course children tell lies about sexual abuse – lying is
unavoidably a part of human language
By Marianne Haslev Skånland, professor
University of Bergen, Norway
* * * * *
This article is an extension of a talk given at the
conference "För barnets bästa - ett kritiskt perspektiv"
("In the best interest of the child - a critical
perspective"), arranged by witness psychologist Lena
Hellblom Sjögren for Nordiskt Tvärfackligt Forum för
Rättssäkerhet i Sexualbrottmål (Nordic Interdisciplinary
Forum for the Rule of Law in Cases of Alleged Sexual
Abuse). The conference took place at Skeppsholmen in
Stockholm, Sweden, on the 24th and 25th August 1996. The
article has previously been published in a slightly
different form in the conference report which came out in
September 1996. I has also been published, in its present
form, on the 26 May 2006, by the r-b-v Forum in the
Section for English
listed under the title Children lie about sexual
Over the 10 years since 1996 there have been many
impressive advances regarding theories of the origin and
development of human language, which have, I believe,
outdated central points of the paragraph about the
evolution of language in the article. Cf the reference
Language and Species in the
literature list, as well as Chris Knight, Michael
Studdert-Kennedy, James R. Hurford (2000):
Evolutionary Emergence of Language. Social Function and the
Origins of Linguistic Form.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-78696-7.
I hope to follow up with an article about some aspects of
this issue later.
* * * * *
Social workers and psychologists dealing with cases of
alleged sexual abuse of children sometimes advance the view
that children do not lie about sexual matters.
This opinion is of course quite sensational. Probably every
human society up to now has known better. Simple
observation, or thinking back to our own childhood with its
often vivid fantasies of every kind and with plenty of
secrets kept from adults, will normally be enough for us to
assess the quality of any claim that children always tell
the realistic truth about matters of emotional importance
In addition, however, human language is known to possess
certain properties which clearly support our scepticism,
properties which can in fact explain why children as well
as adults are fully capable of lying about just about
anything, and why it is, in a sense, of advantage to our
use and mastery of language to do so. In this talk I want
to survey briefly a few of the most important such
properties. My exposition may perhaps be felt to be
somewhat dry in its technical parts but I hope it will
still be fairly easy to follow. Philology, after all, is a
long-established discipline which has engaged the interest
of people working in many fields all through our documented
history. Many characteristics of language were known and
fairly well understood in Europe as early as in antiquity,
in India probably even earlier. Certain aspects of language
structure were intensively investigated and debated in the
Middle Ages. Some have been rejected in certain periods and
schools of thought, only to be rediscovered or reinstated
later, sometimes in a more sophisticated form.
communication takes place by means of
are definable as combinations of
expression is something perceivable through one of the
senses, the content is the meaning
conveyed from the sender to the recipient by means of the
Signs can be analysed in several ways. Of particular
interest in our present context is the following:
Signs fall, first of all, into two categories:
In natural signs the bond between expression and content is
natural and there is no real dividing line between the two.
Therefore, natural signs are not primarily signs at all,
though they may be interpreted as such by an observer who
understands the close relationship between expression and
As an example we can think of dark clouds signalling the
probable coming of rain. The dark colour is a part of the
chemical process that leads to the falling of rain; the
colour is not there primarily for our benefit to remind us
to bring our umbrellas, although we may utilise the colour
of the clouds as a signal of what is coming. Likewise,
running a temperature when we are ill is not primarily a
signal to tell us, or the doctor, that we are ill, it is
part of the illness and of the way the body reacts e.g. to
an infection. When we observe this natural relationship and
draw conclusions accordingly, we treat body temperature as
A conventional sign, on the other hand, is the bringing
together, for the purpose of making a sign, of an
expression and a content which are not intrinsically tied
to each other. The bond between expression and content
therefore has to be created by means of some convention,
which can be explicit in the form of a formulated rule or
law, or less clear-cut in the shape of custom or habitual
Next we must distinguish iconic signs from arbitrary signs.
An iconic sign is a sign in which expression and content
resemble each other (icon means "picture").
Since there is no proper dividing line between expression
and content in a natural sign, such signs are always iconic
- the expression resembles the content of which it is
actually a natural part.
Some conventional signs are iconic too. A painting by
Rembrandt resembles that which it is a picture of, and is
therefore iconic. Other conventional signs are not iconic:
A triangular traffic sign warning us that a crossing road
has the right of way does not resemble what it means,
although the use of red colour as a warning of
danger/prohibition has at least an iconic basis, given that
red is the colour of blood and that living beings tend to
perceive blood as a sign of danger.
Signs which are not iconic are called arbitrary, meaning
simply that there is no similarity between content and
expression. Since there is such similarity in the case of
natural signs, it follows that only conventional signs can
Sign systems exist which combine iconic and arbitrary
signification in quite intricate patterns.
