Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Magical Language

I just finished reading The Myth of the State by Ernst Cassirer, and learned a good bit. It's partly a discussion of the nature of myth and it's place in man's social life, partly a history of the mythic aspects of various political systems, and partly a discussion of 20th century political myths.

Cassirer was a German Jew that fled Hitler's regime in 1933; he died in the U.S. in 1945. There is a particular passage in Myth that sends shivers down my spine. I'm going to quote it at length.

"It was in 1933 that the political world began to worry somewhat about Germany's rearmament. . . . But as a matter of fact this rearmament had begun many years before but had passed almost unnoticed. The real rearmament began with the origin and rise of the political myths. . . .

"The first step that had to be taken was a change in the function of language. If we study the development of human speech we find that in the history of civilization the word fulfils two entirely different functions. To put it briefly we may term these functions the semantic and the magical use of the word. Even among the so-called primitive languages the semantic function of the word is never missing; without it there could be no human speech. But in primitive societies the magic word has a predominant and overwhelming influence. It does not describe things or relations of things; it tries to produce effects and to change the course of nature. . . .

"Curiously enough all this recurs in our modern world. . . . If nowadays I happen to read a German book, published in these last ten years. . . I find to my amazement that I no longer understand the German language. New words have been coined, and even the old ones are used in a new sense. . . . This change of meaning depends upon the fact that those words which formerly used in a descriptive, logical or semantic sense, are now used as magic words that are destined to produce certain effects and to stir up emotions. Our ordinary words are charged with meanings, but these new-fangled words are charged with feelings and violent passions.

"[In a recently published German dictionary] there was a sharp difference between the two terms Siefriede and Siegerfriede. . . . The two words sound exactly alike, and seem to denote the same thing. Sieg means victory, and Friede means peace; how can the combination of two words produce entirely different meanings? Nevertheless we are told that, in modern German usage, there is all the difference in the world between the two terms. For a Siegfriede is a peace through German victory; whereas a Siegerfriede means the very opposite; it is used to denote a peace which would be dictated by the allied conquerors. It is the same with other terms. The men who coined these terms were masters of their art of political propaganda. They attained their end, the stirring up of violent political passions, by the simplest means. A word, or even the change of a syllable in a word, was often good enough to serve this purpose. If we hear these new words we feel in them the whole gamut of human emotions - of hatred, fury, anger, haughtiness, contempt, arrogance, and disdain."

So why does this scare me? I won't say yet, because I'm sick of typing.

And to the ghost of Ernst Cassirer... please don't sue me for copyright infringement.

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