Language and Evolution: Homepage Robin Allott


[Extracted from The Power of Words]


What I want to emphasise is the unrecognised power of words, the value of the individual word. We take words - language - very much for granted, just as we take our eyes, our power of vision for granted. But both are tremendously flexible and wide-ranging powers - which have hardly been described in any complete way, never mind explained.

Language is a powerful instrument. It is used in many different ways and constitutes one of the principal forces controlling and forming human behaviour. Besides its most familiar and normally most discussed use, communication, language is important through its use in one's private thought, in science and in oratory, in poetry, in philosophy - and perhaps most remarkably in techniques of hypnosis. The paper is intended to do two main things. to categorise and illustrate the power of words, the different roles which language plays. Second, to assess the relevance for each of the areas considered of the motor theory of language evolution and function.

How can language succeed (generally) in each of these roles?

Oratory: How can words mould the minds of individuals and form them into a group, and then control the action of the group?

Hypnosis: How can the words of the hypnotist take control of the mind of another individual and determine his actions and perceptions?


OED: The art of speaking eloquently. Fluent, forcible and appropriate expression. 'Oratory which relates to the moving of passions' (Jonathan Swift).

Oratory is designed to persuade, to provoke action and reaction. For perceptual theorists, persuasion operates by altering the person's perception of any object or of his attitudes. Advertising can be seen as a subvariety of oratory. In oratory words - language - are obviously powerful. Examples of successful oratory are hardly necessary: Khomeini, Luther, De Gaulle, Churchill, Hitler, Danton, John Wesley. Given the power of oratory, there is something to explain. How does the orator through the power of words succeed? How can words mould the minds of individuals and form them into a group, and then control the action of the group? What is the power derived from?

A number of elements in successful oratory can be identified. Oratory uses some of the techniques also found in poetry: sound patterns (assonance, alliteration, repetition); strongly marked rhythmic patterns. Words are grouped into memorable phrases, slogans. As in poetry, the formal patterns of speech are used to emphasise and to preserve particular words in the minds of the hearers - what in relation to poetry I have called 'Iceberg' words. Repetition and rhythmic patterning lock in specific words, words carrying a powerful emotional or associational charge. There are notorious or famous examples: Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuhrer: Blood, sweat and tears: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.

Oratory also uses techniques which in their effects resemble the rather different ones used in hypnosis to hold the hearers' attention, for example gesture accompanying speech. In oratory, the movements of the speaker - the gestures - reflect, are patterned on the action patterns of the speech, of the individual words. Under emotional stress, words prescribe action. The motor programs spill over from articulation to bodily movement. The speaker makes himself into the marionette controlled by his words. Perception of his movement reinforces the effect of his words on the hearers. The powerful rhythms, powerful words and gestures often are coupled with powerful visual symbols:National symbols: Swastika, Rising Sun, Hammer and Sickle, Flags; Religious symbols: Cross, Crescent; Group symbols: Blackshirts; Military symbols.

The effect of successful oratory is literally to change the minds of the crowd, to change the neural patternings of the hearers. Oratory achieves this through the combination of words (powerful words associated with forceful action and concrete perceptions) + harmonised action (gestures deriving from the words) + visual symbolic context (flags, slogans). Arthur Koestler emphasised the power and dangers of oratory. "Man's deadliest weapon is language. He is as susceptible to being hypnotised by slogans as he is to infectious diseases... The individual is not a killer, but the group is, and by identifying with it the individual is transformed into a killer. This is the infernal dialectic reflected in man's history of wars, persecution and genocide. And the main catalyst of that transformation is the hypnotic power of the word. The words of Adolf Hitler were the most powerful agents of destruction at his time."

Apart from the use of words in hypnosis, oratory offers perhaps the most vivid illustration of the power of spoken words, power in a literal sense. On the motor theory of language origin and function, the source of this power is the individual relationship of words to perception and action. Supported by the other elements described, the words used by the orator create images in the minds of the hearers and implant patterns of action. They are able to do this because words are not empty symbols but neural patterns derived from the motor programs associated with action and perception.


OED: An artificially produced state in which the subject appears to be in a deep sleep, without any power of changing his mental or physical condition, except under the influence of some external suggestion or direction.

The definition is unsatisfactory but provides a starting-point. The power of hypnotism is undoubted as is the role of words in the process. What is to be explained is how the words of the hypnotist can take control of the mind of another individual and determine his actions and perceptions. Their use in inducing and controlling the hypnotic state constitutes the nakedest demonstration of the power of words.

Accounts of the process of hypnosis drawn from a variety of sources are in close agreement. The induction of hypnosis requires little training and no particular skill. A tape recording often is sufficient and may be fully as effective as an experienced hypnotist. Very often the patient is simply sitting in a chair, while the doctor speaks to him giving suitable suggestions. Any procedure that produces momentary clouding of consciousness can be used to activate responses to suggestions; the effect is enhanced when the subject is drowsing or about to fall asleep.

One of the first users of hypnotism, Braid, concluded that concentration on a single focus of attention was a major factor in the situation. Perhaps influenced by his own practice as an ophthalmic surgeon, he looked for the essential nature of 'animal magnetism' (as it was then called) primarily in eye-fatigue, and later, in fatigue of the 'inner or psychic eye' as he put it. Later experimenters agree that it is the positive focusing of attention that is important in hypnosis. Various devices to produce the necessary concentration (and fatigue) are used: a rotating picture of a spiral is popular or arrangements of mirrors and fixation points, flashing lights, or non-visual methods such as attention to breath sounds.

