Doro Franck Was part of the talks at
SERIOUS CHILLER LOUNGE in Munich 94.
What´s so natural about natural language?
Linguistic arbitrariness and motivation in an ecology of language.
Was part of the talks at SERIOUS CHILLER LOUNGE in Munich 94.
To invent a language arbitrarily without any reason for the choices made, is for the human soul, who needs for everything at least a partial reason, as painful as it is for the body to be tickled to death.
Herder 1770/1985 p. 85 (transl.D.F.)
THE TOWER OF BABEL
In natural language, the discrete and the analogue, the arbitrary and the motivated, the conventional and the immediate
modes of expression are intricately interwoven. If in this paper the aspect of motivation and analogue expression is more
accentuated, it is not to present another lopsided model but to counterbalance the existing one-sided image.
But before I criticize or reverse this bias, I want to throw a glance on the ingenious "invention" of arbitrariness and discreteness. Analogue and discrete systems have each their own advantages and limitations, therefore, they are not interchangeable, " yet, translations and - as we see in language - combinations are possible. A number or letter (combination) can be reproduced and transmitted countless times without loss or change of information - provided errors are excluded. A number or another entirely discrete sign does not mind the number of repetitions it is submitted to. A story is already closer to the analogue mode: it can be re-told in many different ways and still count as the "same" story. This sameness can also be a matter of degree: one story can be almost the same as another, while this "almost" does not make sense for strictly discrete systems, they only know - either-or - identity or difference. To repeat a telephone number approximately is of little practical value, with stories it's the normal case.
But the most decisive advantage of arbitrariness concerns the form-meaning relationship. The sound (or written form) of the word "chair" does not need to resemble a chair. This break of analogy between form and meaning allows for the unique economy of language and its enormous range of what can be expressed. The freedom from the burden of a "natural" connection, through similarity or synesthetic analogies, on the other hand, makes language totally dependent on its symbiosis with the learning human mind: the connections between sign and meaning exist only as far as they are memorized and put to use - "realized" - by a human being.
If the link between form and meaning is no longer guaranteed by any kind of "natural" link of causality or analogy, the meaning dimension becomes both more fragile and more controllable. I am inclined to think that the one-sided fascination of modern linguistics with the conventional, discrete and arbitrary side of language is related to the affinity of arbitrariness and control. In fact, our technological control-:of--the-world seems ultimately to be based on the invention of arbitrariness in language. We exert the magic power of naming by cutting the world into discrete items and label them. We decide on the meaning of terms (or we think we do) by giving them a definition. We can make up new words and outlaw old ones. We can even carry the reduction further than language itself does, and digitize words and world and create (analogue!) replicas or "virtual worlds", based on series of two arbitrary signs. Here, finally, the analogy does no longer go from world to word but from word to world, making the circle round and the post-modern dictum true, that everything is language.
Arbitrariness operates on the other levels of language as well and in no less spectacularly efficient ways. The manner in which
the continuum of sounds we are able to produce with our speech organs is cut Into the thrifty system of two or three dozens of
phonemes, differs from language to language and is, in that sense, arbitrary. On the syntactic level we see the same range
Of course, variation is not the only proof of arbitrariness, and often not a proof at all. If e.g. we notice the differences in gender of words for e.g. the sun and the moon in Germanic vs. Latin languages, we could argue that the experience of the sun in a southern country differs from the sun in the north. Mythological sources could, in this case, corroborate the intuitive analogies, when the Latin languages gender sun and moon 'il sole' and 'la luna', while the gendered Germanic languages say 'die Sonne' and 'der Mond'. - But here we are getting into the all too well known cases of motivated linguistic relativity, like the numerous Eskimo varieties of snow or the Arab wealth of different camels. On the level of syntactic categories and constructions, the limits of arbitrariness are less often discussed.
The most fascinating and fundamental achievement of syntax is that it turns time into space: the linear sequential order of
elements ordered on the one-dimensional line of time, is turned into a functional differentiation of the relative place of the
lexical element, allowing for complex multidimensional hierarchical structures. By sacrificing the temporal analogy between
sequential order of form and sequential order of related event, i.e. by creating an artificial simultaneity of all the meaningful
elements ordered in the space of a sentence, language can functionalize position and de-temporalize cognitive events.
'Dog bites man' vs. 'man bites dog': in English, word order alone can indicate basic syntactic categories like subject and
object. And in both cases, the earlier appearance of either man or dog does not allow conclusions about who was there
first. Of course, these remarks seem absurdly trivial, but just because they do, the underlying principles are so much taken
for granted that they almost disappeared from linguistic reasoning.
That's one of the reasons why we overlook what age-old mythology as well as contemporary lessons in ecology are telling us: that we never get any "progress" for free. And we fail to ask the question concerning the ingenious "inventions" of linguistic arbitrariness: what is the price we are paying for it?
