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Language Abuse and Human Consciousness

Keynote: The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

'Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication and reflection. The fact of the matter is that the "real world" is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group.'

This passage from the American linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir (1884-1936)'s 'The Status Of Linguistics As A Science', written in 1929, is what has come to be known as the 'Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis'

Related Quotations

This is but a world of illusion (Guatama Buddha)
'He gave man speech, and speech created thought, which is the measure of the universe'
(Prometheus Unbound, Shelley)
'...misleading symbols were everywhere treated with a wholly unwarranted respect...' (Aldous Huxley: introduction to 'The First and Last Freedom'
'Hear, and understand; not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.' (Matthew 15;11)
'The description is not the described.' (J Krishnamurti)


And so to the topic of Language Abuse. Let me say at the outset that this does not refer particularly to the use of so called 'abusive language' - swearing, cursing insults and the like - although, as with most English word pairs, the two are inevitably related with one being a subset of the other.
I shall attempt to define language abuse as follows:
'Accidental, habitual (subconscious) or deliberate (conscious) use of language patterns that are non-specific and which either
a) do not relate directly to matters in the observable, tangible real world or
b) refer to such matters in an ambiguous or vague manner.'
This is a rudimentary definition, which I am sure can be improved upon (suggestions please!), but it will do for now. I hesitated when I wrote it, wondering whether or not to include language patterns which refer to the past (memory) and future (speculation) since, by observation, such seem to occupy a significant place in everyday conversation {'I was,' 'we will,' 'when our,' 'she said,' 'do you remember,' etc.}. Being aware of what I intend to write, I will certainly touch on time related misrepresentations - indeed, such are implicit in a lot of what follows.
This article should be viewed as a first attempt to address this topic, and I do not claim to have covered everything (indeed, there certain forms of advanced language pattern exist only as rarities in everyday life and they been deliberately omitted).

The reader might well ask 'What's the point of all this?': I shall attempt to elucidate thus:
1) language, in both written and spoken form, is one of the greatest 'inventions' of the human species: some would say the greatest. The only other known way Nature has ever discovered of passing on information in time is DNA
2) without language, there would be no science, no technology, no serious art, no history and the (much depopulated) human race would be reduced to living in caves, daily pitting their physical bodies against an apparently hostile, uncontrollable environment
3) language then has practical, beneficial uses. Although it can be argued that some technology is non-beneficial, language, like most basic technology in itself is neutral: electricity can be used to warm or electrocute, to lighten the darkness or torture - its ultimate application depends upon the HUMAN user
4) on the other side of the coin, we have the not so useful - except to the individual 'users' - applications of language, the kind this page is all about. Amongst these are uses (abuses) for demagogic purposes, deceit, to persuade people to 'believe' in unlikely falsehoods, political purposes, con-tricks and the rest (although light exists in the darkness in that some positive techiques employ even the 'abusive' aspects of language in therapeutic settings),
Language then, provides us with the gift of a vehicle for rapid, flexible symbolic communication. Like any vehicle, it can be used properly - for practical purposes - or abused to create confusion, chaos and ultimately devastation, at the whim of the individual driver. We have already had two horrendous World Wars on this planet in recent times, both of which can be traced back to selfishness and language abuse. This matter needs to be seriously addressed: if we ever have WWIII, we shall surely be back in the caves: the rulers and wealthy might think they can escape and seek sanctuary in deep mines, but then, what is a mine other than a man-made cave?

1. Several of the elements in part 1 of this paper have been adapted from Bandler and Grinder's 'The Structure of Magic: Vol 1', although there are a number of significant original additions
2. Since it is far more predominant in everyday life - and since it is the most flexible, rapid and difficult medium of language to analyse - I have couched this paper in terms of the spoken word, referring generally to the speaker and listener: the paper also refers to the written word)

What follows is broadly constructed along the following lines:
Part1) analysis and explanation of some of the commoner elements in language abuse
Part 2) analysis of compound examples from everyday life
Part 3) analysis of compound historical examples
Part 4) presentation of some means to recognise and challenge abuse

