Demystifying the magic or ‘spookiness’ of language use

We can hit something with a hammer and have a big effect (a large window) or a small effect (a nail into a wooden wall). How does this work? Nothing spooky . Nothing magic.

We can kick a soccer ball and it goes a long way fast, or a short way slow. You can even get it to curve if you are skillful. How does this work?  Nothing spooky . Nothing magic.

We can ask a friend to hold our cup for us and they can either hold it (“Sure! Let me help you!”) or they can say, “Sorry, I’m in a rush” or “No, hold it yourself!”.  How does this work? Well, its spooky. Its magic. It needs a special explanation… (wrong!)

Philosophers in the western tradition, psychologists, social scientists and many others have long treated language use as spooky or magical. To ‘explain’ these events they have dredged up abstract ideas, concepts, the Cogito, meaning, signifiers, cognitive processes, innate capacities, etc.

I have long been trying to find better ways to talk about language use without the spooky and magical bits.  To show that there is a material reality to language and its use.  Lately in these blogs I have been using:

“Language use is a socially transitive verb”

Now I want to follow through another:

“Language use is a non-muscular social skill”

That is, our learning, our training, and eventually our uses of language are no different in principle to learning to use a hammer, soccer ball, chopsticks (kuàizi, hashi), or mobile phone.  Hammers and soccer balls do things when we use them and what they do shapes what we do next or in the future.  Language use does things to people when we use it and what they do shapes what we do next or in the future.  This should not be a problem, but…

Why does using language seem different, spooky and magical?

There are several reasons why language appears to be a different type of skill for doing things than what we typically do with hammers and soccer balls.

First, it does not use much muscle. Our use of language only really needs to use the muscles of the eyes and body to orient ourselves to a person, and sometimes our hands to write or the throat to speak. Thinking is language use without any of these.  We can sort of explain learning to kick a soccer ball as involving our legs learning, but what bit of us learns when no muscles are involved?  Clearly there must be another sort of learning unit or substance hidden inside us! (wrong!)  Not involving much muscle makes language use look like a very different sort of thing people do than kicking soccer balls.

Second, we forget that the skills of using language takes a long time to learn.  Despite the fact that we have all spent 10-15 years drearily being trained in the skills of language use to have effects on people, we forget this history and sort of imagine that language just comes out of us spontaneously.  No!  We have spent a long time learning this skill, and we can only ever do things to people who have had this same 10-15 years training and ‘speak the same language’.  Language does not just ‘come out of us spontaneously’, it has been trained over a long period and in many life situations.

Third, the outcomes of how we have (drearily) learned to use language in crafty ways are very vague and ill-defined.  Compare these two:

  • (1) the effects of kicking a soccer ball to bend in towards the goal (which also takes many years of training but we also think it is a spontaneous or innate skill when Beckham does it because we cannot see his history)
  • (2) the effects of saying to someone, “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

We have strong and clear outcomes of where a soccer ball should go, but little notion of what a ‘correct’ effect from hearing Dylan Thomas might be (in fact there is no correct effect).

Fourth, we have learned to say things to people only if there will be an effect, so in everyday life it seems that saying our words has a magical effect on people because they usually do what we say.  But in fact, that is from our learning to select contexts.  Our words only ‘get effects’ if there is a reciprocally exchanged social relationship already in place.  We normally do not ask otherwise.  Try walking up to a stranger in the street and saying, “Can you please give me $500 and tie up my shoelace for me?”  Nothing happens. But we normally only say or write things when we are likely to have an effect with that person, even if the exact outcomes are not well-defined.  So, our normal use of words looks effortless and it seems easy to achieve outcomes—but it is not magical, it depends on building up all those social relationships.

Fifth, it is not just that language takes a long time to learn, but also that our use of language has been heavily ‘over-learned’ over a long period and over a huge range of variations.  We use the same skills over and over and over, and over a long time.  We rehearse our grammar every single time we speak or write.  Compare these three.

  • (1) Consider a simple example first, chopsticks. Most of us who have not been trained as children to use chopsticks learn to use them in a short time and we might have one or two variations in how we use them, and we might use them a few times a day—-possibly 2 hours a day.  When I visited Japan once upon a time, the people there taught me other ways I had never tried (new skills), and other uses for eating I had never considered.  For example, you can hold one in each hand and pull apart a piece of chicken or ‘cut’ something in half that way politely (doing this is very difficult and awkward with the normal ways of holding chopsticks, except they also taught me how I could do that as well!). So, chopsticks are easy and quick to learn although there are community variations in skills you can add to your repertoire (like a linguistic community or ‘social representation’ community (Moscovici), but I will leave that for another blog).
  • (2) Now consider soccer.  A child might learn at school and play after school with friends, and perhaps rack up several hours of practice and play a week, during the football season. An adult professional player might have practice several times a week and a game once a week.  Each specific skill would get an hour or two a week.
  • (3) Now consider the strategic uses of language to do things to people, how long do we spend in our life and how long each week do we spend, talking and writing?  Over and over again?  Need I finish this?  We are almost 24/7 in some cases…


So, all our talking, writing and various discourses consist of (social) skills we have been trained to use to get people to do things, and nothing more exotic or magical.  Some functions or uses of language have outcomes which are difficult to pinpoint or write about clearly, such as poetry or my blogs, but that does not mean such effects of language use do not exist.  Even vague effects still shape us but we do not need to resort to magical, mentalistic or abstract ‘explanations’ of what is going on.  That does not help and in fact it distracts us from the real social exchanges which are going on whenever we use language.

Language use is a skill which manipulates people to do things, but in most instances, doing this benefits both parties because for things to happen with words it must be used within a social relationship with reciprocal exchanges if it is to keep working over time.  Even in the extreme case, when we do not like the way our boss talks to us and makes us do things, remember that they pay our salary.  That is in fact the normal stranger or contactual relationship form of reciprocity.

But like any relationship, if we stretch the reciprocity too far to favour one person (like the earlier example of the stranger), then the relationship breaks and language use stops working.  This is not magic either.  If we ask our estranged friend  to do something for us and they simply walk away without responding, that is not because our ‘inner magic’ of language has been lost but because the very observable and external reciprocity of our relationship is messed up.




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