Saturday 2 November 2013

Multilingual liars

Cynics have it that human beings developed language in order to be able to lie. I’m not sure I like the innuendo in this suggestion, but I’m quite sure that language does allow us to lie and that we human beings make liberal use of this linguistic facility.

Human language features what linguists call displacement, enabling us to talk about absent and/or fictitious referents – you can read more about this in Chapters 1 and 12 of my book The Language of Language. Robert Wright, in The Moral Animal, discusses the morals of lying, a fascinating topic in itself – and I quite like another cynic’s take on morality in general, August Strindberg’s in Röda Rummet: “... moralen som de bestå, det är deras elakhet som anlagt en lämplig, presentabel form”. But Wright also argues that our ability to empathise with fellow human beings’ feelings and thoughts explains our deception skills. He writes that “the presentation of self, and the perception of others, has great Darwinian consequence: reciprocal altruism and social hierarchy”, which, by an apparent paradox, “may together be responsible for most of the dishonesty in our species” (emphasis mine). And he adds: “We are far from the only dishonest species, but we are surely the most dishonest, if only because we do the most talking” (emphasis his, p. 265).

Like empathy, displacement was once hailed as a distinctive characteristic of human languages, but we’re not so sure any longer. The issue revolves not only around what we mean by language(s) (the perennial issue of terminology...), but principally around what we’ve come to learn about non-human communication. Birds can fake injury, in order to attract a predator’s attention away from their nests. Natural camouflage experts likewise deceive their predators, and carnivorous plants their prey. We’ve also long known that bluffing about resourcefulness is a survival strategy among those of us who populate lower rungs of the food chain. For example, Eldridge S. Adams and Michael Mesterton-Gibbons, in The cost of threat displays and the stability of deceptive communication, reported on one crustacean species whose weaker members resort to threatening behaviour as much as their strong ones, with the same goal of putting off stronger opponents.

Social chains are our civilised equivalent of food chains, and we often lie for similar purposes of survival. Why else do we praise the quality of substandard meals, useless meetings or soporific lectures to which we’ve been invited, for example? We may not be intentionally attempting to deceive by doing so, not least because feedback of this kind is largely formulaic, but we are certainly attempting to benefit from using language in less than honest ways. We even have dedicated names to represent our gradient views about the moral acceptability of untruthfulness, from white lies and fibs through hoaxes to frauds and swindles. Strindberg did indeed hit the nail on the head.

Lying, like any other social behaviour, obeys culturally sanctioned norms. It engages not only our linguistic resources but (mostly?) body language, hand movements, eye gestures, facial expressions, whose interplay we must learn to adjust congruently in order to become competent liars. When we lie, we don’t want it to show.

Image © Enrico Mazzanti (Wikimedia Commons)

Over 20 years ago, in Fishy-looking liars: Deception judgment from expectancy violation, Charles F. Bond and colleagues investigated the effects of discrepant verbal vs. nonverbal clues in our perception of deception. More recently, Joanne Arciuli’s co-authored study “Um, I can tell you’re lying”: Linguistic markers of deception versus truth-telling in speech found that hesitation markers, sometimes misunderstood as signs of disfluency, play a core role in our perception of fluent truth-telling vs. lying.

So what about those of us who need to lie in tongues? The issue of whether we can identify liars across languages and cultures appears to be far from settled, judging by research led by Charles F. Bond which shows both that cross-linguistic and cross-cultural lying behaviour can’t be detected (e.g. in Lie detection across cultures) and that it can (e.g. in International deception).

These findings may explain why the behaviour of multilinguals at times rings false, as it were. This is particularly true of trainee multilinguals such as young children and beginner language learners: it takes time to gain awareness of conventional behaviours in different languages, in different places, to different people, and it takes effort to master their appropriateness. In addition, it’s not enough to just remember the lies that we concoct, so we can stick to them, we also need to remember in which language we lied. Professional liars (spies come to mind, though I’m sure they’re in good company), know all about this: they must develop skills which not only uphold the credibility of their false persona and false claims but, chiefly, suppress the clues which would betray their true persona’s lying habits.

Next time, I’ll deal with something that relates, indirectly, to perceptions of lying. Meanwhile, let me leave you with nothing but the truth, my favourite example of the Liar’s Paradox: Don’t believe a word I say. I’m a liar.

Adams, E., & Mesterton-Gibbons, M. (1995). The cost of threat displays and the stability of deceptive communication. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 175 (4), 405-421 DOI: 10.1006/jtbi.1995.0151

ARCIULI, J., MALLARD, D., & VILLAR, G. (2010). “Um, I can tell you're lying”: Linguistic markers of deception versus truth-telling in speech. Applied Psycholinguistics, 31 (03), 397-411 DOI: 10.1017/S0142716410000044

Bond, C., Omar, A., Mahmoud, A., & Bonser, R. (1990). Lie detection across cultures. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 14 (3), 189-204 DOI: 10.1007/BF00996226

Bond, C., Omar, A., Pitre, U., Lashley, B., Skaggs, L., & Kirk, C. (1992). Fishy-looking liars: Deception judgment from expectancy violation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63 (6), 969-977 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.63.6.969

Bond, C., & Atoum, A. (2000). International Deception. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26 (3), 385-395 DOI: 10.1177/0146167200265010

© MCF 2013

Next post: You must be joking. Saturday 30th November 2013.


  1. Your post makes me think of the classic poker face. I'm still trying to master that mode of deception, in all my languages and localities. Any tips on that?


  2. That’s a very good question, Deborah! I’m not a very good liar either.... :-))



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