Tag Archives: language

A Turning Tongue

The peculiar flexibility of human languages to bend themselves to new meanings is part of what makes translation not only possible but a basic aspect of language use. Using one word for another isn’t special; it’s what we do all the time. Translators just do it in two languages.
—David Bellows, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything (89)

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reflection at Belrespiro in Rome, Italy

Once I realized I was several kilos under my weight restriction for baggage on the cheap-o airline, I packed a few more books. I reasoned—why not take advantage of the countless hours in transit to read a book long-awaiting my attention? And since I am going overseas, what better book than one on translation, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos?

As I find myself having to turn my English words into Italian, I wonder what is a word anyway? An impossible thing to describe with perfection. And yet, according to Bellos, the same can be said for all things. But of course there are some things that are, as he writes, symptomatic.

Smells, noises, physical sensations, the presence of this or that natural or manufactured object, have symptomatic meanings all the time (70).

Which I know well, as hand gestures and pointing fill in many a linguistic gap for me and my intermediate fluency. Even having said something gives it symptomatic meaning. In other words, the physical world provides tremendous context to our words, many of which would otherwise be meaningless, or difficult to comprehend. Writers are aware of the difficulty—so many words that verbally, in situ, bridge precise meaning, tone, and sense, for the speaker, must be laboriously explained on the blank, sterile, page.

In this way, as Bellos compellingly argues, we are all speaking in translation, trying to find the right word or words—we just usually do it one language as opposed to, like the translator, in two. The aspiration of the nomenclaturista (I just made that word up, but I mean one who clings to the idea of nomenclaturism—the belief that everything has a name—that “words are essentially names” (85)) will never be realized because the words themselves resist meaning only one thing!

Take the word ‘word.’ When did the group of letters, as a single concept, which we named ‘word’ come to signify an oath? as in—you have my word. Indeed, when did it come to signify ‘totally awesome, man.’ My kids say that to me all the time—I might say, “Guess what guys! I’m making your favorite pasta al forno tonight.” And they will invariably answer, “Word.”

As Bellos explains, the oft-abused word ‘literal’ as an adjective, stems from “the noun littera, meaning “letter” in Latin” (109). Sorry to disappoint the purists, but literal was something that was worth writing down, its figurative or literal truth was not the important quality. Its hard to imagine a world in which the skills and instruments of writing were rare, but for a long time they were, and so not every damn thing was written down, only important and “true” things. The literal truth.

To Bellos’ mind, the very act of language is a form of perpetual translation. When people say that poetry is lost in translation, Bellos cries foul. It is not poetry that is lost, he argues. The only thing that a translation from one language to another can not accomplish with ease, or at all, is the embedded sense of the community that speaks with true fluency, which manifests itself in all sorts of assumptions and particularities of grammar which may signal customs, tone, power dynamics, and myriad other subtitles which come with the singularity of really knowing the language and the people that speak it.

It makes no sense to imagine transporting the ethnic, self-identifying dimensions of any utterance. Absolutely any other formulation of the expression, in the same or any other dialect or language, constructs a different identity (338).

It’s a fascinating read, and one that has me thinking deeply about language as I struggle with two.

Because, like many people, I have enough trouble with one. What gives any word I choose to use its meaning? Think of the many concepts we don’t bother to name, or worse, name vaguely—which does not at all preclude our readiness to articulate—or have fun trying. Philosophers love to torture themselves by trying to describe things like ‘freedom,’ ‘human nature,’ and ‘friendship’ and yet these things elude precise meaning. And thank goodness, where would we be, really, if we could describe words like ‘love’—thousands of years of music, poetry, art, and film wiped away in an instant. A pity, e un peccato, in any language.

*Title inspired from page 29: “In Sumerian, the language of ancient Babylon, the word for “translator,” written in cuneiform script, […is] pronounced eme-bal, it means “language turner.”In classical Latin, too, what translators did was vertere, “to turn” (Greek) expressions into the language of Rome.”