Language Abuse Part 1: Elements

1) Nominalisation

a) The essential process at work in nominalisation is that a verb (process word) is presented as a noun (event). Examples of this are:
'The woman is angry' (anger being the verb conversion),
'Phil has a lot of interest in this.' (interest being the verb conversion),
'The president issued his denial yesterday.' (denial being the verb conversion).
Nominalisations are fairly easy to spot - once you begin to look for them: the test is 'can I put the 'object' referred to in a wheelbarrow?'
b) The use of the past/future tense of a verb to disguise, and partially delete the events that occured/are expected to occur in a process is a commonplace form of nominalisation.
Examples are: 'I met someone else' and 'I am going to meet the woman'.
In both cases, the verb 'meet', which is shorthand for a complex process - which might involve handshakes, reciprocation, lunch, exchange of business cards, earnest or light discussion - is presented almost as an event.
Other examples are
'I drove the car',
'I shall walk to the shop,
'I will rule the world'.
Since this form is common parlance (unqualified verb inferring event), it is difficult to catch & is often used as a form of deletion.

2) Deletion

a) General case.
Noun groups are deleted from a sentence and replaced by vague verb groups. That sounds complex, but in practice it is very simple to do, and very simple to detect as the following examples will illustrate:
i) The table was broken.
Now tables don't spontaneously combust, neither do they suddenly break themselves - so there has to be an agent, which is not mentioned in the sentence, that actually did the breaking: 'The table was broken (how?) by George putting a heavy weight on it.' Putting the question 'how?' or 'by whom', restores the deletion.
ii) I'm terrified.
Terror does not exist in isolation - it must have an object, so asking the question 'by what?' restores the deletion to: 'I'm terrified of big dogs.'
iii) 'I find you disturbing'
Disturbing who/what? The restoration might lead to 'I find you disturbing to me.'
iv) 'Fred gets angry sometimes'
Angry about what? The deletion could typically be 'about his wife gossiping with the woman next door'.

b) Need operators
Some element of 'need' is implanted in the sentence, typically by means of the words NECESSARY, NEED, MAY, ABLE, UNABLE, CAN, CAN'T, POSSIBLE, IMPOSSIBLE, SHOULD, HAVE, MUST, MAY, all of which depend upon some (de facto) hidden, hence deleted, logic on the part of the speaker.
Example: 'I must go to the shop today'.
The reasons, the logic driving 'must' are deleted. Including the (deleted) phrase 'or else we will have no milk to drink', restores the sentence. 'I shouldn't be doing this':
again the reasons are deleted.
>c) Comparatives
Such words as longer, shorter, taller, warmer, colder best, better, worst, most, least - which occur in adjective groups -- are MEANINGLESS without a system of reference. To say that 'A is better than B' deletes the system of measurement or comparison, in that the listener is not informed about the basis of measurement between being implied. Ultimately, any meaningful system of measurement must be scientific and agreed by all concerned - including the listener- otherwise the statement is entirely arbitrary and subjective. As a silly related example of this, I can quite cheerfully say that a foot is longer than a yard - and cause controversy because people assume a frame of reference where it is not given: had I said that a large dinosaur's foot is longer than and Imperial yard (giving reference frame), there is no dispute.

d) Non-Specific Adverbs, Especially those with 'ly' tails
These are often semi-comparative and/or do not have a specified object (I.e. reference system deleted or object deleted). Many of them, but not all, end in the letter dyad 'ly'', hence its singling out for special attention.
Examples: 'He's a great guy.' (great to whom, in who's eyes, great measured how?),
'She's the cleverest woman you'll ever meet' (in who's opinion, how is her cleverness measured, clever in what way?).
'Unfortunately, it's too late for another drink' (unfortunate for whom?),
'Obviously, my boss dislikes me' (obvious to whom?).
In many of these cases, the speaker may, or may not be stating his/her personal opinion, the important thing is, is that there is a significant deletion in that opinion is stated as fact: if it is, it is a subtle form of assertion (see later).

e) Singular/Plural
The speaker, who will always be singular, takes upon him/herself the mantle of speaking on behalf of an undefined group. The definition of the group is unspoken (and is thus a deletion), and is varied throughout the verbalisation. Sometimes the singular and plural terms are used contiguously - even in the same sentence.
Examples: 'It's a pleasure for me to welcome you all to the show, and I know we will all have a good time tonight.' 'We will not tolerate import duties, and I know that you will all agree with me on this - the dockers, the weavers, the miners, all of you: we will fight for our rights.'
The device is adopted so as to give the illusion that the speaker and listener are aligned as part of some (often shifting) inclusive group & infer common purpose.
Keywords: WE, US, ALL, THEY, THEM, YOU.

