the cunning linguist

how to begin…

“space: the final…” no.
“inflated inflation.” not just yet.
“greed, inc.” getting closer…
“marijuana: the ‘new’ prohibition.” soon.
“the language of language.” done.

have you ever really wondered why we communicate? not how necessarily, but why? in all fairness, neither did i. but i guess that’s really the point. here at the rational post, our main goal is to stimulate (not surprisingly) all sorts of rational and unexpected insight. sometimes, that stimulation might be intreguing…sometimes, it might be inflammatory…and other times, it might be infectiously fun. but in every case, the object is always the same: using the written word to inspire critical thought. and with that basic premise in mind, i digress…

to be sure, modern language emerged as the planet’s most efficient and effective form of communication for two simple and fundamental reasons: 1) it’s reasonably complex, and therefore, acceptably robust; and 2) it doesn’t really have to be! (leave it to the human mind to over-complicate even the most basic of social exercises…)

from within that virtually limitless potential sprang the various regional languages, and their various grammatical syntaxes and written forms. and far be it for me to ever question such “variety” (i happen to enjoy a change of scenery every now and then), but i do have a problem with the way we’ve matured as a communicating species. well maybe “matured” isn’t exactly the right discriptor…

you see, as languages were first “crystalized” in the first millenia B.C. (by authors like panini, the ancient indian grammarian, and sibawayh, the cunning persian linguist), the concept of vocal and written communication had already started down a path of social exclusion. only a fraction of sibawayh’s contemporaries could even read, let alone understand the almost 4,000 rules of his ancient sanskrit morphology (rules that were only fully embraced by the west after millenia of painful indigestion).

from such “humble” beginnings, it isn’t any surprise that the newest language to sweep the face of the world has a lot of catching up to do in its quest for “supreme complexity”. the only problem is, in its haste to “catch up”, this “language” has almost collapsed under its own tremendous weight. and no, i’m not talking about that linguistic brain-fart they call “esperanto” (though, as you’ll soon understand, i really wish that i was…)

that’s right, i’m talking about legalese: the “language” of the law.

today’s lawyers aren’t just power brokers, they’re actually language brokers. in fact, you might even call them glorified translators. as a group, they’ve managed to institutionalize their very own “language” into the cultures of the west by drafting the very legislation that requires their use. in canada, for instance, where the leader of a majority government has virtually despotic rule over the entire legislative process, there has only been one prime minister in all of its long and storied history who wasn’t a practicing lawyer (not surprisingly, that particular prime minister only lasted a few months on the job).

it’s like going to that sleazy mechanic who tells you to replace your “johnson rod” with a brand new “jefferson sprocket”. you haven’t the faintest idea what either of them does (if, in fact, they even exist), but because he’s the one with the “relative” expertise, you basically trust in his expert “translation”. a mechanic knows the language of cars, the end result of which is the rather unnecessary seperation of you and your hard earned money. in this case, the only real difference between a mechanic and a lawyer is that most of us actually do need a car.

one natural consequence of this unfortunate co-dependence is that everywhere we look today, we’re faced with the inefficient manifestation of modern legalese. any time you see a line-up, there’s a good chance you’ll find some legalese. any time you see an asterisk*, there’s a good chance you’ll find some legalese. any time you get a parking ticket, or fill out a form, or buy a house, or watch a movie, or build a campfire…there’s a really good chance that you’re the unwitting participant in a one-sided “chat” in legalese. now that isn’t to say that legalese doesn’t have its own sane and rational uses, but its basic objective is still quite perverse (and by “perverse”, i mean “almost completely unnecessary”). legalese exists simply because it wants to exist, not because it has to. and therein lies the rub.

interestingly enough, there may be another explanation of the origins of modern legalese, based on a not-so-popular theory of linguistic origin that i actually happen to like. it’s called the psychedelic glossolalia hypothesis and it pretty much goes like this:

the theory states that speech (in general) was inspired by a type of psychoactive fungi. (that’s right: fungi) the line of reasoning is thus: a common symptom of tryptamine intoxication is glossolalia, more commonly known as “speaking in tongues”. as the continent of africa began to dry, grassland savannas opened, forcing humans out of the forests and into the plains where the dung of large herbivores was ubiquitous. species of tryptamine-bearing fungi like psilocybe, which live on animal dung, would have been very attractive to human populations seeking a new food source. regular ingestion of the fungi could, over a long time, have stimulated complex vocalizations that eventually led to communicative speech…

if only it were that simple.

legalese actually emerged as the language of politics, commerce and trade for the same reason that the bible was the first book ever to be mass-published. in essence, legal “professionals” were the dominant socio-political force in europe coming out of the age of enlightenment, and as an early system of modern capitalism began to congeal, they successfully established themselves as a necessary (albeit inefficient) element of society. they became the grease that kept the capitalist machine running. they became the knowledge-brokers in an budding social system that was still just finding its legs.

a thankless task, perhaps, but fairly lucritive nonetheless.

thus began the language of legalese…first cast in the fires of a violent democratic revolution, then pounded into shape by adam smith’s “invisible hand“, then thrust into the waters of relative peace and prosperity to cool and solidify in its modern capitalist form.

yes, legalese does boast a fairly checkered and somewhat interesting past (as do most of the lawyers that speak it), but the true legacy of the “language that never should have been” is that it is, in fact, a language that will always be. legalese is its own monster now — at the same time both its own greatest ally and its own greatest enemy. but the really crazy thing about monsters is, no matter how bad they make the original, the sequel is invariably worse.