Breath, blood, sex, and lightning

Bertrand Russell, “The Uses of Language,” in Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits (1948):

Language, like other things of mysterious importance, such as breath, blood, sex and lightning, has been viewed superstitiously ever since men were capable of recording their thoughts. Savages fear to disclose their true name to an enemy, lest he should work evil magic by means of it. Origen assures us that pagan sorcerers could achieve more by using the sacred name Jehovah than by means of the names Zeus, Osiris or Brahma. Familiarity makes us blind to the linguistic emphasis in the Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not take the nameof the Lord in vain.’ The habit of viewing language superstitiously is not yet extinct. ‘In the beginning was the Word’, says our version of St John’s Gospel, and in reading some logical positivists I am tempted to think that their view is represented by this mistranslated text.

Philosophers, being bookish and theoretical folk, have been interested in language chiefly as a means of making statements and conveying information, but this is only one of its purposes, and perhaps not the most primitive. What is the purpose of language to a sergeant-major? On the one hand there is the language of words of command, designed to cause identical simultaneous bodily movements in a number of hearers; on the other hand there is bad language, designed to cause humility in those in whom the expected bodily movements have not been caused. In neither case are words used, except incidentally, to state facts or convey information.