3) Generalisation

All language, by virtue of it being a symbol system & set of rules for organising the symbols, is inevitably general. The description is never the described and, since linguistic processes MODEL the actual, the more closely related and specific the model with respect to 'what is' in the real world of experience, the less general that model becomes. Generalisation diminishes language models by deleting and/or distorting links with experience AND translates the specific into the general. Some techniques of generalisation (for which read model depletion) are presented below.

a) Twisting & Generalising by False Logic
The Aristotelian system of logic comprising two premises and a conclusion along the lines of:
a) Problem: Mary doesn't like me
b) Fact: Mary is a woman
c) False Conclusion (huge problem): Women don't like me.
Note the nominalisation of the word 'like' in lines one and three, and the false logic in arriving at the conclusion in line three. There is also a generalisation (no referential index - see later) with respect to 'women' on line three (all women, women of Mary's type, old women, young women????) That is a relatively straightforward use of syllogism: now consider the following:
a) All dogs have four legs
b) My cat has four legs
c) My cat is a dog
A remarkable false conclusion!
Related to this is the general mechanism of false logic 'A causes B', which although it might appear stupid and obvious occurs time after time in everyday life.

That dress MAKES you look ten years younger
Sitting in this car WILL CAUSE you to feel like a millionaire
The look in your eyes says YOU WILL love me forever
A further twist on this is the implied causative, but since this is more a form of presupposition, it will be dealt with later.

b) Cliché
The assumption is made, by the speaker, that the listener has access to - and exactly the SAME UNDERSTANDING OF - the same set of clichés as him/herself. This is an act of thought reading on two counts: even if the listener does know the cliché, it is highly unlikely that his/her interpretation is the same: consequently, speaker/listener agree on basis of shared misunderstanding. Furthermore, since clichés are trite generalisations in themselves, cliché use is a form of model depletion per se.
Examples: 'Keep away from old George, he's as thick as two short planks.'
(the cliché itself is meaningless - -are short planks any thicker than long ones - and comparing George, who may or may not be 'stupid' [deletions] with two pieces of wood may be a colourful way of speaking, but it is a gross generalisation).
'Life is a bowl of cherries'
('Life'??? Does the cliché mean it is tasty, one can pick and choose, a small bowl, a large bowl, etc. The cliché is meaningless - but again colourful as a figure of speech: it attaches a [meaningless] visual image to itself).

c) Common Knowledge
Characterised by statements such as 'everyone knows that', 'we all know that', 'it's common knowledge that'. The speaker assumes, often implicitly, a shared, agreed knowledge base and a shared understanding of said base: it is a sweeping assumption that any two people's views about anything are alike or even nearly alike. This form of model depletion works in the same manner as cliché, except that there are no stock phrases used.

d) Absent Referential Index
Whilst cliché and 'common' knowledge might spuriously claim some shared, general form of referential index, the general form of generalisation is characterised by the absence of referential index. This is achieved by:
i) deletion of frame of reference for noun and event words
ii) improper/inadequate specification of reference frame for verbs and process words
>This may sound complicated, but it isn't - the listener's task is to establish and challenge the non-specific words used by the speaker.
1) The bastards push me about. (who are they? how do they push you about?)
2) Mary pushes me around. (what do you mean 'pushes me around'?)
3) Let us not get bogged down in detail. (Who is 'us'? What is 'detail', what do you mean by it?}
4) One should always be aware of feelings. (Who is 'one' - you, me, someone else? Who's feelings? What kind of feelings? How is 'one' to actually be aware - sight, sound, taste or what?))
e) Universal Quantifier
These are present in vague, gross, sweeping statements and hence non-referential. Typical words are: ALL, NONE, EVERYBODY, NOBODY, NEVER, ANY, EACH, EVERY, ALWAYS, NO ONE, NOWHERE, EVERYWHERE, EVERYONE. If the listener detects these words, he/she can be sure the speaker is generalising.