Signs differ in how they are understood to be signs. Some
natural signs are understood by humans through instincts.
They therefore do not require learning and are no burden on
our memory. For other natural signs, though, we have to
learn what they are signs of. This leaning consists in
understanding natural relationships and natural
connections, and is independent of life in a community.
Such leaning is still a relatively small burden on memory.
All conventional signs require learning in a community. For
iconic conventional signs, learning is fairly easy and
constitutes a relatively small burden on memory. For
arbitrary signs the learning process is more difficult and
demanding and is a considerable burden on our memory.
With the far greater difficulty of learning and remembering
arbitrary signs, we might ask why one bothers using such
signs at all. The answer lies in the different
possibilities for communication which different types of
signs allow: Natural signs which are understood through
instincts can only be used to communicate by matters we can
perceive through those same instincts, and only in
situations in which the instinct actually triggers the
reaction. Other natural signs can still only be used to
communicate about natural relationships. Conventional signs
give a richer repertoire of possibilities. Iconic
conventional signs, though, can still only be used to
communicate about matters which are amenable to iconic
representation. Arbitrary signs have the tremendous
advantage that they allow us to communicate about
everything no matter what.
language is of course a system of communication. The signs
of a language are primarily realised through speech, so
their expression is sound produced by our vocal organs and
perceived aurally. Any iconic signs must therefore have a
content of audible sound.
The signs of language are always conventional and usually
arbitrary. There is no advantage gained by - no functional
reason why - the concept "horse" should be called
the same concept is expressed equally well through
All languages are learned without conscious effort and with
equal ease by the children growing up in the speech
community, although different parts
language system may be acquired earlier in one language
than comparable parts in another language. In fact, simple
observation of the way in which different languages are
equally capable of taking care of our needs for
communication, totally speaking, is immediate proof of the
conventional and arbitrary character of linguistic signs.
Most languages have some iconic signs, called onomatopoeia,
denote an explosion, tick tock for the noise of a clock.
However, they are in no way essential to the way language
operates. A language can function in just the same way with
arbitrary signs instead of onomatopoeia, but it could not
function with only onomatopoeia and without arbitrary
signs. Onomatopoeia are furthermore few and rather random,
as again a comparison across languages will show. They are
also subject to change through time - onomatopoetic words
can undergo regular sound changes along with other
vocabulary and thereby lose their onomatopoetic character.
Furthermore, even within the area of clearly
onomatopoetically based words, there is considerable
arbitrariness. For example, the noise made by pigs is
expressed in English as oink
Norwegian as nøff
nøff, and in
Russian as chrjo
The reason why onomatopoeia play such an insignificant part
in language is clearly that they restrict us to talking
about the comparatively few concrete things that make a
noise, while we want and need to communicate about a vast
number of other matters, some of them highly abstract.
There is even more arbitrariness connected with linguistic
signs: that of the relationship between the sign and the
Regarding the expression, we observe that while the types
of sound which we produce when speaking, certainly utilise
the available sound substance
kinds of sound which our speech organs are capable of
articulating and which our ears are capable of perceiving –
, the precise way in which these sounds are formed into a
structured system is not wholly motivated by the sound
substance, indeed not by anything outside of the system
itself and its history (cf what I shall say later about
phoneme categories in different languages).
Regarding the content of signs, its measure of independence
of the outer world is even easier to demonstrate, by
looking at the different ways in which different languages
organise parts of the world into concepts. For example,
Vietnamese has just one word meaning "mouse/rat", while our
languages have two (incidentally, the Vietnamese
classification, which mirrors a "folk biology", seems to
coincide better with scientific biology on this point).
What we consider to be different varieties of one type of
fruit – melon – have different names and are considered as
completely different fruits by several language communities
in the Middle Eastern area. The colour concepts of Welsh
differ from those of e.g. English and Scandinavian: Welsh
"gwyrdd" corresponds to some nuances of our "green", but
other shades of "green", plus everything we call "blue",
plus some nuances of our "grey" are all considered to be
"glas" in Welsh. The rest of our colour "grey" plus
everything we call "brown" are called "llwyd" in Welsh. It
is of course not the case that speakers of Welsh perceive
colour nuances differently from Scandinavians in the
physical sense, but their language groups that which is
perceived, differently and thereby influences people's
categorisation of what they perceive.
Generally speaking, lexical differentiation is at its
greatest in semantic areas which are of culturally
recognised importance in the community. Thus, the Lapps
have a rich vocabulary for snow of different texture and
condition, while societies in which snow is seen only on
the top of mountains in the distance usually make do with
one word for it. Differences not of degree of
differentiation but of grouping into concepts are frequent
in the anthropological field of kinship: While in my
society my father's brother's children and my father's
sister's children are grouped together as "cousins" and
distinct from my own "brothers" and "sisters", in some
societies father's brother's children may be considered the
same kind of relatives as one's own brothers and sisters
while father's sister's children are a different category
The advantage of having arbitrary signs clearly lies in the
great power and flexibility this gives the communication
system: anything - concrete or abstract, real or imaginary
- can be formed into concepts and talked about.