 

Language Is an Heirloom

One cannot understand their mode of existence as long as the differentiation of basic concepts such as nature and culture, societies and individuals is not counterbalanced by the qualification of their relationships, by instruments of synthesis. Language and knowledge are examples of the latter.
—Norbert Elias, The Symbol Theory (131)

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The Symbol Theory by Norbert Elias (1991) is a book that attempts to highlight the need to form an integrated theory that not only describes that thing we, as humans, do with sound-symbols, but more importantly describes the synthesis of knowledge, thoughts and language. Try, if you can, to separate any one from the other. It is not what we do with language, but rather, what language does to us.

The nature of language cannot be understood if one uses individual actions as a point of departure (20).

Elias makes a compelling case that the studies of linguistics, epistemology, and consciousness can in no way be separated. Without language how does one have thoughts? Without language, or sound-symbols, as he names it, how can one come to any realm of consciousness as we understand it? How can one have any sense of “knowledge?”

Human societies and human languages can change to an extent inaccessible to the societies and means of communication of apes. The structure of the latter is still largely genetically fixated or, in other words, species-specific (29).

And this is an interesting point. Beyond the individual level, as a species, apes (for instance) are only able to act on a species level—their language skills are species-specific and as such have limits of mutability, in that it varies very little from group to group and needs some sort of evolutionary change to leap over to the sort of language/knowledge complexity we enjoy. Humans, by virtue of our language which is not species-specific but rather societally-specific (in our Tower of Babel way) with the ability to grow, alter, expand or contract our “knowledge” of the world regardless of the actual sound-symbols (languages) we are employing, and with the ability to create anew at any instance, communication with another human. It is a factor worthy of a system of study.

Descartes, is based on a strange assumption which is rarely stated explicitly. It suggests that the cognitive functions of human beings developed initially on their own independently of a world to be recognized and that human beings having at first developed without object of cognition at some time, as it were by accident, entered an alien world. That, however, is a fable. Human beings have developed within a world (98).

For instance, I give you the photo I took this morning of a group of trees in the park. Our knowledge tells us that, in my part of the world, trees grow in dirt, not water, and yet, I can take the photo and relate to any English speaker in the world the events that caused these trees to be immersed in water (the power and glory of the storm last night! Thunder and lightening, pounding rain and surging water tables!) these are specificities  and temporalities that are lost without language. This knowledge means nothing without the power of language to communicate. But, Elias would go further, because, consider how it is we know, in the first place that trees mostly grow in dirt? The idea that we come into the world and learn to speak, as if language somehow stands outside of knowledge,  negates the accumulative effect of our history and culture. It sets up strange desperate “ologies” that, in truth, are utterly un-seperateable.

Concepts such as ‘nature’, ‘culture’ and ‘society’ are telling examples of the tendency to treat as separate entities set apart from each other problem fields at a high level of synthesis, symbolically represented by different substantives surrounded by a fog-like aura of ideological undertones (38).

This creates a sort of “intellectual apartheid” in which it is impossible to begin to understand what is it that makes us human. For Elias an important aspect is “by acquiring the skill of sending and receiving messages in the codified form of a social language, persons gain access to a dimension of the universe which is specifically human” (47) He goes on to say that this acts a a fifth dimension, because it is within the four dimensions of time and space that all species act, but our ability to communicate and identify ourselves through and because of our sound-symbols is a post-animal state of being.

There is nature, there is culture, there is knowledge, scientific or otherwise, there are politics, economics and the all-embracing symbols of language, but how they all cohere with each other is a question that is rarely asked and hardly ever answered (89).

But we can’t help ourselves. We want to know. We want absolute beginnings and we want discrete theories of our world and our place in it. Elias is sympathetic. His only point is that when we begin to consider just how unique and complex our sound-symbols are, then we can begin to see a theory evolve which may help us understand how we got here, and more importantly, give us the perspective to see that perhaps we are really at the beginning:

I like best the suggestion that our descendants, if humanity can survive the violence of our age, might consider us late barbarians. I am not indulging in reproaches. Humans have to go through a long period of learning how to live with each other in peace. Our uncertainty, our inability to eliminate violence, are part of this learning process. No teachers are at hand. Outside help, evidently, is not forthcoming (147).

