It's a fictional streetscape we wander, here, a metropolis whose buildings, boulevards, and back alleys are in a constant state of flux. This is every place, and yet, no place at all - a city of dreams and a dream of a city.

Here, we explore the life and work of Ivan Illich and his circle of collaborators. There's no comprehensive index to the articles published, but we invite you to use the Search box, to the left, and to explore the Archive links that appear at the bottom of each page. Comments are welcomed.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Words as part of the Gross National Product

In 1980, Ivan Illich published in CoEvolution Quarterly a three-part essay titled "Vernacular Values." Its parts - 'The Three Dimensions of Social Choice,' 'The War Against Subsistence,' and 'The Imposition of Taught Mother Tongue' - made up the heart of a 1981 book, Shadow Work. "Vernacular Values" is available for reading on the Web, complete with Illich's letter explaining to CoEvolution (and Whole Earth Catalog) editor Stewart Brand what he was up to.

But as we've just discovered, a predecessor to that third section of the essay on vernacular values was published in 1978 by John Ohliger, a friend of Illich's and fierce critic of adult, aka lifetime, education. A short piece called "The Waning of the Vernacular" appeared in the first issue of Ohliger's newsletter, called Second Thoughts, revealing some of Illich's thinking as he struggled to develop a history of scarcity. That essay is available online here. Noting its 2004 copyright, we take the liberty of reprinting it here.



Language has become expensive. A lot of money is spent on it today. It is spent to decide what shall be said, who shall say it, how and when, and on deciding what kind of people should be reached by the speaker or writer. Words are a large but hidden category of the national output measured in the Gross National Product. Most of the words that are designed and pronounced at high cost are meant to be parroted. They are meant to imprint the thought and the speech of vast numbers of people. Tax money and corporate dollars are spent to finance adult education classes and school programs where people are taught to speak and read as they should. We spend money to make the poor speak a little more like the wealthy, the sick a little more like the healthy, the layperson a little more like the professional. We spend more and more on many professional jargony lingos taught in college and adult education programs; just enough to make the students feel dependent on the psychologist, the physician, or other experts. Thus education is to a large extent language instruction but it is not the sole public enterprise that attunes the ears and tongues. For instance, the purveyors of television entertainment and TV commercials, government agency heads and corporate leaders employing large bureaucracies, also work toward these ends.

Energy accounting, barely thought of ten years ago, has now become an established practice. It's relatively easy today to find out how many energy units have gone into growing, harvesting, packaging, transporting, and merchandising one edible calorie of bread. Language accounting is still in the future. The economic analysis of contemporary language would certainly not be possible unless we knew roughly the amount of money that was spent on the speech of each person. Mere per-capita input alone would not, of course, tell us enough. The poor, for instance, might be much more talked to than the rich, who can buy silence. But each paid word addressed to the rich costs much more than that addressed to the poor.

However, even without access to detailed language economics I estimate that the dollars spent for oil imports pale before those spent on American speech. The language of rich nations has absorbed huge investments. In poor countries, of course, people also speak and listen, but their languages haven't yet been capitalized. For the moment I'm restricting my comparison of capital-intensive everyday language and the language on which no money is spent to just one question: Does the structure of language itself change with the rate of investment? I think it does.

Taught everyday language lacks precedent in pre-industrial cultures. The current dependence on paid teachers and "models" for ordinary language is just as much a unique characteristic of industrial economies as is their dependence on fossil fuels. Both language and energy have been recognized for the first time in this generation as world-wide needs. Traditional cultures subsisted mainly on sunshine, captured mostly through agriculture. Equally these cultures subsisted on language absorbed by each individual through his or her roots. The blabbering of infants, literally the speechless, crystallized into the language of concrete persons whom the learner could smell, touch, love, and hate. Colloquial language was never taught; speech comes naturally to human beings.

Language until recently was nowhere the product of a design; it was not paid for and delivered like a commodity - in a word it was "vernacular" - home bred, home spun, home grown, home made.

When I contrast taught language -or the industrial idiom - with vernacular language, I draw a line of demarcation somewhere else than linguists do when they distinguish between the everyday language of the elite and dialects spoken in different regions or by poor people. Elite language is not new; language as a commodity is.

In the case of taught language, as opposed to vernacular language, the key model is the professional speaker - somebody who does not say what he means, but who recites what a script writer was told by the agency head that an executive committee has decided should be said. Taught language is modeled on people paid to declaim with phony convictions texts written by others. The vernacular is engendered by intimate inter- course among people who say things to each other, face-to-face. Vernacular is absorbed by roots that grow from each individual into the environment in which he or she has an "abode." Taught language is fed through screens, pacifiers, and other media constructed by language engineers.

Of course, even in industrialized countries all language isn't completely taught yet. Only machines can communicate without any reference to the vernacular. But a resistance that sometimes becomes as strong as a tabu makes it difficult to recognize the difference between capitalized language and the vernacular or colloquial usages that are still outside the economy. It is the same kind of inhibition that makes it difficult for us to discriminate fundamentally between transportation and locomotion by metabolic power, between a home cooked meal and a TV dinner. Are not the terms used, the distances covered, the calories ingested the same in both cases? Under some circumstances they might be, but this conclusion does not make the two activities comparable beyond the material measures. The difference between vernacular learning, movement, or food and that which is overwhelmingly a commodity goes much deeper. What has made the world modern is the correlation of basic needs to commodities rather than to vernacular activities. What has made technology industrial is the application of scientific progress to commodity production rather than to vernacular competence. What has made life as we know it today is the socialization of work through the administration of inputs and outputs, rather than through small group consensus on satisfaction.

This prevalence of commodity related basic needs is a common factor which underlies the growing dependency in all contemporary societies on lifelong compulsory instruction(language or otherwise). Compulsory instruction, slowly but surely, unless deflected by convivial politics, could turn vital vernacular learning toward the knowledge monopoly of superindustrial inculcation.

I have read an early draft of Second Thoughts and commend it to your attention. I hope all who share a desire for the worthwhile future described in the draft proclamation will join in some of the activities suggested there as a possible first step toward the creation of a truly convivial politics. Perhaps if we all so engage, individually and collectively, ten years from now protection from compulsory adult education will be considered more important than the “right” to more access to instruction in order to guarantee equality for all persons.

But this kind of political inversion is only conceivable if the present monopoly of economics over values can be effectively challenged. The balance of these two dimensions needs to be restored. As my contribution toward that goal I have above shared with the readers of Second Thoughts some of the tentative conclusions of my most recent thinking. I welcome comments and criticisms sent to me c/o Basic Choices, Inc.

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Santa Rosa, California, United States
Writer, photographer, music fan; father and husband living in northern Calif.