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Lemkinism (noun)

(see also verb: to Lemkinise)
This is a neologism to demonstrate the way we can design 'neologisms' for a particular purpose.

Linguistic Relativity

The idea that language sets the boundaries for thought probably came into western thought from Indian writings of the 6th century (Bhartrihari, 450-510). It led, via von Humboldt (1767-1835), and others, to the famous so-called ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’, or concept of ‘linguistic relativity’ (Whorf, 1956). This argues that the grammatical categories of a given language have a guiding influence over the way its users understand the world, and therefore behave in it.

Languageing the world

Whereas many believe this idea to be a rather determinist model of constraint, rather than liberation, the chapter reminds readers that, if there is an interdependence of language and thought, it will operate in both directions. This tells us that the ‘design’ of new words can help to create new ways of thinking, and that new ways of thinking can inspire different, or even new behaviours.It is interesting that the ancient Sanskrit word for ‘thinking’ can be translated as ‘languageing’. (see Maturana and Varela). By creating names for key issues that were previously nameless we make them more visible. Once they become visible they will be less likely to remain ignored.


A good example of this method is the word ‘Genocide’, which was coined in 1943 by Polish legal scholar, Raphael Lemkin (1900–1959). For years, Lemkin had tried unsuccessfully to draw world attention to the military excesses of certain nations. Eventually, he carefully designed his new word, by combining the Greek word ‘genos’ (family, tribe or race) and the Latin word ‘occidere’ (to massacre). Once his word was made public, many people began to use it. Once adopted, he was able to convince the Geneva Conventions to include it within a new international law. Although his definition was quite narrow, everyone now uses the term. It means that we can recognise genocidal behaviour where, previously, it had not seemed to exist. This example shows how a new name for an existing concept enabled a framework for censure to become established.

The entredonneur

Of course, it is also possible to invent positive, rather than negative neologisms. These are likely to have a different effect. Some years ago, I introduced the term ‘entredonneurship’ and some design student found it helpful. In a Design Journal article (Wood, 1990) I argued that “the entrepreneur; fixer, trouble shooter and exploiter should give way to the more socially responsible entredonneur; the giver, not the taker.” One way in which we use the term is in creating a continuum that reconciles the ‘entrepreneur’ with the ‘entredonneur’ (see fig. x). This device enables us to chart a gradient of values with ‘taking’ at one end, and ‘giving’ at the other.

Moving from situated pictures to arbitrary codes

Both of the above examples represent innovation within the written and spoken language of English. Moreover, both can be seen as conscious and helpful interventions that we might develop as part of a ‘metadesign’ process. It is tempting to reflect upon the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to see how much the structural aspects of language influence the way a given society works. For designers, an important shift takes place when we (i.e. all cultures) move from a picture-based, to a code-based form of writing. In western terms, alphabetical writing differs from pictographic writing in that it is a system of arbitrary (i.e. meaningless) codes. Within the western context, for example, it can be traced to a formative moment in ancient Greece around 480 BCE. In choosing to adopt a form of Phoenician writing, the Greeks soon forgot the more complex pictographic meanings that resided within their more elaborate and cumbersome system.

A building-block approach to writing

The Phoenician system used phonetic codes that could only represent certain aural, rather than pictorial features of their discourse. The new Greek alphabet was a phonetic system that worked (more or less) additively – i.e. ‘brick-on-brick’. Unlike pictographic writing that has many levels of meaning, it is a reductive system that works simply as a code with virtually no intrinsic meaning of its own. Plato eloquently described the anxiety surrounding this historical moment. He reports that the introduction of writing would erode "…the very being and structure, the elements, the connections, the balances, the tensions of the culture." It is interesting to note how this event coincided with the refinement of a more symbolic logic that is neither ‘author-reflexive’ nor context-situated. Here, by ‘symbolic logic’ I mean a system of representation using unambiguous but arbitrary alphanumeric codes whose values cannot be re-assigned meaningfully during a given application. This story is not merely one of ancient Greece. Many other cultures have undergone a similar transition. Indeed, this process has been part of the history of imperialism and globalisation.