*title from p.129

Salt of Words

The object in which power is inscribed, for all of human eternity, is language, or to be more precise, its necessary expression: the language we speak and write.”
—Roland Barthes, A Barthes Reader, edited by Susan Sontag. From the essay “Inaugural Lecture” (460).

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Bons mots, bon app’!

I have been deeply engaged in reading as many books about the French Enlightenment figure: Denis Diderot as my wearied eyes can manage. I love the way his mind is organized around a passionate principle of discursive delights. I am planning on writing a short research paper about him, but I have gotten so involved in so many varied primary source essays, novels, and secondary source material— not to mention the impetus of my  fascination: l’Encyclopedie des Sciences— that I was complaining to a friend that I had read far too much to be able to write a mere 7-8 page paper. He suggested that I get some sort of learning disability dispensation stating that my inability to stop reading requires that I be allowed to write twice as much.

Worsening my condition, thanks to Diderot, I now have a new person of interest: Roland Barthes. I got the book A Barthes Reader because it had an essay about the plates of  l’Encyclopedie (the area I will try to narrow my focus upon), but was unable to rest until I had read all of the other varied and wonderful essays within and then, yes, request another book of his: A Lover’s Discourse (but how could I resist that title, I ask you?), possibly, I need help. But nevermind that–

The act of stating, by exposing the subject’s place and energy, even his deficiency (which is not his absence), focuses on the very reality of language, acknowledging that language is an immense halo of implications, of effects, of echoes, of turns, returns, and degrees. […] Writing makes knowledge festive (464).

In Roland Barthes’ essay “Inaugural Lecture,” which is a lecture that he gave upon the inauguration of his position as Chair of Literary Semiology for Collége de France, asserts that it is literature alone which can “understand speech outside the bounds of power” (462). He breaks his argument into three parts based on Greek concepts: Mathesis, Mimesis, and Semiosis. 

Mathesis, or acquisition of knowledge, of which literature is replete—this is not to say that literature is a manual from which one studies, nor is it an either/or proposition—simply, it is really something more: “science is crude, life is subtle” (463) and it is literature that negotiates that line. For Barthes it is significant that the French words (this essay was translated by Richard Howard) flavor and knowledge have the same root. Beautifully put:  literature is the “salt of words,” and it is this, this quality in literature, this “taste of words which makes knowledge profound, fecund” (465) that lifts the burden of acquiring knowledge.

For all knowledge, all sciences are present in the literary monument. Whereby we can say that literature, whatever the school in whose name it declares itself, is absolutely, categorically realist:  it is reality, i.e. the very spark of the real. Yet literature, in this truly encyclopedic respect, displaces the various kinds of knowledge, does not fix or fetishize any or them (463).

Mimesis is of course related to representation, “literature’s second force” (465).

The real is not representable, and it is because men ceaselessly try to represent it by words that there is a history of literature (465).

This is the aim of literature, this realism which the writer will persist “according to the truth of desire” (467) in demonstrating even though, as Barthes’ concedes, “literature is quite as stubbornly unrealistic; it considers sane its desire for the impossible” (466). But even at its most modernistic, literature is based in describing the real, that is what allows a reader to connect to the work.

[The semiology of the speaker] is not a hermeneutics: it paints more than it digs, via di porre rather than via de levare. Its objects of predilection are texts of the image-making process: narratives, images, portraits, expressions, idiolects, passions, structures which play simultaneously with an appearance of verisimilitude and with an uncertain truth (475).

Semiosis is then the effort to “elicit the real” (474). Barthes only concedes that semiotics has a relation to science, not that it is a science. It “helps the traveler” but is not a “grid” meant to make clear a “direct apprehension of the real” (474). It can’t possibly because  it is affixed to a moving target. Language is not static, nor apolitical, nor ahistorical: “I cannot function outside language, treating it as a target, and within language, treating it as a weapon” (473).