In the image of language as a system of totally arbitrary signs and construction principles, we see the blue-print of a tower of Babel. The tower is, in principle, of unlimited height just as sentence construction allows, in principle for infinite length through embeddings and additions. It is built with constructed, well-defined, conventional elements of reliable stability and uniformity, just as our lexical elements seem to provide. But, as the old story is telling us, towers nor sentences can grow infinitely, and our building material itself might not be as solid as we assumed. Even though sentences create, on the meaning level, a kind of time-less time-out, the utterance and understanding of the sentence nevertheless takes "real" time, where we have to cope with our actual limitations of memory and "processing-capacities". And the stability of the meaning of the elements it is composed of is called into question each time they have to travel from one mind to another ...
The costs and limitations of arbitrariness can be sought in two directions. One is the linguistic and cognitive psychological investigation of universals, either in language or in our cognitive make-up that should account for the invariant features. - I want to try another way here. I am curious to take a closer look at those uses of language which are considered to draw strongly from the non-arbitrary qualities of language: poetry . I use the word poetry here not for a canonized literary genre but for the qualitatively distinguished use of language at the motivated end of the scale.
MNEMOSYNE ~ MOTHER OF THE MUSES
No matter how ingenious arbitrariness as a conditio-sine-qua-non of language might be, when it rises to consciousness,
it rather evokes uneasiness than triumph. Isn't arbitrary rule" another word for despotism and alienation? In the case of
language, we are born into the conventions of a group, not submitted to the rule of an individual. These conventions soon
become something like a second nature, of which the arbitrariness is no longer felt and certainly
not resisted. Nevertheless, whenever we have to give a name to someone or something, we are making an effort to chose
or create a name with at least a touch of motivation, as we can see in the careful choice of a child's name or the artful
creation of acronyms, puns and metaphors as names for companies or products.
An obvious advantage of motivated forms is that they are easier to memorize. But the role of memory is a more fundamental one in relation to the issue of motivation. The apparent triumph of control in arbitrary form-meaning relationships might after all turn out to be an illusion created through short (collective) memory. The arbitrariness did not come about through a despotic act, willing a word into a chosen meaning; it is for the most part simply caused by forgetfulness. The limitations of our collective and individual memory forbid keeping track of a linguistic form together with its meaning, through all its evolutionary changes, nor can we trace it back to its origin. Even in those cases where we can reconstruct its etymology far back for centuries or even millennia, the actual historical origin will almost always disappear in the fog of prehistorical times.
It is not surprising that the speculation about the origin of language was a favorite theme of linguists up to the 1866, when the French Société de Linguistique put a halt to the exuberant growth of conjectures and guesswork. What's still interesting in these theories, however, is that almost all of them (i.e. those which assume a "natural". in present-day terms: an evolutionary, origin of language as opposed to the assumption of direct divine intervention) take a motivated beginning of language for granted. The various theories differ only with respect to the kind of motivated root. Whether music or gesture, expressive interjections or synesthetic analogies and sound imitation are considered as the first emergence of linguistic behavior: all of them assume that language gets the more motivated the more we go back in time towards the supposed origin. And even in the theories positing direct transmission from a Higher Intelligence one hesitates to speak of arbitrariness at the origin: this intelligence, be it from inner (divine) or outer (extraterrestrial) space, might have had Her own reasons to call a spade a spade ...
Underneath all our celebrations of arbitrariness, there seems to hide a homesick longing for motivation. Not only the poets and literary writers, but also the makers of advertisement, politicians and the media know that there is another side to language than the purely arbitrary. The seemingly bizarre formulation of Herder, quoted at the beginning of this paper from his famous essay about the origin of language (1770) in fact comprises both an hommage to the freedom and convenience through arbitrariness, by comparing it to the playful pleasure of tickling, but also the dramatic discomfort through an extreme application of it: an overdose of arbitrariness is deadly torture. From this position it is only a small step to another statement from Herder's essay, - a thesis which is not his invention but age-old lore, namely that "poetry is older than prose" (ibid. p.50).
It is illuminating in this context, to remember that in Greek mythology Mnemosyne, "memory", is the mother of the muses.
But this reminding or remembrance is not the same as historical reconstruction. The Muses are creating motivated form
from the resources of the present rather than the past. In language, the Muses create remembrance and coherence in
various ways. One is the epic tale, which does talk about past times. In old texts, still closer to the days of oral tradition,
the frequent and extensive presentation of genealogies is striking for the present day reader. The line of descent is followed
back to the point where it dissolves into mythological darkness - or rather into another realm,
transcending the merely human and claiming a (partially) divine origin. Similarly, names of cities and natural phenomena like
plants, rivers and mountains, are often traced back to a natural or supernatural event as origin, such that genealogy and
etymology coincide. The reconstructed lines of a word's history might be just as fictitious as many a genealogical claim,
but historical correctness is not the relevant issue here.