Arbitrariness means that linguistic signs are
abstractions from the
world they refer to and from the spoken sound substance
Arbitrary signs, however, require learning. In the case of
language, the vocabulary of simple signs may run into
several tens of thousands, and the complexity of the system
by which we make composite signs (complex words, phrases,
sentences) is considerable - a symptom of this is the fact
that there is no general agreement among linguists about
how a number of grammatical structures should be analysed.
Although human beings are endowed with the ability to learn
language fast and doubtless with a strong drive to do so,
the size and complexity of what is to be learned is such
that mastery takes considerable time and effort. So does
the acquiring of all the culturally stored knowledge and
information which is transmitted to new generations by
means of language. This again means that children normally
need to spend quite a lot of time constructing, analysing,
and to some degree practicing, utterances of varying
complexity. A lot of this must needs be take place in
situations to which the utterances have no direct and
simple relationship. Children simply cannot wait around for
a completely "natural" situation to turn up for everything
linguistic and cultural they need to learn, and some things
are better learned without
We would want to understand the meaning of "Don't walk too
close to the precipice" without any live demonstration of
further characteristics of the language system
properties are particularly important in enabling us to
utilise language as a general communication system in human
sign is one which cannot be divided into still smaller
signs. In language, the expression part of simple signs is
nevertheless constructed out of smaller units, units which
are not signs. The term for such a sound-unit is
phoneme can be defined as a class of sounds which can
differentiate meaning, i.e. keep signs apart. Example: The
possibility of making new words, with other meanings, as in
a substitution set like Norwegian
[ l a t ] latt
[ l a k ] lakk
[ l a m ] lam
[ l a p
[ l a b ] labb
[ l a s
demonstrates that [t], [k], [m], [p], [b] and [s] all
belong to different phonemes in Norwegian. (When we want to
make clear that we are talking not about sound substance
but about phonemes - classes of sounds - we write them in
slants, for example: /t/, /k/, /m/, /p/, /b/, /s/ are
phonemes of Norwegian.) In Polynesian languages, on the
other hand, a substitution of [b] for [p] will never change
the meaning of a word, not in any context at all; hence [p]
and [b] belong to the same phoneme in these languages.
The letters of alphabetic writing systems are based on
phonemes, although for various reasons the orthography in
various languages is normally not perfectly phonemic.
The effect of having signs which are not opaque but are
constructed out of phoneme combinations, is to increase
greatly the number of possible simple signs. With only
opaque signs, it is doubtful whether we could keep apart
much more than a very few hundred signs. When signs have
phoneme structure, and with no particular limit to their
length, the combinatorial possibilities given by even a
moderate phoneme inventory are far above what we need. For
instance, Norwegian has above 5000 phonemically distinct
one-syllable words. Longer words, even those that are
simple signs, are several times as many, and there are
still unused combinations available when new concepts
demand new names. The phoneme systems of known languages of
the world vary between 12 and about 82, and even 12 is
enough to serve a perfectly normal language.
is the possibility of communicating something new by means
of the old system. Human language is notoriously
Although phoneme systems certainly change through history,
they are usually fairly stable over several generations.
The speaker who wants to say something new can therefore
not achieve this by inventing new phonemes. New
on the other hand, do enter language quite often as new
signs, mostly in the form of loan-words. I would like to
emphasise that the process of borrowing vocabulary from
other languages is in no way abnormal, though many
linguists in the 19th century thought so and this romantic
purism is still current in some schools of philological
thought as well as among many laymen.
The fact that linguistic signs are arbitrary provides the
explanation of why vocabulary enlargement and change
through borrowing can take place with no ill effects on the
language as a system: One sound-shape is as good an
expression as another, functionally speaking, so long as
the speakers keep unchanged a sufficiently large part of
their language to be able to continue communicating in
spite of the ongoing changes. Practically anything in
language may change but comprehensive change must take
But by far the most important kind of productivity is that
which takes place in the production of complex utterances.