It is a fascinating and thought-provoking essay, and it is just one of many in the book. I knew I had to read them all when the premier essay was the very first one Barthes had ever published in 1942 on one of my favorites: André Gide. The penultimate essay described here is “Inaugural Lecture” and it stays with me. He recounts towards the end his experience of reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and how he was struck, powerfully, by the force of reading that historically removed novel about a disease which he himself had had and yet which was, because of modern treatment, a different disease than it had been in Mann’s time. This realization of a connection, through his body, of being linked to the past, was something he said he must forget so to be free for a vita nuova. He distilled his insight into his closing remarks which left me with chills:

There is an age at which we teach what we know. Then comes another age at which we teach what we do not know; this is called research. Now perhaps comes the age of another experience: that of unlearning, of yielding to the unforeseeable change which forgetting imposes on the sedimentation of the knowledges, cultures, and beliefs we have traversed. This experience has, I believe, an illustrious and outdated name, which I now simply venture to appropriate at the very crossroads of its etymology: Sapientia: no power, a little knowledge, a little wisdom, and as much flavor as possible” (478).

God that’s lovely.

*French macarons with raspberry or chocolate hazelnut filling.

Bathing in Language

I am Comrade Korotkov, V.P., from whom the documents were just stolen…Every last one…I could be arrested…”
“Very simply too,” the man on the porch affirmed.
“So let me…”
“Have Korotkov come personally.”
“But I am Korotkov, comrade.”
“Give me your identification papers.”  (20) 
Mikhail Bulgakov, Diaboliad

rooster.j.ryanI read a book of short stories by Mikhail Bulgakov (Diaboliad and Other Stories) this weekend, intermittently taking breaks to read another book, Consciousness and the Acquisition of Language by Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

In fact, just as the child learns to know himself through others, he learns to know others through himself; he also learns to speak because the surrounding language calls up his thought, because he is enticed by its style until a single meaning emerges from the whole” (51, Merleau-Ponty)

Language calls up thought…the two (language and thought)are distinct…if one considers Bulgakov’s Diaboliad within that distinction, his use of satire, indeed satire generally, becomes a thing of great substance. His language is calling, what thoughts emerge? Perhaps it is only because I was (more or less) simultaneously reading a book about language that  I was lead to consider, more deeply, the ‘language of satire.’ But once I did, it seemed to me the first order of business was to consider the translating of such a genre. I find the myopic world of English-speaking literature annoying, (please indulge me while I get this little rant out of the way) translations* into English are far less frequent than the reverse, and that bothers. How better can one experience different cultures, worlds, and times than through literature? I’m sure I don’t know, but the insularity of the English literary world is problematic not  to mention emblematic.

The most characteristic of a word is “what the others are not.” Signification exists not for a word but for all words in relation to one another. Our present tense could never be the same as the present tense of a language without a future tense. It is for this reason that one can never exactly translate from one language to another (99, Merleau-Ponty).

Translation is a fascinating project, and satire is an entirely different order of complexity. As Merleau-Ponty elucidates, translation is in some regards, impossible. Language is more than a grouping of words. Every word is connected to a web of other words and the ability to see that web, to be conscious of the layers and interconnectedness is particularly essential in satire.

A very fat and pink man met Korotkov with the words, “Just marvelous. I’m putting you under arrest.”
“I cannot be arrested,” replied Korotkov–and he laughed a Satanic laughter, “because I am no one knows who. Of course. I cannot be arrested or married” (40, Bulgakov).

Fortunately for Bulgakov the horrors of bureaucracies are keenly understood by most. The entire tale revolves around Korotkov’s loss of his ‘papers’ but the sickenly bizarre frustrations of state agencies are not lost. It is the particular: the play of names, the references to the Soviet state idiosyncrasies, the absurdity interlaced with cultural artifacts and references of the day  that make the ride, in translation, less smooth than the original language required. The totality of the web of language is difficult to fully see and feel by a translation. Still, I am not dissuaded.

As far as the imitation of speech is concerned, one finds himself in possession of a double kinesthetic gift which is lacking in the imitation of gestures (36, Merleau-Ponty).

I think that what Merleau-Ponty is referring to is the phenomenological truth that in regard to the senses, language, which one speaks and hears with the ‘other’ to which the language is directed, is unique among our experience in the world. If I wave my arms, I can never see myself doing it as you do, but if I speak to you, we experience the language together without a marked difference of perspective.

