Biologically, speaking what is subjectively believed to be the truth differs deeply from lying

The development of human language plays a complex role within this process of adaptation. It seems to have developed from signalling among social animals; but I propose the thesis that what is most characteristic of the human language is the possibility of storytelling.

It may be that this ability too has some predecessor in the animal world. But I suggest that the moment when language became human was very closely related to the moment when a man invented a story, a myth in order to excuse a mistake he had made – perhaps in giving a danger signal when there was no occasion for it; and I suggest that the evolution of specifically human language, with its characteristic means of expressing negation – of saying that something signalled is not true – stems very largely from the discovery of systematic means to negate a false report, for example a false alarm, and from the closely related discovery of false stories – lies – used either as excuses or playfully.

If we look from this point of view at the relation of language to subjective experience, we can hardly deny that every genuine report contains an element of decision, at least of the decision to speak the truth. Experiences with lie detectors give a strong indication that, biologically, speaking what is subjectively believed to be the truth differs deeply from lying. I take this as an indication that lying is a comparatively late and fairly specifically human invention; indeed that it has made the human language what it is: an instrument which can be used for misreporting almost as well as for reporting.

From Karl Popper, “Karl Popper, Replies to my Critics” in The Philosophy of Karl Popper, ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp, La Salle, Illinois, 1974, pp. 1112-1113, cited by George Steiner, A Reader, New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. p. 404.
Illustration inspired by a colonial painting from Bokkeveld, Western Cape, South Africa

The primary teaching of a story

costa de marfil_luna

By listening one could always learn something new, and something which would last a lifetime. Duncan says, “Traveller storytellers knew they were telling something that would be remembered years after they were gone,” and “this is the way with all Travellers;”“they gave you the tale which would never be forgotten so they will never be forgotten.” The primary teaching of a story thus is the respect of memory for the teller when he is gone.

Linda Williamson, about her husband, the storyteller Duncan Williamson, who was one of the Travelling People of Scotland, in Linda Williamson, “What Storytelling Means to a Traveller: An Interview with Duncan Williamson, one of Scotland’s Travelling People”, Arv: ScandinavianYearbook of Folklore, vol. 37, 1981, p. 75
Illustration inspired by a traditional drawing from Ivory Coast


They will listen the night through to recitations from this work


There is a Singhalese translation of the greater part of the [Játakas], which is exceedingly popular, not on account of the peculiar doctrines of Buddhism contained in it, for these are but incidentally referred to, but from its being a collection of amusing stories which they believe to be unquestionably true. …

Not a few of the fables that pass under the name of Aesop are here to be found; and the schoolboy is little aware, as he reads of the wit of the fox or the cunning of the monkey, that these animals become, in the course of ages, the teacher of the three worlds, Buddha.

Each Jákata begins with the formula “yata-giya-dawasa,” which is the exact equivalent to our own, “in days of yore.” … One tale, after the usual manner of eastern compositions, presents the opportunity for the introduction of several other stories that are only slightly dependent on the principal narrative. The Singhalese will listen the night through to recitations from this work, without any apparent weariness; and a great number of the Játakas are familiar even to the women.

Robert Spence Hardy, A manual of Buddhism, in its modern development. London: Williams & Norgate, 1860, pp. 99-101
Illustration inspired by a jar from Damascus

Liu Jingting was a master in storytelling



The pockmarked Liu from Nanjing had a dark complexion and in his face there were lots of scars and pimples. He was careless and indifferent about his looks, as if he were made from clay or wood. He was a master in storytelling. He told one session of storytelling a day. The price was a tael of silver. Even if you came ten days ahead to make an appointment and pay the fee, you could not be sure he would be free …

I once heard him perform in the plain style of telling (without musical accompaniment) the tale of ‘Wu Song fights the tiger on Jingyang Mountain”. It was very different from the version transmitted in books. His descriptions and illustrations went into the finest details, but he also knew where to cut the thread and make a pause, and he never became talkative. His voice rang out like a big bell. Whenever he came to an exciting point, he bellowed and raged so that the noise seemed to make the house fall down.

At the point where Wu Song arrives in the inn and orders wine, there is nobody in the inn. At the sudden outcry of Wu Song, the empty jars and pots send out a ringing sound. Thus he would add colour to every interval, and he did his utmost in his care for detail.

Only when his hosts were sitting quite attentively and cocking their ears to listen, would he begin to tell. But if he noticed some among the servants whispering to each other, or if the listeners were yawning or showing other signs of sleepiness, he would stop immediately, and nobody could force him to start again. Every evening when the tables had been wiped and the lamps snuffed, and the simple tea bowls were passed around in all calm, he would slowly begin to tell …

Zhang Dai, 1597-c. 1684, witnessed Liu Jingting’s performance in 1638 and wrote about it in his work Recollections of Tao’an’s Past Dreams, Tao’anmengyi. Quoted by Vibeke Bordhal and Jette Ross, Chinese Storytellers: Life and Art in Yangzhou Tradition, Boston: Cheng &Tsui Company, 2002, p. 62
Illustration inspired by an Assyrian motif

Tying up the myth


Very little of the atmosphere of story telling can be provided on a printed page. A few interesting remarks of one informant may be mentioned. In a native setting of the upper Cowlitz river, according to Mrs. Mary Eyley, stories that were very long would be told in two or more successive nights. In times gone by it was the custom to make a halt, perhaps when the auditors were disappearing or dropping off to sleep, saying something such as: … “Now I will tie up the myth,” implying that the myth was like a canoe, and had to be moored to a log or tree along the river until the next night’s myth journey. When story telling was in order the next evening the raconteur would perhaps say, … “Now I will untie the myth,” and the narrative would proceed from where it had halted.

Continuing the simile, should the raconteur wander from the main stream of the narrative or diverge into a side channel of gossip or other irrelevance, one of the auditors might admonish by calling out, … ‘Your myth might float away.’ It is also of interest to note that each sentence or perhaps even each phrase of the narrative was concluded with an affirmative semi-ritual call of ‘i’…!‘ literally ‘Yes!’ from the auditors, who if awake were expected to respond regularly in that somewhat fatiguing manner. In these sceptical, degenerate, modern days the myths are often received by a merely smiling or even relatively unresponsive audience.

Klikitat (sahaptin), in Melville Jacobs Northwest Sahaptin Texts, New York: Columbia University Press, 1934.
Illustration inspired on engravings from a cave in the island of Götland.