f) Clipped Generalities
These are bald, 'need' type statements in which the speaker generalises the generalisation into a type of shorthand.
1) I have to take care of the church
2) I must do as I'm told
3) I can't
g) Incompletely Specified Verbs
The verb has the subject removed or poorly specified, and/or the predicate poorly specified. Examples:
1) I was cheated (how, out of what, by whom)
2) I was kissed ( " " " " )
3) I was kissed on the left cheek (how, by whom?)
4) The woman in the red dress kissed me affectionately on the left cheek)

h) Generalisation in Multi- Person Processes
This is a special case of subtle deletion by generalisation wherein the speaker attempts to erase him/herself from the panorama by inferring total passivity. This is unwarranted, since interactions between two or more people are always reciprocally causal and are PROCESSES. The passive person, despite using word forms of subject 'acting on' object to indicate the contrary, is always involved in the process in some way.
1) Joe is always arguing with me. (and he does it all alone?)
2) Matilda never stops humping me. (I just lie there like a stone)
3) Barry scares me. (even though I don't do anything)
i) Euphemism
This is a favourite of politicians, public service employees, the military and media, it is singled out for a special mention. Strictly, it is a form of method d), (depletion of referential index), although the word 'depletion' is a gross understatement in the case of many euphemisms.
a) a major battlefield cock up occurs which results in the soldiers of the speaker's army attacking each other and creating carnage amongst themselves: euphemism 'friendly fire'
b) a senior civil servant gets caught weaving a web of intrigue & is ultimately accused of lying: euphemism 'economy with the truth'
c) a builder makes a mistake on a structural repair: a wall collapses around his ears & almost demolishes the house he is working on: euphemism 'We'll have to re-point that wall I'm afraid'

3) Assertion

a) Direct Assertion
Although this is relatively easy to detect, the speed of events - particularly when the medium of the spoken word is involved - can allow it to slip by unchallenged. Direct assertion is more common than presupposition in unsophisticated speech patterns, and vice-versa (although closely related to assertion, the more complex subject presupposition is dealt with as a separate topic in this paper). The basic form of direct assertion is:
'X verb Y'
where X and Y can be almost anything the speaker chooses, and the verb can adopt any past/present/future form. Adjectives and adverbs are all allowed as is the (common) use of pronouns and names. As always, there is a minor complication here: assertions (statements of opinion) and statements of generally accepted 'fact' can get confused, indeed this is the power of assertion whereby the wolf, in the guise of the speaker's opinion is portrayed in the sheep's fleece of fact.
1) Wood has grain (fact)
2) I am the best woodcutter in England (assertion/opinion)
3) Brick is hard (fact)
4) This cheese tastes horrible (assertion/opinion)
5) I am the greatest (assertion opinion)

Note the presence of generalisation in the assertive statements represents the common case. All pretty obvious stuff, eh? Well go into a bar near your home this evening and listen in should you think all this has no bearing on the real world.
There is a simple test which will detect whether or not a given statement is an assertion or a statement of fact: the test is to negate the statement
and then consider if, on the balance of probabilities, it could still be true - if it could, then you have an assertion.
1) Wood has grain ['Wood does not have grain' does not match experience - the statement is factual]
2) I am the best woodcutter in England ['I am not the best woodcutter in England' - no evidence either way, the statement is an assertion]
3) Brick is hard ['Brick is not hard'. Although I have seen Styrofoam bricks, 99.999% of the bricks I have seen are hard - the statement is factual on the grounds of probability and experience]
4) This cheese tastes horrible ['This cheese does not taste horrible' - I have not tasted the cheese and I just don't know: statement is an assertion]
5) I am the greatest ['I am not the greatest' - huge deletion (greatest what?): no evidence to judge on and I just can't tell: an assertion]

