The Disintegration of Expression


The week when a group of scientists have decided to hold the ‘Doomsday Clock’ at three minutes to midnight (though I cannot help feeling that the notion of a clock that can always be reset undermines the idea of time running out) is an apt one to consider the diagram above, which also deals with time, though the message it has to convey concerns not how little time might be left to us  but rather how much has gone before.

The diagram is drawn to different scales and has two related parts. The strip along the bottom with the grey wavy lines represents the last 200,000 years, which is the period our particular species of human, Homo sapiens, has been around (though that is still a small fraction of the human timeline, which streches back some 6.5 million years). The upper part of the diagram represents the last quarter of that time, with today (2016) at the right hand edge, and the jagged left hand edge being 50,000 years ago.

The area to the right of the blue line marked E is the last 5,500 years; it is reperesented on the bottom strip by the coloured portion to the extreme right of the grey strip.

Five and a half thousand years ago saw two significant events, the invention of metalworking and the invention of writing. It therefore marks an important boundary, or rather two: everything to the left of the line marked E (shown at greater length by the wavy line below) is the Stone Age; it is also conventionally regarded as Prehistoric Times, since History is deemed to start with the invention of writing and the possibility of contemporary records.

(It is worth pausing a moment to consider our immediate reaction to the terms ‘Stone Age’ and ‘Prehistoric’ – both are widely used pejoratively, to denote whatever is hopelessly primitive, barbarous and old fashioned, with no place in the modern age)

The red line marked with a star is more recent – 2,500 years ago – and takes us back to the beginning of the Classical period in Greece, the age that saw that most significant generation of teachers and pupils, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

Somewhere in that time occurs what I have called the Muybridge Moment  by analogy with Eadweard Muybridge’s invention of stop-motion photography, which enabled him effectively to freeze time and analyse the motion of a galloping horse. In the same way, somewhere from Socrates (who wrote nothing) to Aristotle, whose writings arguably provide the foundation of Western thinking and the modern world, the full potential of writing is realised for the first time: it can freeze the flow of speech, giving it an objective form which can be analysed and codified.

That, for me, is a more significant moment than the invention of writing some three millennia earlier, which though a necessary condition for the development of the modern world was not yet a sufficient one, as its potential had yet to be recognised.

One inference that can be drawn from the diagram is that the farther we go to the left, the likelier it is that any human practice we find will by now have become so ingrained that we regard it as coming naturally to us; it is congenital, something we are born with, or born with an aptitude for (to use a very recent metaphor, we are programmed to do it). The prime case, of course, is speech, which we have presumably engaged in from time immemorial, and which we learn (and teach) without need for any formal training.

The naturalness of speech, however, is disguised to a large extent by the advent of literacy: reading and writing, though immensely advantageous (and a key measure of ‘development’ that we use to judge nations and societies) are by no means natural to us: considerable effort and training is required to master them (and to teach them) and not everyone succeeeds in acquiring them; but to be without them – in a literate society – is to be disabled. When it comes to human expression, we are not content to rely on nature: it must be augmented, even supplanted, by formal instruction.

That point is worth bearing in mind: it is quite likely that other of our natural aptitudes have become overlooked and effectively hidden by the way our system of education has developed.

Let us now consider what the first three lines on the diagram represent: none marks an event or a first beginning; rather they are records of activity that must already have been going on for some time – for thousands, even tens of thousands of years – but of which we have some tangible, dateable evidence at these points.


A, some 42,000 years ago, is the date of some bone flutes that have been found in the Swabian Alb region of German. Music, of course, must be older than that: it is probably primeval – the voice is the oldest instrument, though percussion – drumming and rhythmic clapping and stamping – must be a close second. And if we mention rhythm, it is natural to think of dance, and to suppose that it, too, is very ancient, though it leaves little in the way of direct evidence.

(However, there is possible evidence of the controlled use of fire by our ancestor, Homo erectus, dating from 1.5 million years ago, and demonstrable evidence from 0.79 million years ago (790,000 years). Is it at all unreasonable to suppose that dancing around fires, singing and drumming, is equally ancient? Or, for that matter, telling tales around the fire?)

