By Linguistic Nihilism, a subcategory of Nihilism (the position that denies value/ability/meaning/etc.), I mean the position that ...

  1. There's A Problem: Any, all languages are inadequate for every purpose languages are assigned (thinking, communicating, etc.).

  2. The Problem Has No Solution: It is impossible to reduce/eliminate the aforementioned flaw (vide 1).

  3. The Problem Amplifies: The aforementioned defect (vide 1) spirals out of control with time and usage.

  4. Boomerang Effect: Attempts to rectify the flaw makes it worse.


  1. Linguistic Catastrophe: All languages will deteriorate into complete, utter nonsense [From 1, 2, 3, and 4]


  1. Nihilism

  2. Linguistic Nihilism

  3. Tower of Babel

I'd love to hear from linguists and/or philosophers on the issue. If there are folks with expertise in other domains, they're also welcome to share their views. I hope my question doesn't offend anyone's intelligence or sensibility. Muchas gracias and have an awesome day.

  • 4
    Over what timescales? Language has been evolving for thousands of years and yet you're still using it to ask this question, so presumably it hasn't become complete and utter nonsense yet.
    – Draconis
    Dec 27, 2022 at 17:09
  • 1
    This post apparently calls for an open-ended dispute, hence voting to close it as primarily opinion-based. Nihilism, like any It's-All-Or-Nothing philosophy has its right to exist, but not many would actually refuse using a language for its imperfection. Dec 27, 2022 at 17:19
  • 5
    I don't think the question calls for an open-ended debate: the answer to "do linguists believe that all languages will deteriorate into complete, utter nonsense?" is a resounding NO.
    – jick
    Dec 27, 2022 at 21:30
  • 3
    @AgentSmith Yes, I can say that with great confidence, since it's a falsifiable claim that's been falsified.
    – Draconis
    Dec 28, 2022 at 2:37
  • 4
    That linguistic nihilism is just another lawyer trying to sound smart. If you can't spot the BS, then, I guess you will want to answer the question. When I say BS, I am referring to the lawyer's text in the link. And this: "Any, all languages are inadequate for every purpose is easily disproven". Pass the salt, Molly. :)
    – Lambie
    Dec 28, 2022 at 19:40

2 Answers 2


It's not a view I've ever heard espoused, at least.

Language has been serving its purpose quite well for millennia. Plenty of philosophical traditions talk about things that can't be conveyed via language (qualia, gnosis, etc) but generally in the sense that they can't be conveyed at all, not as a defect of language compared to some other system: it's not like music can truly make a blind person understand the color red either.

We can read, understand, and speak languages from thousands of years ago. If language was "deteriorating" over time, we would expect Old Egyptian from 3000 BCE to be a more useful language than modern English. But, to the best of our knowledge, it is not. Language is under a huge amount of evolutionary pressure to make it useful for communication, and as a result, all languages seem to be about equally well-suited for this purpose.

  • 👍 Indeed, there's no evidence of languages getting worse over time. In fact science with its precise, crisp definitions has made a great deal of progress. The same, however, can't be said of philosophy, another discipline in which clarity of language is a sine qua non. Dec 28, 2022 at 2:31
  • Please could you expand on your answer. A little more meat please. Arigato. Dec 28, 2022 at 2:36
  • 1
    @AgentSmith What part needs expanding?
    – Draconis
    Dec 28, 2022 at 2:36
  • 2
    @AgentSmith Arguably yes, because we have words like "internet" and the Anglo-Saxons didn't. But that's not really important, because if the Anglo-Saxons had the internet they would have invented or borrowed a term for it. Language seems to be carefully balanced between being easy to use (produce, comprehend, learn) and being informative (conveying information) and, as far back as we know, always has been.
    – Draconis
    Dec 28, 2022 at 2:47
  • 1
    @AgentSmith So you're looking for falsification of the claim that precision is in a death spiral until all meaning is lost?
    – Draconis
    Dec 28, 2022 at 3:48

This is mostly not a position discussed in linguistics (it is sort of identifiable as an application of nihilism in philosophy), but on occasion – this is one – linguists can offer reasons to reject the claim.

The main linguistic attack would be against the premise that there is a problem, the claim that "all languages are inadequate for every purpose languages are assigned (thinking, communicating, etc.)". The two fatally-weak concepts therein are "assigned" and "inadequate". In lieu of a theistic premise, languages aren't "assigned" (by who?). Language is a tool, just as a hammer is a tool. It is up to a person in possession of the tool to use the tool for a given purpose. Typically, hammers are used to drive nails into soft substances, but they can be used to break up hard substances, or used to acquire food ("I'll trade you this pizza for your hammer"). You might imagine some idiot nihilist rephrasing the claim as "for any imaginable purpose", but I successfully insulted the nihilist using language.

The nihilist, of course, has to posit that his idea cannot be conveyed to others, since you certainly can't convey the proposition non-linguistically, so in fact if the nihilist is correct, he never communicated the claim to anyone else, nor did he think of the claim (using what? Language!).

The nihilist may then retreat to the position that his attempt to express the idea has some form, but it isn't adequate. Again, common sense tells you that people can use language to achieve various ends. We know that Bene Gesserit Voice is total fiction, so you cannot overcome free will linguistically, but this is not a fact about language, this is a fact about free will.

The most attackable fact about language that suggests "inadequacy" is "ambiguity", the fact that a given linguistic object can refer to more than one imaginable state of affairs. For instance, the verb "die" might be assigned a particular definition such that living things ceasing to be alive is "dying". And yet we do say that "my phone just died", worse yet, that could refer to permanent non-functioning (bricking) or temporary non-functioning (battery ran out).

The problem here is that language is inadequate from one perspective (micro-precise description of a state of affairs) and totally adequate from a competing perspective (identifying a functional similarity between two states of affairs). Indeed, a simple word like "dog" is both perfectly adequate (in unifying disparate individuals) and totally inadequate (in allowing the unification of clearly different individuals). Adequacy is meaningless without a purpose: the nihilist failed to consider competing purposes.

The basic flaw in the argument is the attempt to lay blame on language and to ignore the nature of reasoning. I hereby posit a radical version of subjective idealism: "Only The Mind exists". Feel free to try to disprove this: my retort will be "Only The Mind exists". Perhaps I might say "Nothing exists besides The Mind". I have now analogously proven that "reasoning is inadequate for everything".

As you might guess, linguists generally don't take such nonsense seriously. The linguist's response is "Your problem is not with language".

  • Yep, if you read the link I provided, one issue with language is ambiguity, the other being vagueness; I'm sure a linguist could easily list the other flaws in language, but these seem good starting points for linguistic nihilism. Dec 28, 2022 at 2:33
  • @AgentSmith What differentiates us from other mammals is that we are speaking beings. As such, ambiguity is de rigueur in many spheres of human activity. You just don't want it in a rocket ship manual when Pull Lever A is the one to activate. This is why we have editors. If there was a one-to-one correspondence between language and things, we would most definitely be up shit's creek. :)
    – Lambie
    Dec 29, 2022 at 17:09
  • @Lambie, good points. There's a definition of language of course and naturally there's one for a perfect language. I'm interested in the gap between the two, is it increasing/decreasing/staying the same? Jan 16 at 5:57
  • @AgentSmith There is no such thing as a perfect language. All languages have their own logic. Maybe that makes all of them perfect.
    – Lambie
    Jan 16 at 18:22
  • @Lambie, in medicine there's an ideal drug (a hypothetical that serves as a benchmark); in engineering, there's an ideal machine; why is there no ideal/perfect language in linguistics? Nevertheless, good point. Jan 17 at 4:23

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