Logic and Language

It will not fail to have struck the reader of the preceding paragraphs that logical theories suggest at each step remarks of a grammatical nature. And this is natural, for, to put it briefly, language is but the vulgar and imperfect though the most usual expression of the thought of which Logic seeks to determine the laws. Nevertheless, the relations between Logic and language have been generally neglected by philosophers. If we are to be guided by their scholastic programmes, they are occupied at most with one sole question, i.e. the origin of language. This preoccupation corresponds to an absolutely false and superannuated conception of Philosophy, according to which the object of the latter is "the beginning and the end of things." Such questions (in so far as they are at all soluble) evidently belong to the scientific and historical methods and have nothing really philosophical about them (unless by a confusion of ideas springing from the ambiguity of the word principium, "principle" is identified with beginning). It is equally childish to conceive the relations between Logic and language as do certain nominalists who maintain that Logic is based entirely on the forms of language and who do not even shrink from the extreme and absurd conclusion that there are as many logics as languages.

Philologists are generally too preoccupied with the material and physiological part of language (phonetics), and even when they study its intellectual side (in Semantics or the Science of meaning), they are inclined to dwell on the more or less bizarre and illogical particularities (which certainly abound and jump to the eye) rather than to disengage the general features which manifest, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, that there is a latent logic in the formation and evolution of our languages. Philology is too exclusively historical and descriptive, too much in subjection to particular facts; it regards all attempts at appreciation as heresy, and is even averse to all theory. Philologists lack the logical spirit which, essentially critical and normative, does not fear to criticise language by confronting it with its aim, i.e. the exact and complete expression of thought.

Words are signs for our ideas; they are signs like other signs, but more convenient than others, because they are at once oral and graphic, visible and audible; but still they have to satisfy the conditions which govern all signs. The first of these conditions evidently is that there should be a univocal correspondence between the sign and the idea signified; for every idea a single sign and for every sign a single idea.

This principle is so evident that it seems little more than a hackneyed truism. But its bearing becomes apparent directly we apply it to the critical analysis of our languages. Every notion ought to be expressed in language once and once only (mere economy would counsel this, even if Logic did not). Now the notion of "plural" is repeated five times in the following phrase: "Les bons enfants sont obéissants"; four times by the plural of the article, the adjectives, and the noun, and once again in the plural form of the verb. Similarly the notion of "feminine" is expressed four times in the following phrase: "Une bonne mère est diligente"; once in the idea of mother itself (which ought to be sufficient), and three times more in the article and the adjectives. Again the notion of "person" is always expressed twice in our languages, once by the pronoun (or noun) which is the subject, and a second time by the form of the verb. And here we light on the origin of these pleonasms: it resides in the evolution of our languages which proceeds (speaking roughly) from the synthetic to the analytic. Ancient languages, such as Latin, did not employ the subjectpronoun with the verb: the person was indicated by the verbal form itself (which had already absorbed a pronoun, witness to the primitive Greek endings: mi, si, ti. . .). As these verbal forms weakened and gradually became confused, it was felt necessary to indicate the person more precisely, and a separate pronoun was added, while, at the same time, the personal forms of the verb were preserved. Similarly, case-endings tended at one period (to a certain degree) to replace prepositions themselves, and came from older agglutinated prepositions. But their meaning gradually became confused and faded, and this is why in the classical epoch the Latin of ordinary speech employed prepositions, even with the cases which did not require them. The idea was expressed twice. Nowadays caseendings have nearly disappeared from the Romance languages, the daughters of Latin, and are replaced (advantageously) by prepositions. This is the final result of a logical evolution.

All this perfectly explains the pleonasms which encumber our languages, but does not justify them from the logical point of view. Moreover, we see that the popular and unconscious logic which presides over the evolution of our languages tends to eliminate progressively double uses and superfluities. Conscious logic, therefore, would only be anticipating natural evolution if it suppressed them from now onwards.

By an inverse phenomenon, but in virtue of the same interior logic, our languages tend to create special words to express certain ideas which lack proper expression. For example, interrogation has, in our languages, no proper expression (such as have negation, doubt, etc.), except the inversion of the subject, which is an inconvenient and insecure proceeding. This is why many languages have forged special words or locutions to give special expression to this idea; for example, the English do (they no longer say, "dream I?" but, "do I dream?"), the Danish mon, the French est-ce que. And in vulgar French a very convenient interrogative particle has made its appearance: ti, e.g. je sais-ti? j'ai-ti couru? (taken, by analogy, from the third person, est-il venu?).

Thus the immanent logic of our languages ceaselessly tends to apply the principle of univocity, or at least of approximating to it. But it is constantly impeded by custom and tradition, i.e. by the secular products of evolution which every language bears within it. Our modern languages, even those most highly evolved, carry profound traces of prehistoric (and prelogical) mentality, and they will only disengage themselves from these very slowly and very incompletely. It is only in an artificial language that we can wipe out the past; only there could we apply in all its rigour the principle of univocity, and hope to realise the desiderata of Logic. Few people have an idea to what a degree of simplicity such a language could be reduced, while at the same time it would provide as adequately, and even more than do our traditional languages, all the elements necessary for the exact and precise expression of thought.

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