The Linguistics of Lying And Other Essays
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The Linguistics of Lying And Other Essays

Harald Weinrich

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The Linguistics of Lying And Other Essays

Harald Weinrich

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Can language hide thoughts? This question, posed by the German Academy for Language and Literature in 1965 as the topic of its first essay competition, was taken up by the philologist Harald Weinrich, with far-ranging results. The most immediate was his claiming first prize with this volume's title essay, published the following year as Linguistik der Luge. Weinrich's influential essay, now in its sixth printing in Germany, is presented here for the first time in English, with an updated preface by the author and additional essays selected by him.

With wit and clarity, Weinrich brings sophisticated thinking about semantics to bear on the question of how, and how much, language corresponds to thought. He argues that lying is a function not of words but of sentences; it belongs to the semantic aspect of language. His survey of the different ways in which language is untrue forges striking links between linguistic and literary categories on the one hand and ethics and even good manners on the other.

In contrast with scholars of an earlier generation, for whom literary and cultural theory circumscribed the issue of style within a fixed aesthetic framework, Weinrich demonstrates that stylistic analysis is closely linked with analysis in the domains of sociology and anthropology. The essays "Jonah's Sign: On the Very Large and the Very Small in Literature," "Politeness, an Affair of Honor," "Politeness and Sincerity," and "The Style Is the Man Is the Devil" complement "The Linguistics of Lying" in their focus on real and false representations in literature and in life, and notably on the immensely destructive lies, Adolf Hitler's in particular, that marked the politics of the twentieth century.