We may truly say that almost every sentence we produce or
hear is new to us. This is not because the same sentence
may not have been uttered before - it may have - but
because our mastery and understanding of it does not spring
from the recall of an earlier occurrence, nor from memory
in any other way, but from active operational construction
and analysis of its grammatical structure. Whether or not
we have heard a particular sentence before is irrelevant to
our understanding of what it means. We have to remember the
patterns of construction of the language and we have to
remember the simple signs. In addition we often do remember
some complex signs - composite words and short phrases - as
wholes. But we do not clutter up our brains by storing long
sentences as indivisible wholes. If we did, it would cancel
out the richness and flexibility which arbitrariness and
two-layered structure make possible.
natural sign is bound to the so-called
deictic situation, the
the sign is a part. A conventional sign, on the other hand,
is not a symptom - a natural response - to anything, so not
only can it be removed from the situation it refers to, but
it can be transplanted to other situations, i.e. can refer
to matters wholly unconnected with the situation in which
the sign is used. When such removal takes place, the sign
linguistic utterances of course bear some relation to the
deictic situation. This often makes us overlook the degree
of displacement present at the same time. Everything we say
is displaceable, most of what we say is to some extent
actually displaced. The same goes for the thinking we do in
language form. This freedom to decide whether to speak and
to decide what to say presents itself to us as an exercise
of free will.
This again means that any attempt to describe or analyse
language along simple, behaviouristic lines is doomed to
failure. Even if the relationship between situations and
the utterances produced in them were fundamentally
deterministic, which is a matter of conviction to some,
this relationship - of utterances, the system underlying
them and the deliberations motivating them, on the one
hand, and the situations in which speech occurs, on the
other - would have to be considered so complex as to defy
any cause-and-effect description.
In fact linguistic behaviourism, understood as the belief
in a simple stimulus-response relationship between
utterances and the situational context in which they are
uttered, invaded American linguistics in the 1930s and
onward, with devastating impoverishment of the whole
discipline as a result. In spite of a would-be conscious
revolt against it since the 1960s, its effects have still
not been overcome, even by declared anti-behaviourists like
Noam Chomsky. Behaviourism's most important legacy in
American-style linguistics is perhaps the lack of any sign
concept and only superficial understanding of
arbitrariness. The consequence is that many scholars are
bogged down in endless confusion of expression with content
and of concrete with abstract.
Realistically considered, human society as it is could not
exist without displaced language use.
go through a babbling stage in which they produce a rich
variety of sounds. This is followed by a stage in which the
variety of articulations goes down and instead categories
of phonemes are constructed. The start is the formation of
the class "vowel" as against the class "consonant". The
first consonant is closed (no open passage through the
mouth) while the first vowel is very open – [æ] or [a].
Early differentiation of consonant types establishes /p/ -
/m/ - /t/. Early syllables are of the type CV (one
consonant followed by one vowel). Further differentiation
of consonants and vowels follows certain patterns which are
acoustically, auditorily and articulatorily based, but also
subject to variation depending on the phoneme system of the
From the time the child starts using sound categories in
this structured way, it attaches its sound sequences to
entities in its surroundings, i.e. it uses its sound
productions as signs. Early signs refer to important
features of the child's life, hence the familiar meanings
of [mama], [papa] or [baba], [tata] or [dada] around the
world (though which of these expressions is attached to
which meaning is arbitrary, thus mama
"father" in some languages, and dadda
"nanny" in Norwegian while daddy
"father" in English).
Subsequent development brings concept differentiation and
enrichment. On the grammatical side there is at first
simple juxtaposition of words whose relationship is
additive or rather unstructured, this may be followed by a
"starting again" when the child reverts to short
combinations of two or three words but this time with a
structured relationship between them (e.g. preposition plus
governed noun). At this time, the child may discard its
earlier longer utterances made by the additive principle.
Its speech may therefore for a period appear to be
regressing, but this is simply because the child is trying
out new strategies, it is not a symptom of brain
disturbance or psychological problems.
Now, the development of a language from the simple start to
a fully developed adult version requires, as I mentioned a
little while ago, considerable time and analysis without
the support of any "natural" situation. This is not least
true of the development of a phoneme system and a
grammatical system, which are even more abstract and
independent of the extra-linguistic world than are
Furthermore, since the use of human language is essentially
displaceable and displaced, children cannot enter into the
speech community unless they use language in the displaced
manner of their interlocutors. But when an utterance is
displaced from the immediate situation, its truth content
cannot be checked by reference to the immediate situation.
The truth or untruth of it therefore becomes a complex
matter to assess. This is so even for very innocent
pronouncements which we make all the time: "I thought John
looked slightly ill today.", "Mary is very likely on her
way here already.", "The weather this summer is nicer than
two years ago." Only long term gathering and analysis of
information enable us to guess sensibly about the probable
truth of a statement like "I've baked some dandelions into
a pie and put it in the fridge for your supper" uttered by
our spouse. It all depends!
The daily use of language, by children and adults alike,
therefore implies a continuous assessment of probabilities,
and the necessity of living with as great uncertainties
attached to the linguistic information we give and receive
as those we experience in other parts of our lives.
The use of human language inevitably means displacement,
and displacement leads away from the plain truth of mute
actions and over into a more abstract existence, from which
the continual possibility of untruthful utterances cannot
Lying, however, cannot be generalised without limit.
