true nature." In short, the closed mind is definitely two-valued in its orientation: you have to like everything about the speaker or nothing. (p.256)

Poetry and Advertising[edit]

The Symbols We Live By[edit]

  • To repeat, advertising is a symbol-manipulating occupation. The symbols of fashion and elegance are used to glamorize clothing and cosmetics. The symbols of youthful gaiety sell soft drinks and candy bars. The symbols of adventure and sportsmanship are used to promote cigarettes and liquor. The symbols of love and delight in one's new baby completely appropriated by the sellers of prepared baby foods, canned milk, and diaper services. Advertising is a tremendous creator and devourer of symbols. Even the symbols of patriotism are used for the purposes of salesmanship. (p. 269)
  • The problems of the unsponsored poets in an environment dominated by advertising are ... difficult. Poets, too, must work with the symbols that exist in the culture, and they must create new ones as well. Almost all the symbols of daily living -- especially those symbols that have any connotations of happiness and joy -- have been appropriated by the advertisers. If unsponsored poets seem to concern themselves too much with negative moods, such as disillusionment, despair, or cynicism, part of the reason may well be that the positive moods have come to smell too much of salesmanship. [...] One reason for the obscurity of modern poets may again be that the familiar symbols of courtship, home, mother, nature, and love of country have been so completely appropriated for commercial purposes as to appear unusable to the unsponsored poets. He is practically driven to use obscure symbols out of the Upanishads or Zen Buddhism in his search for something the advertisers have not already used. (pp. 269-270)
  • Some poets, more aware of the world around them than other poets, have known very clearly who their chief rivals are in the business of manufacturing dreams -- and, therefore, patterns of living. [...] the so-called "beat" poets have made something of a cult of rejecting the consumer-advertising culture. [...] To be "hip" is, among other things, to have ceased to believing the ads. "I can do without things," cries a newly liberated young lady of Venice, California, quoted by Lawrence Lipton in The Holy Barbarians. "God! -- do you know what a relief that is?" (p. 270)
See also
George Lakoff & Mark Johnson (1980). Metaphors We Live By.

External links[edit]