There is no radical difference  between consciousness of self and consciousness of other people (46, Merleau-Ponty).

There seems to be, to Merleau-Ponty,  a circular wrapping around of the concept of ‘egocentric.’ A child is so entirely egocentric that there is actually no separation between herself and the other. For me, it is a reminder of the basic neutrality of individual words to consider what is thought of as an ugly and maligned concept such as ‘egocentric’ in a different way. There is a unity with others in the egocentric inception of our being; what is unity but a melting into our centers, in which the center is everywhere. Language unites, but it also, in fact, is what ultimately separates us. Once a child integrates the rhythm of their native environment, the pronouns, and prepositions…the lacunary nature of existence is delineated. There are spaces between us after all.

This meditation of the objective and of the subjective, of the interior and of the exterior–what philosophy seeks to do–we can find in language if we succeed in getting close enough to it (102, Merleau-Ponty).

Bulgakov buries a world of pain in the language of the absurd, but because language is more than a grouping of words, more than a mode of communication, it doesn’t matter so much that I don’t know that a green felt covered desk is shorthand for ‘institution’ – I’ve spent enough hours at the DMV to know that a Gogol-esque moment of a nose running across the tiled floor is entirely possible. The original state of our unity is the subtext, it is the baseline of sanity by which satire is possible.

A momentary enlarging of his own life: it consists of living for a moment in other people, and not only living the same thing as others for his own benefit (39, Merleau-Ponty).

Language, and by extension literature, is just that- a momentary enlarging of our own lives. Just as an infant begins with the ability to articulate every sound possible in any language, she also begins in a state of complete union to others. However, through the maturation of our individuality,  the sense of shared consciousness can wither away.

According to Delacroix, “the child bathes in language.” He is attracted and enthralled by the movement of dialogue around him, and tries it himself (12, Merleau-Ponty).

Our consciousness is made through language. As many people have figured out, control of language becomes control of thought. Bulgakov and others took subversive hold of their language through satire thereby holding the line on sanity. That what separates us is every bit what unites us is a beautiful paradox. As David Foster Wallace famously said – this is water. We bathe in it. In this mad world it is through language that we will all float.

*Speaking of translations – Diaboliad and Other Stories was translated by Carl R. Poffer, Consciousness and the Acquisition of Language was translated by Hugh J. Silverman.

In the Wonderland of Mind

You cannot touch the clouds, you know; but you feel the rain and know how glad the flowers and the thirsty earth are to have it after a hot day. You cannot touch love either; but you feel the sweetness that it pours into everything. 
Annie Sullivan quoted in Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life (16)

IMG_1381Two unrelated things occurred this week that led me to read Helen Keller’s early autobiography. The first was that I happened to come across the book on my children’s book shelf as I was enlisted to find something for my eleven year old to read (he chose Robinson Crusoe). The second is that I attended a lecture in which the topic of Wittgenstein’s private language argument was discussed.

To know the thoughts and deeds that have marked man’s progress is to feel the great heart-throbs of humanity through the centuries; and if one does not feel in these pulsations a heavenward striving, one must indeed be deaf to the harmonies of life (55)

The question asked in the lecture was: is language essentially social? As language is an agreed upon  set of sounds and symbols, what is its function when agreement (with another) is taken out by virtue of isolation? Can we really imagine it? I wondered if Miss Keller might have some insight into the question.

Each individual has a subconscious memory of the green earth and murmuring waters, and blindness and deafness cannot rob him of this sixth sense – a soul sense which sees, hears, feels, all in one (65).

In the case of Keller, she, in fact, did have sight and sound, as well as some language acquisition for the first 19 months of her life, so she is more of a, (as the lecturer coincidently stated)  “Robinson Crusoe type” whose isolation comes only after language has (more or less) made inroads into the mind.

Many scholars forget, it seems to me, that our enjoyment of the great works of literature depends more upon the depth of our sympathy than our understanding. The trouble is that very few of their laborious explanations stick in the memory. The mind drops them as a branch drops its overripe fruit (53).