Philosophers often investigate the ethics of an action, say
theft, by asking what would happen if everybody were to
steal continually. The answer is most likely that society
would break down. We can ask an analogous question: What
would happen if everyone lied in a similar way about
something? Now bearing in mind that any arbitrary sign may
be made to convey a particular meaning as well as any
other, the answer is probably different: Society would not
disintegrate, instead the lying utterances would change
their meaning. We can see the essence of such change in
what has happened to words like "people's democracy" in
communist countries, to "child care" and "sexual abuse" and
"familiehjem" in the community of social workers, to
"culture" in the pop industry.
Lying is therefore parasitic on truth; it undermines truth
but cannot exist independently of it. The stable,
conventionalised meaning of the large majority of
utterances is established through truthful use, use in
which the meaning of the utterance is in harmony with the
facts it refers to in the world outside of language.
Probably change of meaning through lying is not greatly
different from change of meaning due to people gradually
using words with a different content: Norwegian "saks"
began as the term for "(piece of) rock", but has in the
course of the technological change come to mean "pair of
scissors". An "alternative" meant, to start with, "the
other of two possibilities" but has for so long been used
to mean "any other possibility" that this meaning must be
accepted as the current one; hence we freely say e.g.
"There are five alternatives".
and other kinds of "untruths"
has as a consequence that true and untrue statements are
linguistically equal. They are constructed in the same way,
analysed and understood in the same way, pronounced in the
same way. The difference lies in the relationship between
the meaning of the utterance and the extra-linguistic
matters they refer to, and this relationship is by no means
Untrue statements are of at least three kinds, depending on
the knowledge and attitude of the speaker to the truth of
what he says:
Deliberate lies are
uttered by a speaker who is aware of a mismatch between
reality and what he says, and who wants his listener to
believe in what the speaker says instead of in reality.
A variant of deliberate lying is that of telling something
one believes to be a lie but which actually happens to be
true, although one is not aware of it.
Saying something untrue in good faith is the
communicating of information which we believe to be true
but which in fact is not. This kind of falsehood is
extremely common. Of particular interest to us at this
seminar is the fact that it is very prominent in
speculations of all kinds and even in science, where the
subject matter is often so difficult to understand and
check that certainty about the real state of affairs may be
unavailable to us.
Irony is the
telling of a deliberate lie but with the intention that the
listener shall look through it and understand that it is a
lie. Irony is sometimes signalled by a special tone of
voice, by facial expression etc, but a very refined irony
is that in which the speaker gives no such clue to his real
meaning. He treads difficult ground, however, when
balancing between giving information in this elegant but
indirect way, and failing to get his meaning across.
But lying statements are by no means the only utterances
that are not true. Large parts of language have no
truth-value at all attached to them and are therefore not
neither true nor untrue. "Did you go to Munich last week?"
may elicit a true or a lying answer but is in itself
neither. Nor is a command; if I tell you "Go and get me
some coffee!" you cannot accuse me of lying but neither
have you any guarantee that I really want the coffee. Nor
does that alter with your response; the command is the same
whether or not you choose to comply with it.
More surprising is perhaps the fact that even
some types of statement have no
truth value in the usual sense.
This is so for statements which have a vague relationship
to reality: "Well, perhaps the mail is delayed."
Another group are so-called
statements which perform
they mean. An example is a baptismal: "I baptise this ship
Victory". My act of baptising may be accepted and
successful or not, but it cannot really be a lie (though it
is perhaps unwarranted), and so we may also doubt whether
it can be said to be true.
Yet another variant is found in sentences like "The present
king of France is married." This is certainly not a true
statement, but the "lying" consists not in saying something
untrue about the king of France but rather in unfairly
making it appear that you and your listener are in
agreement that the topic of the sentence ("the present king
of France") is accepted as a self-evident starting point.
Of even greater interest to philosophers through the ages,
and in our times to computer scientists, who are very
active in trying to understand phenomena like cognition,
intelligence, consciousness and free will, are
self-referential statements which may create vicious
circles. The classical example is that in which I, a
Norwegian, say "All Norwegians always lie." If this is
true, I have uttered a true statement so the sentence is
false. But if it is false, the statement was not true after
all. The same kind of paradox has apparently non-linguistic
varieties: A hair-dresser cuts the hair of everyone who
does not cut their hair themselves. Does he cut his own
The implications for logic and language of self-referential
statements are interesting. I shall return to this question
substance – an item in the world – cannot be a lie; it
simply exists. Only signs can lie, because only something
taken as a sign can convey a message about something else,
refer to something else.
How can falsehood arise in a sign system? How has it become
part of human language?