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The Linguistics of Lying

The Linguistics of Lying was written in 1965. It was composed in response to the first essay competition of the German Academy for Language and Literature: “Can language hide thoughts?” It was published in 1966 and reprinted several times. Then it was out of print for a long time, and now it appears unchanged in its sixth printing. This requires some comment.
There has been much thinking about linguistics and lying in the thirty-five years that have passed since first publication. An entire library could be filled with recent books and essays on this topic. If I wanted to take account of all this material, I would have to write a new essay. I hesitated to do so, however, since I was uncertain whether that new version could remain an essay at all or would have to become a large book. So I decided to add a preface to the work, as a critical dialogue with the author I was then.
The “linguistics” tied to lying by alliteration in the title of my essay deserves in retrospect the first consideration. For the science of language, an alternative to the term “linguistics,” the sixties were stirring times. In Germany, linguistics had just developed from a strictly historical discipline to a structural science of language that undertook to describe how everything in language coheres systematically. This “structuralism,” as the new scholarly direction was called, with admiration by its friends and resistance by its opponents, tested its methods by preference on everyday language (this was new) and was even open (this was unheard of) to literary structures.
The scholarly development rapidly jumped ahead—across the Atlantic to “generative grammar,” in Central Europe to “text linguistics.” That is the historical context for this essay, which was recognized by specialists as a disguised manifesto for text linguistics—called here, because of the topic, “text semantics.”
This new linguistics opened a wider field for linguistic analysis by adding the larger dimension “text” to the traditional orientation toward “word” and “sentence.” “Word” had been the basis of semantics, the study of lexical meaning; “sentence” had been the basis of syntax, the study of sentences; and generative grammar was about to make the “sentence” the fundamental unit for all of linguistics, including semantics, so that nothing other than direct or indirect sentence forms could be acknowledged as genuine in language.
My position was that text linguistics should do exactly the opposite. The starting point in a given “language game” (in Wittgenstein's sense) should be the oral or written “text in its situation.” From there, a text-linguistic analysis descends to examine smaller-scale aspects of language, where various linguistic structures of “text syntax” (not just syntax) and “text semantics” (not just semantics) come into view.
In writing The Linguistics of Lying, I also had the intention, or secondary intention, of testing the capacities of this newlyconceived text linguistics on an object that at the time lay far beyond the scope of linguistic and philological methodologies. Until then, lying had been considered a field of activity for philosophers and psychologists, moralists and columnists. For linguists, it was virgin territory. Such an ambitious goal, however, certainly could not be achieved by a single author on the first attempt. In retrospect, I see clearly the limits I faced as spokesman for a young text linguistics. Thus when I reread the piece now, it disturbs me that in an analysis deliberately conceived in terms of text linguistics the word sentence appears so often, if mostly only in the (almost) innocent meaning of “a piece of text.” Later, in my text grammars of the French and German languages (1982, 1993), I eliminated the concept of the sentence, since I found it hopelessly illogical with its fixation on the yes/no alternative, and since it is not necessary to a consistent text-linguistic analysis.1 Had I already possessed, in 1966, more confidence in my own method, many of my observations about lying words and falsified sentences would perhaps have been richer.
That understanding the phenomenon of lying required crossing the boundaries even of text linguistics was already clear to me in the sections on metaphor, irony, and poetic fictions, where I availed myself of literary and general cultural modes of understanding, especially those of hermeneutics. But even with a hermeneutics or a poetics, not all strata of lying are accessible, especially when they are hidden in the depths of the soul. Thus I miss in this essay a profound observation like Nietzsche's: “‘I did this,’ says my memory. ‘I cannot have done this,’ says my pride, remaining inexorable.Eventually, my memory yields.2 Repression gives birth to a pleasant lie with which the moralistic superego is “proudly” hoodwinked into the belief that nothing has happened for which it need take responsibility or atone.
Sigmund Freud showed convincingly in his writings on psychoanalysis how a lie, especially a “life lie” (Henrik Ibsen, The Wild Duck, act 5), repressed into the unconscious, works its havoc secretly, with pathogenic consequences for body and soul. Healing such symptoms requires first curing the psyche of its lies, which can happen only if the process is replayed in the bright light of consciousness and renegotiated to reach the full truth. It is characteristic of Freudian psychoanalysis that it knows no means of curing the underlying illness caused by a repressed lie other than language, which, as narrative, recaptures the hidden sickness and brings it under the control of consciousness. Something like this, and a bit more, could have been in a Freud chapter of my essay if in those days I had had more confidence in interdisciplinary inquiries.3
Freud's intellectual advances, however, concern not only the private consciousness but also the public one, and therefore also public and political lying. It is well known that there is a great deal of lying in politics, and that it has increased rather than decreased in recent times. But lying never lay so heavily on an entire country as on Germany under Hitler's dictatorship. I doubt even more now than in 1965 that the corruption of political consciousness caused by this lying can ever be fully described by linguistic means. Public discussion of the day was dominated by the question of whether the German language shared in the disgrace, perhaps even in the guilt, of the crimes that were later identified with terms like Holocaust and Shoah. Under pressure of this discussion, I perhaps paid toolittle attention to particular voices, especially in literature. At just that moment, the oratorio Die Ermittlung (The Investigation) appeared, in which Peter Weiss condensed the testimony of the first Auschwitz trial into drama. I could have quoted from the words of one of Weiss's witnesses (not even one of the accused) the phrases of lying forgetting: “That's more than I can remember”—“I have no recollection of it”—“I know nothing about that”—“I don't know.4 Or had this witness before the court perhaps spoken a personal truth because, in the twenty years that at that time had passed since the genocide of the European Jews, even his memory had succumbed to the lie?
Is it possible to avoid lying out of need, for protection, to spare someone? Molière's misanthrope condemns them all, these more or less conventional lies that we ordinary people pay out everyday in small change, now to get out of a minor emergency, now to protect ourselves or someone else temporarily, or to avoid an unpleasant truth with tact. But that upright, honest misanthrope of Molière's is a comic figure whose author has exposed him to ridicule. Real life in society is not such that anyone can “get by” without a little lying and deception—after all, everyone else does it. Only on a desert island—this is the final position of Molière's (tragic?) comedy—can the person who never lies live out his misanthropic caprice. And with this prospect, the audience goes off to supper. 5
