Discuss the Role of Language and Reason in History Essay

History is the study of past events, especially in human affairs, which is based on historical evidence. In history the role of language and reason are what help strengthen the reliability of the sources. Language is the practice of human communication, either spoken or written, integrating the use of words in a structured and conventional way. Written documents are part of historical analysis as is oral tradition. When analysing data or historical sources, reason is used to piece together a “picture” of the event or period. Language and reason are terms that have been the key to uncovering past events.

Throughout history we have had a variety of sources of historical evidence in order to support the past events, both primary and secondary. Primary sources are objects or documents that come from that specific time in history. Secondary sources are sources where someone explains a past event through his/her own opinion and knowledge. For example, a primary source is the Magna Carta, which is the basis of British governing principles. This document was an attempt to limit King John’s powers by law and protect society’s privileges.

It is the foundation of constitutional monarchies. A secondary source would be Arnold Toynbee’s “A Study of History”, an interpretation of the rise and fall of western civilization. This summarises primary sources by analysing the causes and effects of events, and draws conclusions based on evidence. The difficulty here is that the historian can be selective with facts and include only those that support his theory. One of the problems of both types of sources is that they can contain bias that can be mis-interpreted.

Language, both written evidence and oral tradition, is one of the most common ways of knowing, and is used in historical analysis. It is, of course, complemented by artefacts. However, language is not only a positive aid in unravelling past events, but contain drawbacks in that it can be manipulated and offer a biased perspective. Propaganda is a prime example of this and used when authority or government employs emotionally laden terminology to sway the audience. For example propaganda was a powerful weapon in war, and t was used to dehumanize and encourage hatred toward an apparent enemy, by creating a false image in the mind. This was done using disrespectful or racist terms, avoiding some words or by making allegations of enemy atrocities. Nazi propaganda was one of the most obvious types, which was displayed in many different ways in order for it to be effective. Many of the posters spoke abominably about the Jews, by accusing them of Germany’s misfortune. This type of writing is what hinders our reliability of what actually happened by giving us partly false historical evidence.

However these documents can be useful to help the historian establish the atmosphere and social climate of a period. When language is employed to enhance our knowledge, we can build a foundation for further exploration. An example of this would be Rosetta stone, which was found in Rosetta (Rashid), Delta in 1799. The decree is inscribed in a granodiorite which appears in three scripts; the top third is in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, the middle one in Egyptian Demotic script, and the bottom third in Ancient Greek.

Thanks to the fact that all scripts represent the same text it helped to provide the key to understanding Egyptian hieroglyphs and further understand ancient Egyptian civilisation. Language has also been known to set up a hierarchy within societies for example in England where linguistic expression has for centuries been used to distinguish between upper and lower classes. After the Norman conquest of England in 1066 the English started to give their children Norman or French names in order to make them seem more acceptable for the Norman aristocracy.

In time however people reverted back to viewing English as a language of class and French as a more common language. This can be seen when referring to the language of common English people who say ‘toilet’, which is originally French and how upper class English people say ‘loo’. Language can therefore be used in order to establish order and class within a given society. How does the historian know whether the documents are reliable? This is where reasoning comes in, as it helps put the pieces together. The use of reasoning helps to determine bias and analysis of objects.

An example of this would be the discovery of Troy. Heinrich Schliemann, the archaeologist who discovered Troy, used information from The Iliad and The Odyssey in order to locate it. The Iliad and The Odyssey were poems supposedly written by Homer that described the battles and events of the Trojan War. By using these poems Schliemann was able to induce where Troy was situated and allowed him to discover Troy and discover numerous artefacts. Reason enables us to explain the cause and effect of a particular event.

Logic here plays major part in preparing a cohesive argument for the historian’s interpretation. The Treaty of Versailles is another good example; it was a treaty between Germany and the entente, which Germany had to accept in order to surrender from World War I. It was used as a unofficial punishment for Germany. WWI was the cause of the Treaty of Versailles, which was a peace arrangement between Germany and the Allies. The effects of the Treaty made a big impact on Germany. The money in Germany, the Deutsche Mark, lost its value as well as people were becoming poorer and poorer because of the taxes.

Unemployment was widespread and the inflation was so extravagant that the citizens couldn’t even afford to buy bread. All causes and effects are the historian interpretation of the facts available to him or her. Traditional historical sources in written or oral tradition relied on the people that witnessed the event and describe it in the least bias opinion. Which is hard to find considering different historians witnessed different points of view, which affected their emotional interpretation of the event making the information one-sided. Throughout the years technology has evolved leading in a change in gathering data.

Nowadays anything revolving around history can be found on the internet or in electronic libraries. Some of that information has been changed from written to electronic copies which could have lead to a withhold in information or an exaggeration in what actually happened. This is where people start to hesitate on whether or not the information is precise which will become more and more of a problem in the near future. Language and reason have been instrumental in ensuring our knowledge in historical events and have helped to produce a time line to which we can look back to.

Language has been helpful in enriching our knowledge of past events through translation like the Magna Carta but has baised our view on other events such as WWI through propaganda and opinion. Reason has given us the means to understanding a particular event and whether or not the historical evidence is bias. By adding all the pieces together we can come to a logical reason to why and how that specific proceeding occurred. Now that technology is so much a part of our lives, how will future historians validate the facts?


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