Language as a Virus

If language is a virus, like American novelist William Burroughs suggests, then our minds are the machine or computer. Because our minds are the central location for the formation of our words and sentences. Jussi Parikka defines a virus in the book “Digital Contagions.”

By definititon, viruses have been conceived as a threat to any computer system for (1) virus activity is always uncontrollable, because the actions of the virus program are autonomous, and (2) viruses behave indeterminately and unpredictably.

But what does Burroughs mean by language as a virus? Kim Knight, a scholar in the field of viral media, suggests he means that language is a “mechanism of control that affects your processes of thinking without your outside control.”

If that is truly is what Burroughs is suggesting, that language is a virus, then we must compare it to the definition of a virus given by Parikka in “Digital Contagions.”

  1. Language activity is always uncontrollable, because the actions of the language program are autonomous.
  2. Language behaves indeterminately and unpredictably.

(replacing virus with language)

 Before we can compare a virus and lanuage we need a proper definiton of the term language. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary language is the following:

1. The method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way.

2. Any nonverbal method of expression or communication: “a language of gesture and facial expression”.

Language is obviously not just restricted to words, but also includes body language and facial expressions. Does this change what you believe about language as a virus? Let’s say for a second language is a virus; does that mean our words and other body gestures are viruses as well? This would implicate that we do not have control over what we say or what body gestures we make. Or do we not include these types of expressions.

Maybe Burroughs is saying that we have control over what we think and what sentences we formulate and instead the words we speak or the language that we express becomes a virus. Once we express those words, verbal or nonverbal, we have no control over how they are interpreted or how they will evolve when they reach the intended source. Because the languages’ actions are autonomous, what if that language reaches an unintended source? Does our language then become a threat?

Secondly, we are not fully capable of determining  of how the receiver of that communication will understand what we are saying. Once our words leave our mouths or our expressions leave our bodies we loose all control of how they will be perceieved.

We all probably have faced the issue of a person misinterpreting what we say. These issue arise in social networks and text messages. When we can not put emphasis or expression behind the words we speak, the chance of misunderstanding increases.

If we understand and accept that we have control over what we speak and no control over the interpretation of our words, then we should try to be better understood online and in person.

So what do you think?

  1. In our minds only. (We have no control over what we think and what words and gestures we produce, but we have control over how those expressions are understood.)
  2. In our expressions only. (verbal and non-verbal) (We have control over what we think, but no control over how those ideas are understood.)
  3. In our minds and expressions. (We have no control over what we say or how those expressions are understood.)
  4. Language and expressions are not a virus. (We have complete control over what we think and how those expressions are understood.)


Miscellaneous Other Questions

Is language a virus in our minds when we receive someone else’s’ language transmission? Do we have a choice over how we interpret those expressions? Or are we bounded by our previous encounters with the same transmission?

What about micro expressions do we have control over those? Do they even exist?

What happens if the definiton of a virus is not reliable?

Can we manipulate the words we speak, so that the receiver interprets what we say in a specific way?



1. “Language – Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary.” Dictionary and Thesaurus – Merriam-Webster Online. Web. 13 Sept. 2011. <>.

2. Parikka, Jussi. “Fear and Security: From Bugs to Worms.” Digital Contagions: a MediaArchaeology of Computer Viruses. New York: Peter Lang, 2007. 38. Print.


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3 Responses to “Language as a Virus”

  1. creativetaboo Says:

    Great post, Paul! It brings an interesting perspective to viruses and human language. I wonder about looking into the concept of language before the written word and the printing press and how that spread. For so long there was a division that kept the common language and the holy language (latin) from coming in contact with one another, an immunity placed by social ranking, perhaps. When that barrier was removed with the printing press, the lines dividing language were blurred.

    It would be an interesting study scientifically, if our brain is likened to the computer or machine regarding how quickly a child can pick up a language in relation to how fast a virus spreads in a system.

    I would challenge you to go outside the dictionary definition of language, just as Parrika challenged to think outside of the concept of the body. Language in the literal sense of the term is very controllable, making it difficult to liken to a virus. We think before we speak (mostly) and there are social norms in place that make us aware of how our words (or our body language) will get across.
    However, if you push further into how language disseminates and changes, I think you will find your comparison crystal clear. Have you thought about how chat-speak came to be? How gestures and body language though mostly similar across the world have drastically different meanings? There I think you would find some very interesting information and data to support your Burroughs and Parrika argument

    I hope you continue to pursue this further! Thanks for the great read.

  2. Kim A. Knight Says:

    I agree with Madelynn: this is a great post. Burroughs is one of many who theorize language as a mechanism of control and suppression. This could make a fruitful topic for the research paper if you are interested in pursuing it further. Nicely done.

  3. technopaul Says:

    Thank You Madelynn and Kim! I would agree there is so much more to talk about and go deeper into that I didn’t want to cram into one blog post. I think that language is a virus once it leaves your mouth because it always has the possibility to not be understood correctly. This makes sense based on the definitions.
    I agree that seeing how fast a child picks up a language could show other connections between our brains and computers. I would think that a virus would spread quicker than a child picking up a language. Maybe this child already knows english or another language and is picking up Spanish or something. But it seems to me that a virus would spread faster.

    Could we do that same test on humans and not just children?

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