b) Tag Phrases
Tag phrases are commonly used by some speakers at the end of assertive statements in order to reinforce the speaker's point of view by getting the listener to agree. The tag phrase can masquerade as a question, a gentle reassurance to the listener - it is not: it is a subtle form of assertion reinforcement, and that tag phrases are ALWAYS VOLITIONAL. They say 'reinforce my assertion, make it twice as strong'.
1) You like this, don't you?
2) You can go to the shop, can't you?
3) This soup tastes good, doesn't it?
4) That's all right, like.
5) She's a good woman, you know. (+optionally 'what I mean')
6) I can do this job, you understand? (+optionally 'what I'm saying')
7) This is a good game, isn't it?
8) I'm a good looking gal, ain't I?

c) Lead Phrases
The opposite of tag phrases, but with the same effect of reinforcing the assertion: these begin to border on repetitions (next). Some common types are shown below
1) I said, I said that was heavy rainstorm
2) Can you, can you, pass me the salt.
3) You, you, you'll have to call me tomorrow
4) I'd like you to, I'd like you to call me Frank.
d) Repetition
'Say it three times and it will be true'? Well not quite, but say it two times, three times, four times or even more, and the speech pattern will fire off more or less the same neurone patterns in the brain of the listener(s) and tend to ingrain the 'truth' of the assertion. The listener's mind is the listener's means of perceiving reality: if his/her state of mind is affected, then so is his/her perception of reality. I repeat a line from Sapir-Whorf here to reinforce this: "The fact of the matter is that the "real world" is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group" - so the speaker attempts to impose his/her language & make the real world the world they want, by affecting the way the listener perceives it. Get together with some friends and say 'Zeig Heil' (or 'Hot Dog') a hundred or so times in unison: see how you look at things after that. Repetition is the general stuff (in prosodic or rhythmic form as well as word) that slogans and catch phrases are made of {see separate paper} - and repetition is also surprisingly common in everyday speech.

e) Speakers with Occult Powers
One particularly amusing form of assertion (a particular case of the direct form) is when the speaker, in all seriousness, assumes the role of fortune teller/mind reader. The reader might scoff at this, but this type of assertion is all too common (the refutation of this type of assertion, given later, is quite amusing). Some sample statements are:
1) I can tell that you ARE getting interested in this (mind reading)
2) I know that you WILL really enjoy this (fortune telling)
3) You and I ARE really going to get on (fortune telling)
4) I DO understand how you feel (mind reading)
>Notice the typical key verbs (upper case) and generalisation used in statements of this kind, notice that, joking apart, 'will', 'do', and 'are' are all powerful directive words and the absence of qualifying words such as 'perhaps', 'maybe', 'might' and so forth, are normally absent in this kind of statement. Just to lay things bare here, how would you feel if someone came to you and gave you the direct commands (You will enjoy this, etc.) embedded in the foregoing examples?

f) Command Questions
See also section on presupposition. These are a peculiar breed, questions which are put without the expectation of any reply in words, BUT the expectation of a reply in action - which is invariably the case. It's almost as if the first two words in the question are spoken in reverse order (such that 'will you' becomes 'you will' and so on).
Can you pass me the salt?
Will you open the door?
Do you follow my meaning?
Have you got a minute?
g) Hidden Will
The dictionary definition of the word 'will' is lengthy, so I shall present only a taste here: 'Faculty by which person decides/conceives self as deciding upon and initiating action' 'control exercised by deliberate purpose' 'deliberate or fixed desire or intention' 'energy of intention' 'what is desired or ordained by the person'. So that's the approximate meaning - and the majority of English speakers talk about it every day - but in a very subtle and abbreviated manner by means of words such as:
I'll, we'll, they'll, he'll, she'll, won't.
Every time one of those words is spoken, volition is being expressed: in the case of first person statements, the volition is assertion - 'I will', 'I will not'. In the case of non-personal statements, the speaker may or may not be expressing personal volition (the test is 'does the speaker refer to a matter of fact or self asserted opinion?')