There have been many fanciful speculations about the origin
of human language, such as suggestions that all words have
developed from a single word meaning "to beat" or "to eat",
from the Hebrew word for "God", and so on. While such
suggestions can be dismissed, positive evidence of early
linguistic prehistory is harder to come by. The process of
language change makes it impossible to reconstruct any
language family or single language further back than, at a
guess, about 4-6000 years, and then only with some help
from written records. Such reconstruction only yields
another language of exactly the same type as our
well-known, documented ones. There are no techniques
available for reconstructing concretely and in detail any
development of human language from a different type of
We can, however, propose reasonable hypotheses, on a more
general level, about the kind of system this may have been
and about how language could have changed from such another
system type into what it is now, with its present-day
One suggestion which I should perhaps mention simply
because it has a way of cropping up from time to time, is
that language has evolved from onomatopoetic signs. It is
certain that we can imitate many of the sounds we hear
around us with some degree of success. Some such
sound-imitation could bestow survival value, such as
imitating the sound of a roaring lion to warn the group
that a lion is near. However, the majority of
sound-imitation that we may attempt: of birds singing,
water falling, dogs barking, is not such as to benefit us
greatly. Therefore there would probably be insufficient
selectional pressure to favour clever imitators and develop
simple imitation further. Nor do we observe in other
primates any tendency to communicate in this imitative way.
Given the importance of communication with other members of
the same species, human language is far more likely to have
evolved from a simpler system of largely natural signs of
the type that are in operation among the great apes today.
(Studies of apes over the last decades have increasingly
brought to light that apes may understand, and use, some of
the arbitrary signs and grammatical structures of human
language, although in their use of it, apes have to
substitute our expression level of articulated sounds by
visual means: they put tags of different colours and shapes
up on boards, etc. Still, their own sign systems based on
sound are presumably largely instinct-governed, i.e.
If this is so, then the acquiring of such properties as
conventionality, arbitrariness, displacement, productivity,
two-layered structure, and grammatical structure (beyond
juxtaposition with additive meaning) must have been central
for the development of language, since they are precisely
the features that are characteristically lacking in a
natural sign system.
From my discussion of them earlier it will be seen that
several of these features are intimately related, one
following from the other. Displacement implies arbitrary,
conventional signs and may actually have established
conventionality and arbitrariness historically. Thus, if we
can provide a plausible explanation of how displacement
could have arisen, we may not have to come up with separate
explanations for arbitrariness and conventionality. I also
believe productivity, two-layered structure and grammatical
structure to be closely linked and perhaps of common
In fact, although human language is far removed from an
instinctual, here-and-now-bound system, the steps by which
it has evolved out of such a system need not have been very
Suppose, for instance, that a group of early hominids have
in their "vocabulary" two signs which sound something like
[wapo], meaning "food" and [kitsi], meaning "lion". (At
this early stage they must be considered unitary signs.
They may have something resembling a phonetic profile but
in the absence of comparable signs which are partially
similar, there is no way they could be segmented into
anything like phonemes by the users. My spelling of them as
a sequence of distinct sound shapes is therefore not really
appropriate and should only be taken to roughly indicate
Then, if a hominid caught sight of a lovely source of food
but at the same time spotted a lion nearby, he would have
cause to signal both types of information to his mates:
[wapokitsi] would be a way of saying "food and lion". At
this stage [kitsiwapo] would be a way of saying "food and
lion" too, the meaning of the compound signs being simply
additive. The different linear order might imply slight
differences in prominence, maybe, but nothing at all fixed.
But say the hominid, the excitement of his ambiguous
situation making him hurry to say two things at once,
mispronounces the signs and says [watsi] or [kipo] instead.
We then have a blend, meaning "food and lion". Such a blend
would, if it were understood by the others, be of value to
them, conveying, in the same way as the longer [wapokitsi]
and [kitsiwapo]: "There is a food source here but be
careful, because there is a dangerous lion here too." Being
of survival value if understood, the blend would have a
chance of being used again and established.
Now say the blend [watsi] were to win through. At the same
time [wapo] and [kitsi] continue to be used. In the
interest of systemic economy there would probably be a
comparison of the relationship between all three signs and
a resulting reanalysis:
We now have [watsi] meaning "food and lion". Therefore
[wapo] means "food and no lion", [kitsi] "lion and no
food". Hence [wa] means "food", [tsi] "lion", [po] "no
lion", [ki] "no food".
Then [watsi] would not necessarily be just a short variant
of [wapokitsi], but would open the door to enlarging the
vocabulary, because now it does contain signs partially the
same, partially different. Such analysis of forms on the
basis of a comparison with other forms is, not
unexpectedly, called an
Analogy, then, can cause productivity. Now a small
vocabulary enlarged by receiving items with precisely
opposite meanings is still a far cry from a system capable
of developing new shades of meaning as well as opening up
entirely new areas of meaning. Nevertheless, the techniques
blending, segmentation and making new combinations out of
these segmented bits (this
last activity we may perhaps call a form of
precisely the way we handle human language in our daily
lives. We arrive at partial meanings of parts of long
utterances through comparing them tacitly with (parts of)
other utterances that we have processed earlier; we piece
together the bits we arrive at in new combinations,
analogous to other combinations, to make up new meanings
and new shades of meaning. New shades of meaning regularly
develop when signs are placed in new combinations. Note
e.g. the different varieties of meaning of "hus" in "mitt
hus" (my house), "Kongehuset" (the royal house) and
"Akershus" (fortress in Oslo).