In this context, which also deserved more than a passing remark in my essay, there ought to have been more extensive discussion of politeness. In its old European forms of courtoisie and politesse, it could be called, without scruple, a social virtue were it not that its repertoire of conventions and rituals has opened the door wide to the art of lying. In Schiller's Kabale und Liebe (Love and Intrigue) a dialogue begins: “‘I hope I do not interrupt your ladyship?’ ‘Not at all, baron, not in the least’” (act 2, scene 3).6 They are deadly enemies, Major Ferdinand von Walter and Lady Milford, yet they begin this conversation about their true relationship to one another with these conventional lies. Our classical literature lives from such forms of courteous-courtly gallantry, which, seen in the light (but in what light?), are at once delicate and enormous lies. Yet they belong, or belonged for centuries, so obviously to the elegant illusoriness of aristocratic, bourgeois, and diplomatic conduct that they can no longer be judged with such sharp-edged concepts as truth and lie. Here, Karl Kraus's discussion of “lying society” might have helped us.7 But in Jurek Becker's novel Jakob der Lügner (Jacob the Liar), which appeared only in 1969, that would no longer have been suficient.8 In this profound novel from out of the despair of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Jew Jakob is a frivolously daring liar who daily invents new radio bulletins for his companions about the imminent liberation, and in this fashion keeps a tiny ray of hope alive for them until the bitter end of the illusion. The number of suicides in the ghetto drops for a while; the number of murders at the end does not.
Who is actually lying in this “novel,” when Jakob the liar lies?
Paris, 2000
Lying exists in the world. It is in and around us. It cannot be overlooked. “Omnis homo mendax,” say the Psalms (115:11).9 We might translate: man is a being capable of lying. This definition has the same validity as those that call man a being who can think, speak, or laugh. It may well be a misanthropic definition, but it is irrefutable. Molière's misanthrope derives from it the right to hate all of humanity.
Linguistics cannot rid the world of lying, nor can it prevent “the banners of lying” (Goethe, Faust, line 10405) from being so frequently unfurled. To be sure, people lie—mostly—by means of language; they tell lies and they speak with forked tongues. But it is highly questionable whether language helps them lie. If it does, then linguistics probably cannot escape the “great problem of lying” (Augustine). If, however, language does not further lying, or even resists it, linguistics can nevertheless describe what happens in language when truth is distorted into lie. Certainly, lying is of concern to linguistics.
Augustine, the first to make lying the object of philosophical and theological reflection, was also the first to recognize its linguistic aspect. He points out that language is not given to men for mutual deceit, but for the exchange of ideas. Anyone who uses language to deceive, therefore, misuses it, and that is sin.10 Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure pursue these ideas. Words in language are signs of the spirit; it goes against their nature and against the spirit to use them in service of lying.11 Language should reveal thought, not hide it. At stake is the signifying function of language, its most elementary, consequently most fundamental, achievement. Lying perverts it.
Humans are so constructed, however, that they use the signs of language simultaneously for good and evil. So say the moralists. A hexameter of Dionysius Cato reads: “Sermo hominum mores et celat et indicat idem” (“Men's practice, words may hide as well as tell”; language simultaneously hides and reveals human morals).12 His skeptical doctrine attracted its followers. Voltaire writes a dialogue between a cock and a hen, and puts in the beaks of his high-flying orators this harsh judgment of the human race: “They only apply their minds to excuse their injustices; they only use words to cover up their thoughts.”13 If you don't believe the cock, perhaps Talleyrand will persuade you. He is traditionally supposed to have remarked, in conversation with the Spanish ambassador Izquierdo in 1807, “Speech was given to man to hide his thoughts.”14 His remark has become proverbial. It is also ascribed to Fouché or to Metternich. This means, even if not everyone uses language to conceal thoughts, that among politicians and diplomats lying is part of the profession. It is an art. Hermann Kesten takes this idea up and unfolds it like a fan: “People automatically assume there are entire professions that force their members to lie, for example, theologians, politicians, whores, diplomats, poets, journalists, lawyers, artists, actors, forgers, stockbrokers, food industrialists, judges, doctors, gigolos, generals, cooks, wine merchants.”15 Is this a poet speaking?
Time and again, voices are raised to blame language when it is misused for lying. Shakespeare's Henry V says—in French, in English, and in a mixture—“O bon dieu! Les langues des hommes sont pleines de tromperies…the tongues of men are full of deceits…de tongues of de mans is be full of deceits” (act 5, scene 2, lines 115–20). Perhaps, indeed, some languages more than others. In Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, the company discusses at one point the pros and cons of French theater. They notice that Aurelie remains withdrawn from the discussion of this theme. Gentle pressure elicits her reason: she hates the French language. Her faithless lover has ruined it for her. For as long as he was true to her, he wrote his letters in German, “and what genuine, powerful, cordial German!” But when he withdrew his love, he switched to French, which he had previously used only in jest. Aurelie understood the change only too well. “It is the language of reservations, equivocations, and lies: it is a perfidious language…. French is exactly the language of the world—worthy to become the universal language, that all may have it in their power to cheat and cozen and betray each other!”16 If Aurelie is right in her “peevish lamentations,” then German would be the language of truth, French that of lies.
These are, of course, only anecdotes and not meant otherwise by Shakespeare and Goethe. But it could be the case that language in general, as Wittgenstein once speculated, is not the guise of thought but its disguise.17 Such doubts are often encountered. When scholars in all disciplines gathered several years ago to examine the phenomenon of lying, the linguist Friedrich Kainz was invited to present a paper on manifestations of lying in speech.18 Following Augustine, Kainz initially identifies all lies as speech acts, and therefore part of language. He then examines language for prevarication and finds so much that the reader must shake in his boots. Just as one can say that language thinks and writes for us, so, according to Friedrich Kainz, one can say with equal justice that it lies for us. He coins for this the expression “the seduction of language.” He asserts that our thinking follows linguistic paths, and that therefore the lies inherent in language also force our thought into lying. But, on closer examination, linguistic lies include the majority of rhetorical figures, such as euphemisms, hyperbole, ellipses, amphibole, the forms and formulas of politeness, emphasis, irony, verbal taboos, anthropomorphisms, etc. Only a narrow lane indeed is left for truth. That, as one might expect, is the simple declarative statement logicians love.
What a sad critique—it has stripped language of all its blossoms and leaves and has only a spindly ste...

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Citation styles for The Linguistics of Lying And Other Essays
APA 6 Citation
Weinrich, H. (2012). The Linguistics of Lying And Other Essays ([edition unavailable]). University of Washington Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2012)
Chicago Citation
Weinrich, Harald. (2012) 2012. The Linguistics of Lying And Other Essays. [Edition unavailable]. University of Washington Press.
Harvard Citation
Weinrich, H. (2012) The Linguistics of Lying And Other Essays. [edition unavailable]. University of Washington Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Weinrich, Harald. The Linguistics of Lying And Other Essays. [edition unavailable]. University of Washington Press, 2012. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.