B, 40,000 years ago, is the date of certain carved figures found in the same region of Germany as the flutes, though these again are not a start point but rather an indication of an established human activity; and there are some who find evidence for sculpture much older still (the ‘Venus of Tan-Tan‘ is dated around 300,000 years ago).

C, 30,000 years ago, is the date of some cave-painting found in France, Spain and Indonesia; again, not a start point, but evidence of an already highly developed and skilled human activity.

(I might have included a line a shade to the right of C, around 29,000 years ago, to mark the oldest know ceramics, i.e. fired clay. The striking thing is that its first use is aesthetic, the making of figurines or statuettes In terms of practical application, the oldest pottery vessels we know about are some 9000 years younger, from around 20,000 years ago.)

D, 10,000 years ago, differs from the others in marking a start point – that of civilisation, the habit of living in settled communities supported by agriculture, as opposed to our previous nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life. Jericho claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited human settlement, with beginnings dated some 11000 years ago.

‘Civilisation’ is another word loaded with overtones, though unlike ‘Stone Age’ and ‘Prehistoric’ they are not pejorative: ‘civilised’ is the opposite of ‘barbaric’ – it denotes having all the cultural adjuncts that we esteem highly – education, art, music, literature, and a certain level of human behaviour implying decent treatment, hospitality and respect for others. Which should give us pause, since as our diagram shows, ‘civilisation’ is very much a Stone Age, Prehistoric invention.


‘Civilisation’ (in the strict sense of living in settlements supported by agriculture) is one of the earliest examples of what I have called ‘elective indispensables’ – things we manage perfectly well without till we invent them, then adapt our way of living to them so they seem indispensable. A look at surviving nomadic cultures – the Mongols, for example, or our own (sadly beleaguered) travelling folk – soon gives the lie to the notion that hospitality, decency and a good standard of life are the preserve of dwellers in cities; and where has there ever been squalor, degradation and dehumanisation on a par with that found in great cities down the ages and still today?

As for the notion that ‘Civilisation’ is interchangeable with ‘Culture‘ in its narrow sense of ‘those human achievements we value highly such as art, music, poetry’ – the diagram gives the lie to that, too – it is evident that all these things have their origin tens of thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of years before civilisation came along.

But surely literature – as its very name suggests – belongs to the age of writing (and so of (later) civilisation)?

It is a point worth examining. While the discovery of ceramics was turned first to creative or aesthetic use, and only some thousands of years later to practical applications, the case of Writing is the opposite. It would appear to have come in as an adjunct of number, to enable lists to be made of the things that could be counted – such as the contents of warehouses and treasuries. It was also used for records, of reigns, battles etc., and the promulgation of laws. It took a thousand years for anyone to use it for something we might call literature.

Although there is a case to be made that the invention of writing marks the start of History, that is to suppose that History is merely record-keeping; however, it has a much wider sense, ‘the account that people give of who they are and where they came from’ and here it overlaps to a large extent with ‘Culture’, not in the narrow sense of ‘desirable attainments’ but the broader one of ‘the customs and traditions – the way of life – transmitted from one generation to the next.’

Look again at our diagram. The inference to be drawn from it is not that the people who lived in the time up to the blue line marked E had no sense of who they were or where they came from, but rather that they had a means of transmitting their Culture which had no need of Writing.

Which brings me at last to my somewhat controversial claim that the period up to the red line should be thought of as the Age of Integrated Expression, in contrast to what I have called the Age of Language.

My case is this: what we think of as ‘Language’ is not a continuum with its origin in the very beginnings of human time but actually a radical departure from that continuum, dating back some two and a half thousand years. The major obstacle to our seeing this is that ‘Language’ is, as it were, the lens through which we view the past: it colours how we think of it. (And a small evidence of this is seen in the effect of the words ‘Prehistoric’ ‘Stone Age‘ and ‘Civilisation’ noted above)

What characterises ‘Language’ and marks it off from what went before is its narrowness of focus: it is concerned exclusively with its written and spoken form, which interact yet are to some extent opposite (a point examined here ) Although Speech is far older and comes naturally to us, the dominant partner in this relationship is Writing, as can be seen from the great importance that we attach to formal grammar, standardised spelling and punctuation, all necessary adjuncts of writing (in fact, remedies for its inherent weaknesses) for which Speech has no need at all, though it now strives to conform to them – consider the notions of ‘Standard English’ and ‘Received Pronunciation’.

