the many variations of we

This is going to be a bit of a ramble.

Some long time ago, I read something about the word WE, namely that there are human languages that contain different variations of we, and once we start to think about it we can see there are many different variations of we. What follows will be a bit self-referential, but often I’ll be using the variant of we that includes everybody, which admittedly is somewhat presumptuous of me.

Let’s suppose that you and I are talking in a room (and isn’t it strange that writing ‘I and you are talking in a room’ sounds so strange to our ear). There is the we consisting of me and you but not the people outside the room; if there are many people in the room, one we is me and some of the people in the room but not the others, and if we wish to count this consists of many possibilities. And there is the case of me and some of the others in the room and some of the people outside the room. If I am talking to you, then there is the we of me and someone else but not you. And we bring all of these different possibilities into a single word.

This requires of us some skilful navigation in conversation, the work in understanding which variant of we is being intended every time the word is used. This is an unavoidable piece of work, because it’s not possible for a language to include all possible variants of we, since if we were doing to be complete, we would require a different variant for each subset of humanity, at least each subset of humanity containing me, and that is just a vast number of possibilities. It’s a number we can calculate, and it’s a number that’s so large as to be virtually infinite.

But what does this mean? One possible meaning, one possible lens, is that each of us lives in the center of an expanding and overlapping circle of variants of we. And so what if the meaning of civilization is that we need to view the world with the larger circles of we, rather than the smaller circles. Biology persuades us that we need to take small circles of we, because in the rough and tumble of natural selection, smaller circles of we allow us to better ensure our survival. And so we need to fight our biology, train ourselves to see past the darker voices of our biology.

And now I want to make a strange connection, to the fictional Vulcan Surak. I’ve mentioned Surak in a couple of other recent posts, in reading with hindsight: Superiority and beware the shiny and in how distant others might see us – the tragedy of the commons. In our stories, Surak sees a path for Vulcan to survive its biology, and so should we be seeking a surakian path of our own. Is this perhaps why we, here the non-specific global we, have the story of Surak as part of our collection.

I don’t know quite what to do with this connection. It’s a connection I’ll keep pondering. I’ll continue my reading what I can find, to work towards the understanding of how our brains work and all the tricks our brains play on us. Long is the road, and hard, that leads from darkness into light.

~ by Jim Anderson on 29 May 2022.

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