Analysis by means of analogy is the dominant technique in
our handling of our language. It would therefore be an
attractive way of explaining the rise of productivity,
since it does not require us to bring in features that are
totally unknown to language (i.e. explain one unknown by
another unknown) but only to examine more closely a
mechanism which is present in language and fairly well
Another nice thing about this proposed explanation of
productivity is that it is capable of throwing unexpected
light on something else. That means: it can have useful
by-products without being made more complicated. The
"something else" concerns the development of grammar:
The blending-and-reanalysis process can explain how
linear order can
come to be exploited grammatically. And linear order is in
fact used as a grammatical means, a way of signalling
differences of meaning, in all languages (so-called free
word order in languages like Latin is always only partial).
Simple examples abound:
Men love clever
this New Age superstition, do you?
I do like all this New Age superstition,
If we look again at the initial situation that might lead
to a blend, we understand that although [watsi] and [kipo]
are equally suitable blends, they could not both be
regularly established. The reason is that whereas [watsi]
for "food and lion" would lead to a reanalysis yielding
[ wa ] "food"
[ tsi ] "lion"
[ po ] "no lion"
[ ki ] "no food"
the blend [kipo] for "food and lion" would lead to other
meanings being attached to the segmented parts:
[ kipo ] "food and lion"
[ wapo ] "food and no lion"
[ kitsi ] "lion and no food"
[ wa ] "no lion"
[ tsi ] "no food"
[ po ] "food"
[ ki ] "lion"
If the hominid group were to use both the system b)
resulting from the blend [kipo], and a) resulting from the
blend [watsi], it would obviously lead to confusion and be
detrimental to the community. If blends are to be actually
useful, they would very early have to give priority
and discard the other. But giving priority to just one of
them must imply that one of the linear orders for a
combination of the full sign forms, [wapokitsi] or
[kitsiwapo], has already, or at least at the same time,
been preferred. In other words, a tendency to treat linear
order as important must already be present in the
communication system. We conclude from this that blending
and reanalysis as a source of productivity also carries
with it an important type of grammatical structuring.
The ongoing process of blending, reanalysis and varying
meaning by placing signs in different combinations with
other signs, also bears some relation to the way signs
cease to be signs and become just phonemes or phoneme
combinations. Examples: English /kap/ "cup" and /bo:d/
"board" are both signs. In "cupboard", however, phonetic
change (the falling away of /p/ and the reduction of the
vowel in "board") has broken the connection to "cup" and
"board", with the result that "cupboard" had better be
considered to be a simple sign. English /bousn/ "boatswain"
is historically composed of "boat" and "swain" (= boy,
man), but these are no longer recognisable as separate
signs in /bousn/. Likewise Norwegian /fjø:s/ "fjøs"
(cattle-house) is historically a compound of /fe:/ "fe"
(cattle) and /hu:s/ "hus" (house), but again phonemic
change has established "fjøs" as just one simple sign
The rise of phonemes - meaningless segments within the
expression side of signs - in a system which did not
previously have them, may perhaps require no other
mechanisms for its explanation than the ones that are still
present and operative in language today.
Tendencies to displacement are present even in
communication systems which we consider largely natural.
Any situation or event in the universe is unique, no two
are exactly the same in every detail. If nothing else, time
and/or place of two events must be different. Therefore,
any perceiving organism, even if his reactions to a
situation are instinct-regulated, must to some degree
abstract away from the concrete deictic situation in order
to understand what kind of situation he is experiencing.
Perception is in itself categorising.
Now the more complex the situation to be assessed, the more
the individual will be likely to benefit from an ability to
delay his response while he takes in all aspects of it and
weighs up all available information. If the communication
system has already started to develop productivity, parts
of it will need to be learned outside of any natural
stimulus-response situation, and such learning requires a
learning situation, which will favour individuals who are
able to delay their impulses while they learn and handle
It is therefore possible that full-fledged displacement can
have developed as an extension of a general ability to
abstract, and of a possibility of delaying our response to
a situation which requires some degree of rational
If this attempt at reconstruction is even partly valid, one
conclusion must be that abstraction stands even more firmly
planted in the language system and its implementation than
our first consideration of the individual features of
language led us to believe. The very complex character of a
system whose concrete, operative units and details are not
biologically inherited, speaks of a lot of very abstract
handling and learning going on behind the implementation of
the system. And, as we have seen, abstraction ties in with
displacement and opens up the possibility of lying.
spontaneous acquiring of complex structure
the beginning of this century, Russell and Whitehead, in
their monumental Principia
out to prove that mathematics and logic were fully
consistent. In 1931, however, an article by Kurt Gödel
killed every hope of finding any such proof, by showing
that if a sign system is sufficiently rich, it will of
itself develop structures which are "undecidable" in the
sense that they transcend a true-false classification.
