Linguistic Anthropology

The study of language has been part of anthropology since the discipline started in the 1ate 1870s. This site is a place for linguistic anthropologists to post their work and discuss important events and trends in the field.

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Invention of Saying-things-that-don't-strictly-accord-with-empirical-fact

(Sorry for the long delay between posts. I'm writing up my dissertation research, which I will defend in a couple of weeks.)

I recently enjoyed seeing the film The Invention of Lying. The film's premise is that in an world where all human speech must accord strictly with empirical fact (or as the film's tag line puts it, "a world where everyone can only tell the truth"), Ricky Gervais inexplicably develops the ability to say things that are not true - to lie.

At first he uses this ability to commit fraud by telling his bank that he has deposited money which he hasn't and telling a casino that he has made bets that he hasn't. He then goes on to invent other genres of other-than-true speech, including romantic exaggeration, fiction, and religion.

It occurs to me that the invention of 'lying', as this film implicitly defines it, may be the invention of being human.

Aristotle suggests that human beings are characterized by their ability and tendency to form cities and other political societies (they are zoon politikon). This ability, in turn, is a product of our ability for logos, meaning both rational thought and speech or other discourse. Aristotle contrasts logos with the communication of other social animals such as bees.

One of the things that makes human language different from other forms of communication is the ability to communicate about things that are not currently present, including things we expect or hope will happen in the future, things that have happened in the past, and things that are contrary to fact. In a way, it is this ability to (to paraphrase Gervais's character in The Invention of Lying) 'say things that aren't' that makes humans human.