Keller describes stirringly and with aching beauty the effect her reacquaintance with language, bursting with shared meaning and human contact, had upon her. Her thoughts regarding literature, learning, and life are lovely and true. This early autobiography is wonderful to read, not least of all for the  glimpse into Keller’s towering intellectual mind at its inception.

We should take our education as we would take a walk in the country, leisurely, our minds hospitably open to impressions of every sort (55).

As I wrote in a response to the lecture, according to David Crystal’s book How Language Works, it is the “duality of structure” (Crystal 11) that differentiates language from communication. He describes the two different levels of language: the first: sounds and symbols which are the structural architecture and have no intrinsic meaning, (one doesn’t ask what “s” means, after all) and the second: combining, recombining and inventing ever new ways to use these sounds and symbols to communicate (Crystal 9). This makes it different to as well as a more narrow definition of communication, (which could be animal communication or body language -a smile or gesture of limited variability – even if there are hundreds of gestures, they can hardly be compared to the thousands of words, and thousands more word combinations as well as the rate of new word development). It would seem to me, a duality would be unnecessary for an isolated individual. But it also seems important, to me, to consider what we mean when we say, “isolated.” Anyone who already has language acquisition pre-isolation would naturally use it. Anyone who was profoundly isolated from birth would most likely not survive (or at the very least be severely compromised). Humans don’t thrive without others. How does “private language” fall in between those two points?

I find the more I think about it, the more I see language as a secondary issue of our humanness. Humans are inescapably social, language is a function of our essential sociability. Might not language then be by default essentially social because we are de facto social? Whatever its qualities, it seems an easy thing to agree with Keller when she writes:

There is nothing more beautiful, I think, than the evanescent fleeting images and sentiments presented by a language one is just becoming familiar with – ideas that flit across the mental sky, shaped and tinted by capricious fancy (42).

Indeed, one hopes we never lose our capricious fancy.

*title from page 51: In the wonderland of Mind I should be as free as another.

** All quotes fromDover Thrift edition of  The Story of My Life unless otherwise noted

A Separate Word

Hector:  May I make a suggestion? Why can they not all just tell the truth?
Irwin:  It’s worth trying, provided, of course, you can make it seem like you’re telling the truth.
-Alan Bennett, The History Boys (83)

IMG_1272It seems an obvious point to say that plays are meant to be seen, not read, but we don’t always have the luxury. A woman I met recently suggested that I might like the play, (but not the film) The History Boys. It took me most of the first act to get my eyes to work with my brain so that I could put the scene together in my head. I kept forgetting to READ who was speaking.

Timms:  I don’t see how we can understand it. Most of the stuff poetry’s about hasn’t happened to us yet.


Hector:  But it will Timms. It will. And then you will have the antidote ready! Grief. Happiness. Even when you’re dying.
We’re making your deathbeds here, boys (30).

I recently read an excerpt of the book Space Between Words, by Paul Saenger and I believe it relates to my problem:

Research indicates that English-speaking subjects also have discrete systems within the brain for the aural understanding and the silent visual understanding of language (3). 

The Latin word “to read,” I learned at a lecture in the fall, actually has two root meanings: to read, yes, obviously, but also “to choose.” Ancient languages did not separate words, so one had “to choose” one’s words. According to Saenger, it was Irish and Anglo-Saxon monks who had shaky comprehension of Latin that began to add spaces. This addition is what gave our brains the ability to read silently: without mouthing or voicing the words. Silent reading makes it possible to read at theretofore unknown speed. A child learning to read, (or me trying to read Italian or French) must mouth or say the words, in fact children’s initial writing usually does not have spaces as that is not how they hear it. But once we make the jump (elegantly moving over the spaces) – the literary world is our oyster. With silent reading, we no longer even read strictly right to left, or all the words contained within a sentence, for that matter.

Word separation, by altering the neurophysiological process  of reading, simplified the act of reading, enabling both the Medieval and modern reader to receive silently and simultaneously the text and encoded information that facilitates both comprehension and oral performance (13).

I’m deeply indebted to the Irish monk’s sub par linguistic skill. That being said, I had to get a little remedial in order to “read” something that should really be seen and heard. I was forced to slow down and hear it.