The logic of categories

By introducing a representational system that depicts the world as ‘sets’ of exactly equivalent categories or units (i.e. accountancy), and by using alphabetical writing to standardise international systems of management and trading (i.e. bureaucracy), we subsequently impaired the vital synergistic and creative nature of social intercourse. This has led to the numerous modes of ecological alienation that are now threatening us with extinction. In the last few years, political and managerial scandals have highlighted an increasing trend in the way many professionals utilise the logic of category to avoid blame. There is also the kind of wilfully applied rigorous argument we may have seen in countless TV courtroom dramas. It is also part of a litigious culture of routine post-hoc justification and evasiveness that is fuelled by a fear of casual, opportunistic, mercenary, and even predatory use of the court system in the USA. Whilst these genres have become a source of scorn and amusement for some, they also generate real fear and misery in public, political debates and in some ‘issue-centred’ journalism.

The world of bureacracy

All of these eventualities have brought home the fact that bureaucratic procedures such as ‘Cost-Benefit Analysis’ and ‘Quality Assurance’ may intensify accountability, but often at the expense of a fully distributed ownership of due responsibility. Moreover, it may even be apparent to very many of us that an over-dependency upon procedures and rules can eventually erode trust, human involvement, altruistic initiative, generous creativity, a willingness to engage generously and unreservedly, and even a loss of capability. Whilst we may be amused or even horrified by these processes, it is sometimes hard to avoid being sucked in by them, especially in the workplace.

A basis for fundamentalist dogma?

Arguably, without the unifying tenets of mathematics and alphabetical writing, we would not be able to sustain bureaucracy or fundamentalism in their most dogmatic forms. For without a language system that records, and therefore fixes categories - beyond dispute - we are bound by the softer expediencies of memory and interpretation within a subsequent and shareable context. Where communication by the spoken word can be immensely illuminating or articulate, it is virtually impossible to remove it from its original context unless the sound and images can be faithfully and meticulously recorded for later scrutiny. Similarly, where communication via pictures may be convincing and even compelling, it remains wide open to interpretation. Hence, without alphabetical writing it is more difficult to have downright intellectual certainties. Without certainties that are rendered immovable via chiselled stone, printed parchment, indelible ink, or other ‘atomistic units’ we cannot have facts or axioms. Without unequivocal – therefore potentially incontrovertible ‘facts’ – we would not have the kind of fundamentalism that justifies turning political rhetoric into legal chicanery, or that enshrines cultural or aesthetic chauvinism within an intractable code of law. In extreme cases it provides the documentary validation for religious bigotry that can lead to bloodshed or, even worse, to serious ecological damage.

Our skills with a code-based discourse

Obviously, we have become highly adept at using the alphabet in an implicative way, to create txt mssgs, poems, aphorisms, riddles, bank statements, and political promises. These are often more suggestive than declarative. They are therefore intended to work on different readers in different ways. They operate rather more connotatively than denotatively. However, at worst, the logic of alphabetical text functions as a permanent monument that is designed to invoke a single, unequivocal reading. Computer languages, legal documents, police reports, and patent applications are intended to work in this way. Not all alphabetical systems are so arbitrary. Where ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs worked in a way that functioned alphabetically, each character nevertheless carried additional meanings that related to ideas beyond the immediate purpose of any given text. Likewise, in many alphabets such as Hebrew, each letter also conveyed a meaning that took the form of a number. However, in the Greek development of the alphabet, each letter lost any original meaning it might have had and merely served its purpose of capturing the succession of sounds uttered by a given speaker. This evolved into a system that eventually became rationalised and standardised, largely through the management of book production and distribution, into strict conventions of spelling, grammar, and punctuation. By the eighteenth century we began to develop dictionaries and encyclopaedia. However, rather than expanding the public vocabulary in an open, creative, and consensual way, these innovations were intended to be didactic. They therefore served as a kind of moral watchdog that screened out any word that might be regarded as scatological or unseemly.

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