Watch Your Language

Constantine Sandis
5 min readMay 31, 2019

I recently heard someone affirm, as if this were common knowledge, that the essence of language is to communicate propositions. When I questioned this assumption, another person interjected that language was by definition the communication of propositions. I thought I’d entered some weird sci-fi novel in which the very notion of language had been artificially constrained for the purposes of some dystopian plot development but, alas, I was merely at an academic workshop.

There are understandable reasons why silly assumptions about the essence of language remain widespread within philosophy, linguistics, and related disciplines. High up on the list is the temptation to think that if language didn’t have an essence, we wouldn’t be able to distinguish it from mere noise patterns. This is to already be in the grip of a particular picture of language, one that prevents us from recalling the variety of things that language may be used for: showing affection, asking questions, issuing commands, signalling discomfort, communicate intentions, deceiving and manipulating people, and so on. We thus imagine ourselves armed with a theory capable of churning out seemingly important answers to empty questions that continue to excite people, such as ‘do dolphins have a language?’, ‘is language innate?’,‘do trees talk to each other?’, ‘can one communicate without language?’, and ‘is grammar prescriptivist or descriptivist?’

While the Greeks and Romans used the terms ‘lekta’ and ‘dicta’ to respectively refer to that which is said, as opposed to the words used to say it, propositions are theoretical postulates dreamt up in the 19th century of by Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, and G.E.Moore who each defined them differently in their distinct attempts to capture the relation between thought, apprehension, reference, and sense. It is not surprising, then, that the view of language as a vehicle for communicating propositions would form a central core of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein
Constantine Sandis

Co-founder of Lex Academic & Visiting Professor of Philosophy, University of Hertfordshire.