Dakin:  Lecher though one is, or aspires to be, it occurs to me that the lot of women cannot be easy, who must suffer such inexpert male fumblings virtually on a daily basis.
Are we scarred for life, do you think?

Sripps:  We must hope so.
Perhaps it will turn me into Proust (77).

Once my brain cooperated, the life of the play came to be. The stupidity of hypocrisy and academic hollowness, sad fumblings,  defensive cynicism, and disappointed ambitions, live right alongside satisfaction in the small moments of human affection, understanding and connection. The History Boys is poignant, clever, and cautionary.

The words matter. The mental prowess displayed in The History Boys is fun, acerbic, and invigorating, but as Bennett elucidates so smartly, intellect for intellect’s sake is a pyrrhic victory. The war of meaning is won in the spaces and silences.

It ought to renew…the young mind; warm, eager, trusting; instead comes…a kind of coarsening. You start to clown. Plus a fatigue that passes for philosophy but is nearer to indifference (95). 

Difficult to Locate, Easy to Distinguish

The contrast between what counts as language and what does not is usually clear enough, once we look for evidence of productivity and duality of structure in communicative behavior.
– David Crytal, How Language Works (11)

IMG_1208How Language Works is a comprehensive book on all aspects of language. How we speak, hear, read, write, communicate and conversate. Hmm, that last one is not a word, but why shouldn’t it be, or why shouldn’t I use it? After all, save official sanction, it has the features required – recognizable phonemes, and plausible meaning. And as Crystal will confirm, and I will second, (exhibit A that I am) spelling is a function of multiple skills which have little to do with reading. Therefore, lacking (at least) one of the said skill sets, hell, conversate looks good to me!

We think of our fellow-speakers as using the ‘same’ sounds, even though acoustically they are not. (67)

Taking the first- the recognizability of phonemes, Crystal explains the unique ability that our ears, throats and brains have to do this thing we call language. Not mere communication- but language. Broken down into as many parts as science has been able, the process is fascinating. In the same way that visual perception both aids and distorts what we see, auditory perceptions has its own modifications for better overall use even at the risk of obfuscation of reality. Just as in visual perception: repetition, constancy, and closure dominate. Our ability to pick out words, particularly familiar ones, such as one’s name, in a crowded room defies the decibel level and chaos of noise.

The fact that our unconscious brains find order while our conscious brains try to instill order is an interesting collision of consciousness. But our conscious system is nothing if not incomplete: while in English we have five written vowel sounds, in speech we have twenty. And don’t even get me or my son Augie started on the sad lack of written punctuation.

Why is it that in English the ‘l’ sound in ‘fall’ and ‘leave’ is considered the same, when everyone can feel that they are produced in very different locations in the mouth and throat? One language will make the conscious distinction, while others will not. Every language makes use and organizes its own sounds, but no language makes use of all the sounds we are physically capable of making.

The word meaning, Crystal tells us,  has upwards of of twenty meanings. Twenty meanings of meaning. Oh Dio. Without these multiplicities we would not have the spectacularly creative and wonderful experience of language, but I have a feeling that the misery too is contained within. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood…

How did this all begin? I’m going to have to side with the Danish linguist Otto Jesperson who listed all the possible theories of language origination, but favored one: the ‘la-la’ theory. Such a lovely name I hardly feel the need to say more. But here it is:

Jesperson himself felt that, if any single factor was going to initiate human language, it would arise from the romantic side of life – sounds associated with love…(351)

Typically, our extended efforts to maintain order create their own complications. So much starts to seem arbitrary and then some French deconstructionist comes running in and blows the whole joint up, making matters worse! In the end, and yes, I’m talking to you grammar police out there, clarity and sincerity is all that counts. If you understand me, and if you believe in me we are experiencing linguistic communion of the highest order. And it’s lovely (regarding lovely: apparently it is a word that women make much more use of then men…).

The unconscious order is wondrously, marvelously complex, yet also, intensely directed towards purpose…of course, the meaning of the purpose is the real mystery.

*Title from page 56: Distinguishing vowels and consonants