The English Words High and Low

Iíve developed a curious inclination as of late with common English language usage.In the last few weeks I have begun to ponder the use of comparative adjectives that express opposite meanings.Specifically, words that compare qualitative concepts like good and bad.I find the English usage of the words high and low to express the conceptions of good and evil, strange to say the least.It is odd that these concepts are associated with words that normally express geometric positions.And it is not only the moral concepts of good and bad that have this spatial association.Musical references use the same concepts as in a high note or a high falsetto, etc. Scientific references do too: terms such as a high temperature, low viscosity, high velocity, etc, all associate physical spatial dimensions with an entirely different concept.In fact, if we carefully examine almost any area of human knowledge, we will find this high-low/favorable/unfavorable paradigm in English. In our political discussions we speak of high office to denote a powerful and important appointment. Economists use such terms as low wage jobs, high paying salaries, low-level market activity, etc.. I should note that something similar applies to the use of two Latin derived prefixes sub meaning below and supra meaning above. However these prefixes are used to express specific ideas derived from Latin and are less misapplied to me. So, subnormal indicating below a standard considered normal shouldn't be literally tied to geometry because of the root prefix being an importation to English. Actually, the whole word is imported. I am focusing on true English words in this essay, not those we've received from other languages.

 

I have begun to ask myself: Why is this so?Here is a good example. There is no objective reason that something like a temperature with a large number on a scale of measurement should be referred to as high.At first I reasoned well 90į is a temperature of a larger number than for instance 30į.But this cannot be the reason the word high is used, since we can similarly have -90į and this would be termed a very low temperature.You see there is something more to this usage.Of course, it has to do with the languageís origins.In fact this quaint usage of which I speak is practically universal to all human tongues, not just English.Not having researched this issue at all I am only surmising thatís the case.Well, I immediately focused on the religious connection.I mean that stuff is the source most of the supremely screwed-up ideas we have, right? It is common knowledge that in Judeo-Christian philosophy high is associated with Heaven and low is tied to Hell.Could this be the source of this seemingly arbitrary assignment of good-favorable-powerful-important notions with high and bad-unfavorable-powerless-insignificant notions with low?But, just as I thought that might be the answer, I remembered that these associations are not uniformly applied.For instance, there can be high treason, high-handedness, highly objectionable.And these words are used in more than just right/wrong or good/bad comparisons.To remark that some singer has a high voice is not a moral judgment about that singerís character.If you react to this comment by thinking it means if we measure the singerís voice in decibels, the number would be larger than say a person with a tenor voice.In that case, my earlier comment applies: why is a singer with a low (in fact another spatial association crops up here deep) voice and small decibel numbers low?Small decibel numbers should not imply a spatial direction get it? No, no no, my friends something a little perplexing is at play here.Iíll be damned if I know what it is too!The religious idea of Heaven and Hell isnít the source of this odd association, though it is definitely an example of it.

 

Since Iím not inclined to actually spend several hours on the Net researching this (it would involve some real digging too.), why not posit my own theory of how this usage might have occurred.

 

The almost universal negative association of adjective low in our perceptual and conceptual worlds probably stems from evolutionary fear we have of deep massive bodies, or to put it more precisely, our fear of being engulfed in such physical entities.Examples would include: being buried alive, drowning in deep water, being trapped in a mine, etc.The association of unpleasant and negative things with the adjective low is then understandable.Though, this doesnít quite explain the application of this adjective to other non-negative associations as in low voice, low temperature, low velocity, low blood pressure, etc.I suspect it was the combination of cultural development and pre-humanoid environmental conditioning that formed this conceptual association.By pre-humanoid environmental conditioning, Iím thinking of hominid groups of our ancestors that had begun to take on modern human qualities like social grouping, hunting, construction of shelters and yes lastly language.These hominid beings would have had ample experience with deep pits, ravines and large bodies of deep water.And just as well, would have had terrible experiences in them.Imagine falling into a deep ravine and not being able to extricate yourself and your companions not being able to rescue you.The same goes for slipping into water and the inevitable unfortunate that drowns.It is not hard to see that words that describe these geometric realities would gradually assume a negative connotation.Add to these early negative experiences of our pre-human ancestors thousands of years of culture, and we can just as easily conclude that these words would have grown to be applied to non-negative experiences.We can look into the ancient pre-human past and notice that our early ancestors would have been awed by things that were spatially high: mountains, myriad stars, the Sun, the Moon, clouds, lightning, even tall trees.Though, horrific accidents may have occurred in high places the likelihood of that happening would have been far less than in deep physical bodies.I mean look, a caveman didnít topple out of tree or fall off a mountain every single day.They would have been frightened to even ascend these bodies without a driving necessity. You might climb a tall tree if a fierce lion was on your tail.Or you might climb the same tree for some fruit, but this was not a regular pursuit.In the case of mountains, if you and your fellow cavemen and cavewomen lived in the low land (and Iím using the adjective as intended here), you would be unlikely to go climbing thousands of feet to find game, when the stray antelope or rabbit was all about. .In fact, a fear of high places could perhaps explain the awe it invoked and the descending association of it with good and important conceptual notions.It goes without saying I make no claim that this little conjecture is really the reason why we have these odd associations of the adjectives high and low with concepts that have nothing to do with them.

 

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Ken Wais 11/26/05