(these are points I have discussed elsewhere here, here and here )

I would argue that the natural mode of human expression makes use indifferently of all the means we use to express ourselves – speech, certainly, but also facial expression, gesture, bodily posture, movement, rhythm, music, art, sculpture – a range that extends from our immediate selves out into our surroundings. I see no reason to suppose that Speech in particular was deemed any more important than the others: I think that is an illusion fostered by the disintegration which has taken place with the emergence of ‘Language’ which has seen Speech separated and simultaneously elevated in importance but subjugated to Writing, while the other modes are effectively conquered by division, being turned from natural human activities into areas of specialist skill: music, painting, sculpture, dance (and indeed literature).

This ‘Integrated Expression’, I would argue, is the natural vehicle of human culture, the means by which we transmitted our ideas of who we were and where we came from for tens and hundreds of thousands of years. If we were looking back at it through our ‘Language’ shaped lens, we would distinguish Dance and Ritual and Music and Storytelling and Poetry and Art, and doubtless see that they were associated with particular times of year (Solstices and Equinoxes, for instance) and certain places (painted caves, perhaps, or megalithic monuments – to say nothing of campfires). However, the key to grasping it is not separation and distinction but combination and likeness, synthesis rather than analysis – which is also the mechanism of metaphor, the key tool of this older way of thinking as reason and logic (both children of ‘Language’) are of the new.

And the hopeful conclusion is that, although the old way may have been superseded, it still goes on, albeit cloaked and disguised – indeed, a case might be made that all that is vigorous in our present culture stems from these ‘natural’ elements in their various guises – Music, Art, Poetry, Storytelling etc. – rather than from our present education system, chiefly designed as a means of transmitting literacy (and maintaining the ascendancy of the literate).

Literally Seismic


Pedantic old gurnard* that I am, I still experience a frisson of annoyance when people (journalists, mostly) say things like ‘the very epicentre of the fighting’ or ‘the epicentre of world trade’. That is because ‘epicentre’ has a precise meaning, which in these cases is ignored: it is properly used of earthquakes, to denote the point on the earth’s surface directly above the seismic event, which actually occurs deep down: that is what the prefix ‘epi’ denotes – it is from the Greek, and means ‘upon’ or ‘over’. We encounter it in epitaph, which literally means ‘above tomb’, hence a headstone or grave-monument, though it has come to mean the writing on such a stone, which might more properly be termed an epigraph, something written above or over, such as the inscription at the head of a longer text – a poem or a novel – or over the entrance to a building.

Irritation that a word is used imprecisely might be compared to the pain that some might feel on seeing (say) a vernier caliper (or even a good screwdriver) used to lever the lid off a tin of paint: here is something designed for a precise purpose – a precision tool, indeed – used in ignorance to perform a basic operation requiring only something crude and simple. Part of the pain in those cases is the fear that the instrument may be damaged – which can hardly be said of a word – but a considerable part is aesthetic: those who know what the proper function of the tool or word is wince to find it used so ignorantly.

Imacon Color Scanner

These days, however, my irritation (a product of my upbringing and early education, which put great weight on the accurate use of words) is liable to be displaced by delight in this evidence that language is a natural thing that belongs to us all equally and to no-one in particular, despite the efforts of those (myself among them) who have claimed authority over it and seen fit to prescribe how it should be used.

If we look closely at what is happening with this use of ‘epicentre’ we find, once more, a species of metaphor. Metaphor is, in my view, the key mechanism in how language works and develops; it consists in transferring a word or term from its original context to a new one, in order to invite a comparison of the two, and from that spark a new meaning or sense in which the word can be used (and we should not overlook the playful element in this, a point I shall return to: there is a close affinity between how metaphors work and how jokes do)

Just as we will use ‘seismic’ to express the importance or impact of some event, likening it to an earthquake, so we borrow ‘epicentre’ to add a touch of the same flavour – this is not just any old centre, it’s the centre of something important, it’s where it all happens, the point from which it all flows ouward. (It is worth pausing to consider the importance we attach to centres as if there was something intrinsically important about them, but surely it is just a customary usage, rather than reflecting any real significance – why should the centre be more important than the periphery, or any other point?)