h) Hidden Existential
As with hidden will, we have hidden 'is' (and it is interesting that these two fundamental statements of being have evolved forms where they are - whoops there's another - neatly and discreetly hidden away as tags on the ends of other words). So, in addition to the '-ll' suffix, we have the '-s' suffix and the '-re' suffix and their variants.
Examples are: it's, that's, he's. she's, you're, they're, we're and a peculiar slang/dialect variant I's.
it's = it is
he's = he is
she's = she is
that's = that is
you're = you are
we're = we are
they're = they are
These innocent, almost unnoticeable tags are of the utmost importance, especially in the case of spoken language. Every time one of those words is spoken, and if the statement is not factual, volition is being expressed by the projection of opinion as fact: the volition is the assertion of state, of being - 'X is so', 'Y are Z' and so on.
Care is needed here in discriminating, since the speaker may or may not be expressing personal volition (the test is "is this a statement of undeniable fact, e.g. 'this is a table', or opinion, e.g. 'she is an idiot'?" If undeniable fact is too strong a test for the situation you have, try balance of probabilities.)

This section has been re-written in a more refined, extended form (February 2000) and now appears as a separate 'Presupposition and Consciousness' page.
For access, follow the link at the end.


Speaking in quotes (i.e. telling jokes and stories, which in a written form would be enclosed in quotation marks) provides the inventive speaker with a powerful mechanism to influence the listener by all of the techniques presented in this paper & additionally provides opportuntity to influence by allusion and metaphor. The mechanism of 'quotes' itself is a form of presupposition in that it assumes that the, often fantastic and larger than life, characters and goings on portrayed in the story/joke exist and have meaning: it is a subtle way of leading the imagination.

Conversational Postulate

(see also section on command questions) These are commands and suggestions disguised as questions. The question is a front end tag, typically:
'Can you,' 'Will you,' 'Can I ask you to,' 'What would happen if,'
followed by the suggestion or command e.g. 'think of your nose,' 'imagine owning this car,' 'pretend I'm in bed with you,' 'be honest with me.' A typical question would look like 'Can I ask you to imagine owning this car?'

Stated baldly, and shown in small groups of like wording, the given presuppositions and presuppositional forms might seem simple enough to understand and evaluate in terms of meaningful sense & underlying assertion. Unfortunately, that is not the case since presuppositions tend to appear stacked together in groups (some speakers have either 'naturally' occurring or learned forms of presuppositional speech) & the rapidity of delivery makes them particularly difficult to untangle when the medium of the spoken word is involved. As an example of stacked presuppositions, I've taken a number from the examples given above and pasted them together in an exercise called 'Honest Jake's Car Sales Script': pity any poor customer who comes under an onslaught like this.

Honest Jake's Car Sales Script

I've been doing this job for years, you know, and a question I often ask my customers is: 'When did you realise that you are going to buy this car?' Always intrigues me when that turning point comes, when he realises the car fulfils all his requirements, the price is right and we can make a deal. Would you like to sign up now, or after another test drive? Before you sign, would you like another look under the hood? Maybe not. So, shall we discuss the finance, take another look at the specification, have another test drive or do you just want to sign now? Can you just imagine yourself owning this baby? Beautiful, isn't it, and we can leave the credit check until after you've signed. Happily, I can give you 5% off if you buy today. Have you ever signed one of these contracts before? Yes? If you use my pen, you can sign here or here, or do you need another test drive first? No? Excellent, so I'll give you my pen and then you can sign just here.


To drive home the message of the importance and potential dangers of language manipulation, I leave the reader to consider the cynical and chilling words of Joseph Goebbels:
"a carefully built up erection of statements, which whether true or false can be made to undermine quite rigidly held ideas and to construct new ones that will take their place. It would not be impossible to prove with sufficient repetition and psychological understanding of the people concerned that a square is in fact a circle. What after all are a square and a circle? They are mere words and words can be moulded until they clothe ideas in disguise."


Presupposition and Consciousness
Sapir Whorf
Historical Examples
Everyday Examples
Prevention and Cure
Patterning and Consciousness
Overcoming Conditioned/Habitual Behaviours