Gödel showed this for the system of natural numbers: 1, 2,
3, ........ (0 is usually included for systemic reasons,
although to our naive intuition it does not seem quite so
"natural"). The number system is certainly a sign system.
Numbers are not found in nature, they are abstractions for
what collections of natural objects have in common: "five"
is that property which is common to five cars, five books,
five days, and so on.
Being signs, natural numbers can be used to refer to
entities, i.e be given a defined meaning. What Gödel showed
was that a number can be defined in such a way that it
refers to itself and declares that such a number does not
exist in the system. His conclusion about number statements
resembles the conclusion we must draw about the following
pair of utterances taken together:
"The next sentence is true."
"The last sentence is false."
So Gödel's proof is the mathematical version of the
self-referential paradoxes I spoke of earlier, which cannot
be fitted in among true or false statements.
The set of natural numbers can be generated in an extremely
simple way, by "defining" a starting point and a "successor
function" which we can think of as "the process of adding
1". An interesting implication of Gödel's proof is then
that such a fundamentally simple collection of items
cannot, when there are enough items, be prevented from
developing the capacity to form very complex structures,
which are fully regular occurrences within the system, but
which as it were "take off" from their originally simple
signifying relation and enter into unforseen structures of
a kind which transcend the rules of the system itself.
Human language is not a well-defined system in the way of
the natural numbers. But it is (slightly dependent on
definition) probably equally rich, and of course we already
know that it is rich enough for us to make self-referential
statements in it.
What Gödel's result can tell us about language is that
regardless of how it developed, there are
reasons why a
sufficiently rich system gets out of the control of any
"censor" wanting to direct what statements may mean and
wanting to constrain us to telling only what is true.
Unless he can do away with human language, the way it is,
and reduce us to the use of a much, much simpler system of
communication, he will, like the sorcerer's apprentice,
have to watch helplessly while the magic gadgets from time
to time get out of hand.
Bickerton (1981): Roots
of Language. Ann
Derek Bickerton (1990): Language
Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Dwight Bolinger (1975): Aspects
of Language. 2nd
edition. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
Noam Chomsky (1959): "A Review of B.F. Skinner's
35, no 1, pp
26-58. Reprinted in: Jerry A. Fodor & Jerrold J. Katz
(eds) (1964): The
Structure of Language. Readings in the Philosophy of
Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall
Kurt Gödel (1931): "Über formal unentscheidbare Sätze der
Principia Mathematica und verwandter Systeme I".
für Mathematik und Physik 38, pp
Louis Hjelmslev : Omkring
København: Akademisk forlag (1966)
Charles F. Hockett (1960): "The Origin of Speech".
American, September 1960 vol 203, no
Douglas R. Hofstadter : Gödel,
Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden
York: Vintage Books (1980)
Roman Jakobson & Morris Halle (1971):
of Language. 2nd
edition. The Hague: Mouton
Roman Jakobson (1972): "Motor Signs for 'Yes' and 'No'
in Society I, pp
91-96. London: Cambridge at the University Press
Otto Jespersen (1922): Language.
Its Nature, Development and Origin.
London: George Allen & Unwin
Stephen Cole Kleene : Introduction
Groningen: Wolters-Noordhoff (1988)
Edward S. Klima & Ursula Bellugi (1979):
Signs of Language.
Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press
Bertil Malmberg (1973): Teckenlära.
Stockholm: Bokförlaget Aldus/Bonniers
Ladislav Matejka & Irwin R. Titunik (eds)
of Art. Prague School Contributions.
Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press
Ferdinand de Saussure : Cours
de linguistique générale. Paris:
Payot (1965); Swedish edition: Kurs
i allmän lingvistik.
Stockholm: Bo Cavefors Bokförlag (1970)
Ronald A. Zirin (1980): "Aristotle's Biology of
of the American Philological Association
Concerning especially children who lie or fantasise in sex
abuse cases, see:
Children as the primary losers when cases of
sexual abuse are falsely alleged: Two Swedish
By Siv Westerberg
When the psychologist fuels a miscarriage of
By Knut Grepstad
Alexander Aminoff's language proficiency in
By Marianne Haslev Skånland
Miscellaneous articles about sex-abuse
Articles archives 11: Incest and other sexual
'Satanic Abuse' in Rochdale,