Once the necessary concentration of attention has been achieved, ordinary inductions begin with simple suggestions that will almost inevitably be accepted by all subjects and involve passive concentration on verbal formulas. There are a number of standard verbal formulas and standard exercises: 'your right arm is heavy' 'your right arm is warm' 'your heartbeat is calm and regular'. Gradually the suggestions involve increasing distortion of perception or memory accompanied by suggestions of visual fatigue, taking advantage of eye strain during fixation.

When hypnosis has been induced, the subject typically will ignore all stimuli but the hypnotist: "You will pay attention only to my voice". A peculiar quality of speech seems helpful in making hypnotic suggestions - the voice quality monotonous and repetitious, intense, insistent and simple. The most effective verbal formulas take the form of vivid word-pictures of concrete images that are easily imagined. A continuous stimulation by words associated with a particular act will bring about the act, whether the words are those of the subject himself or of some other person. In terms of hypnotic responsiveness, some suggestions such as those of eye closure and feelings of heaviness, warmth and relaxation are effective with most individuals. The attitude of passive concentration is maintained - a casual attitude, with any goal-directed effort to be avoided. Suggestions are best given in an indicative rather than an imperative form: not 'Lift your hand' but 'It is becoming light ... the fingers are beginning to rise .. they feel like balloons as they float into the air'.

Once the hypnotic state has been established, by the fixation of attention plus suggestions of relaxation, there seems to be nothing more to hypnotism than the words used. It can only be the individual words of the hypnotist that produce the bizarre actions and perceptions of the hypnotic subject. Experts agree that both in the induction of hypnosis and in subsequent suggestions to the subject, the hypnotist should speak in a low, unemotional voice, intense but without emphasis; the effects are not achieved by the kind of pantomime, emphatic speech etc. that may form part of the orator's art.

So how do the individual words used by the hypnotist produce such striking effects? . There have been many attempts at explanation but there is no generally accepted satisfactory account. Often would-be explanations merely describe without explaining. Two lines of thought however look more promising: monoideism and ideomotor action. Monoideism means that the (proprioceptive) stimulus emanating from a simple idea (pure-stimulus act) plays continuously on the neuromuscular equipment of the organism; this stimulation evokes the act of which it is the 'mental equivalent'. The psychologist Hull, in a paper 'Interpretation of hypnosis', said that the essential feature was the elimination, through relaxation and the concentration and fatigue procedures, of all ideas competing with those offered by the hypnotist. Removal of sensory competitives would, in his terms, ' give the continuous stimulation emanating from the symbolic processes (ideas) of the experimenter a kind of right of way to the control of the subject's movements'.

William James developed an account of 'ideomotor action' on lines similar to those earlier proposed by Lotze. Lotze had suggested that the mental image of a definite movement had attached to it as a necessary result the appearance of that definite movement. James termed 'ideomotor response'. the experience that when the subject vividly imagines moving his body he has a marked tendency to do what he is thinking. 'Every representation of a movement awakens in some degree the actual movement which is its object. We think the act and it is done. An anticipatory image of the sensorial consequences of a movement is the only psychic state which introspection lets us discern as the forerunner of our voluntary acts. Movement is the natural immediate effect of feeling'. James went on to suggest how one may experience this for oneself: "Try to feel as if you were crooking your little finger, whilst keeping it straight. In a minute it will fairly tingle with the imaginary change of position; yet it will not sensibly move, because it's not really moving is also a part of what you have in mind. Drop this idea, think of the movement purely and simply, with all brakes off, and presto! it takes place with no effort at all." More recently, in his Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty based his accounts both of perception and of language on the unity of the body- subject. He speaks about 'a motor presence of the word'. For him, the word is first of all 'an event which grips my body. When I read the word 'warm' my body prepares itself for heat and so to speak, roughs out its outline.'

Both monoideism and ideomotor action, as applied to hypnosis, would suggest that the hypnotist succeeds by inducing in the subject ideas of action or perception which, in the absence of competing ideas, are translated into movement or apparently actual perception. But this leaves a gap: how do the words used by the hypnotist produce the movements or percepts? The motor theory provides the link by proposing that the structures of the words the hypnotist uses are derived in fact from the structures (the motor programs) which constitute the actions or percepts. As the subject hears the words of the hypnotist, the words create in the subject motor programs appropriate for the actions or percepts. In the absence of any competing neural patterning, the motor programs are automatically executed. The words operate as direct instructions to the muscles. Recent research on bird-song has illustrated the close link there can be between auditory patterns and the neural motor system. In a paper 'A motor theory of song perception' Kelley reported that the motor neurons of the syrinx which produce song responded when the bird was listening to song from another bird.


WORDS: This has been an attempt to identify, analyse and explain the power of words. One might ask: Why the power of words and not the power of language? There are several reasons: 'language' is much less specific, a vaguer concept, than words but at the same time there has been much more discussion of the function, structure and philosophy of language than there has been of words. The new point made in this paper is that each word has a power deriving not from convention or authority but from its sound structure. However, the significance of language as such in the evolution and development of human beings and human societies has been immense but needs, and has received, separate treatment in other papers on Evolution and Culture, The Role of Language, Pinker's Language Instinct.

MOTOR THEORY OF LANGUAGE: How far, for each of the areas considered in this paper are the views and the experience of practitioners consistent with the motor theory of language evolution and function? If words, in these different roles, are powerful because of the origin of language by modelling on the motor system and the link to perception, what next? Where does this lead? Where should this lead? Where it should lead is to a complete revision of ideas about the functioning of poetry, the mode of operation of hypnosis, the impact of oratory, the direction of development in philosophy. In due course practitioners in these different fields may find the ideas in this paper useful.