I have the impression that we meet this use of ‘epicentre’ more often in radio or TV journalism than in print, and that points to another factor that is often overlooked, namely how the sound of a word can affect its use and so its meaning. ‘Epicentre’, opening as it does with that plosive ‘p’ sound in the first syllable, is easier to pronounce emphatically than ‘centre’ with its soft sibilant opening – so it can be made to sound important as well as borrowing importance from its seismic origin.

We see a similar thing in that other bugbear of the self-proclaimed pedant, the use that is made of the word ‘literally’. Sports commentators in particular are apt to say things like ‘the ball literally exploded behind the keeper’ or ‘the home support literally raised the roof’ and this is apt to evoke superior scorn from those who think they know better: ‘O, did it really explode? was there much damage?’ or ‘they actually raised the roof? by how many feet?’


But look again: surely if this use of ‘literally’ is to be objected to, it is on the grounds of redundancy rather than anything else – what does ‘they literally raised the roof’ say that is not already expressed by ‘they raised the roof’ ? For all the pedants might wish to say, the addition of ‘literally’ does not turn ‘raised the roof’ or ‘the ball exploded’ from a metaphor to a piece of reporting; it merely serves to reinforce the metaphor – not very well, since both metaphors are rather stale, which is what the commentator senses in his desperate attempt to refresh them, when he might be better advised to drop them altogether.

The ‘shock value’ of a metaphor is its assertion that one thing is another, which evokes the response ‘how can that be?’; then we think about it, and light dawns – ‘I see it now’. Using ‘literally’ in this way is an attempt to renew the ‘shock value’ that ‘raised the roof’ and ‘the ball exploded’ (might have) had when first used.

Again, how it sounds plays a part here: it is a characteristic of English that the insertion of an adverb before a verb has a climactic effect, rather like a drum-roll which prepares us for the delivery of the telling word or phrase by warning of its imminent arrival. We see something similar with the insertion of an adverb such as ‘wholly’ ‘totally’ or ‘utterly’ before what is technically called a complement – thus ‘this is unacceptable’ ‘that is untrue’ or ‘this is deplorable’ become ‘this is wholly unacceptable’ ‘that is totally untrue’ ‘this is utterly deplorable’ – all expressions (try saying them aloud) where our vehemence can be concentrated in the adverb, which is almost spat out. Indeed, in these cases, the force of the utterance is largely transferred to the adverb, which conveys the speaker’s attitude before the final world is even spoken.

A final example is furnished by the unusual word ‘careen’ which is another technical term, though its use must now be rare – it means to tilt on one side, and is a nautical term – ‘to turn a vessel over on its side, especially for repairing or cleaning’ – its derivation is from the Latin carina, keel. I have lately heard it used (in one case by no less a person than Mr Stephen Fry, who occasionally makes wireless programmes about English usage) as a synonym for the verb ‘career’ meaning  ‘to rush headlong’. The etymology of ‘career’ is from carriere, the old French word for a racecourse, derived ultimately from the Latin for wagon, carrus. (cp. curriculum vitae, which literally means ‘little chariot of life’).

The two words are unconnected, but their similarity in appearance and sound makes them easily associated and confused, and it is likely that the dominance of ‘career’ as a noun meaning profession or occupation has made people wary of using the same word as a verb with what seems a quite different meaning (our careers are meant to be carefully plotted and managed, not a blind rush forwards) – hence the adoption of ‘careen’ for that purpose.

So the next time you find yourself on the verge of apoplexy at some linguistic usage, calm down and take a step back: language belongs to everyone, and anyone can change it – and they will, whether you like it or not.

*a gurnard of course is a kind of fish, pictured at the top of the page, but its name (apparently derived from the French grogner, to grunt, which it does when caught) evokes to my ear ‘gurn hard’ suggesting tetchy complaint, which allied to its rather grumpy looks makes it seem a fitting term for a pedantic whinger, even though it has no etymological connection – how language evolves, in action.