Before the Muses specialized in the different forms of artistic expressions, they were simply seen as the source of inspiration for the poet, - poetry, at that time still being sung and danced, the manifestation of human creative power par excellence. What makes the role of Mnemosyne, memory, so crucial in it? An answer to that question also throw light on a fundamental task that only poetry can fulfill. Poetry has to provide the cure for the alienation that we suffer through language. This alienation goes deeper than just historical forgetfulness or a lack of genealogical or "tribal" roots, even though that was for a long time a major remedy for poetry to provide. Poetry makes use of language but serves it too. (In German I can say it more poignantly: Dichtung bedient sich der Sprache und dient ihr.) Poetry, as the creative power in language, "cures" language by re-motivating formulations that have become bleak and arbitrary. Poetry "re-minds", it remembers things of the present, by bringing into awareness the analogue side of language, reinstalling the lost connection between form and meaning - and hence between the senses and the mind.
THE POWER OF EVOCATION
What would a linguistic theory look like that would not take prose but poetry as the exemplary use of language? What
if not linguists but poets would be considered as
the experts on language?
In modern, structuralist linguistics poetic language got more and more marginalized (in spite of extensive poetic studies) and simply labeled as deviant, poetry being seen as a derivative variant from "normal" discursive prose. What, if we reverse the direction of the derivation? This reversal, which of course is not an innovation but in accordance with most pre-structuralist conceptions of language, would, no doubt, drag along a number of other changes. One of them concerns the implicit hierarchy of functions of language, hierarchies of normalcy and exemplariness underlying most present-day linguistic and common-sense theories of language.
The function of representation and, by consequence, the grammatical type of declarative sentence, holds a central place in the current theories of language. Statements or assertions appear to be the most prominent and prototypical use of language. Truth is seen as something that can be attributed to any (instance of a ) declarative sentence (or proposition stated by it). In the naive ontology of the modern linguist, facts exist independently from their formulation. Even though the sophistication as to what "representation", "fact" or "truth" are to mean is considerably more developed in the philosophical discussion, the bias towards representation stayed rather unquestioned, In spite of the introduction of notions like 'language-game' and 'speech act', which seemed to bring at least a stronger awareness of other functions of language, and in spite of the radical epistemological or ontological doubts concerning the status of the represented reality, and/ in spite of the subversion of the taken for granted reliability and intersubjectivity of communication in general, which other philosophical traditions offered, it seems to me that representation did not really lose its implicit primacy, because discursive prose remained the exemplary use of language.
Poetry makes another notion of meaning and truth relevant. Resonance rather than representation seems to be its aim. The central and fundamental function of language on which poetry relies (but which is in no way unique to it) I would call 'evocation'. It is more basic than all the other more specialized functions or illocutions and is equally present in the most prosaic utterance as in the most poetic. It is the magic act that brings to bear the power that a word is able to exert on our mind. 'Evocation' simply refers to the effect a word has when it is heard, thought or spoken, before it is submitted to a more specific task. Once a word is known, it evokes - an image, an expectation, an experience, a memory ... an experienced meaning which may be a little bit of all of that or something else altogether. Whether a god says "Let there be light!" or a mother is yelling "Hot!" to keep a one-year-old from touching a stove, or a father begins "Once upon a time..." at the bed-side of a child, the power of evocation is at work. And, if we want to speak in terms of hierarchies and priorities, clearly "Let there be light!' was there before "And there was light."
If we are ready to accept this, the natural desire for motivation, of which Herder is speaking so drastically, is no longer so puzzling. Evocation certainly functions with arbitrary form too, but it works better when there is at least a touch of motivation to it. Unlike the either-or nature of the "transmission of information", of a number for example, evocation works in analogue ways, its quality is a matter of degree. Every good narrator makes use of the possibility to enhance the evocative power of what is said. Onomatopoetic expressions, imitative, rhythmic, alliterating ways of speaking, the whole spectrum of rhetorical devices are mainly analogue in nature. Even more so, poetry derives its very force from this side of language. Here a vowel is not only perceived in its discriminative function through its place in the phonemic system of the given language, but as sound- quality which speaks to the senses in a specific way. In fact, the systematic side is used in such an automatic way that it never really rises to consciousness, while we do experience the (systematically irrelevant) inherent qualities and connotations of the sound. We are (or can be) sensitive to patterns of rhythm and sound, to formal and semantic echoes and repetitions, to parallelisms on all levels of language structure, even before we are taught any conventions concerning it. The pleasure children take in hearing and making any kind of play with linguistic patterns is witness to the immediacy of these effects. The more we focus on oral performance, the further away we get from the realm of arbitrariness. But the paralinguistic side of language with its dramatic relevance for everyday communication never got too much systematic attention in linguistic theory. Its "amphibian" semiotic status between sign and icon is hard to handle for systems where the discrete and arbitrary hold the central place.
But the focus on the qualitative dimension of language entails more revisions, - not only in the periphery of linguistic theory where paralinguistics and rhetorics are put, but at the very core of it. It affects the notion of what we mean by "meaning". The linguistic system treats the meaning of, e.g., a word as an itemized "chunk" of meaning, whether or not it is said to refer to a "chunk" of the world (whatever that may be). This might be an inevitable reification, but it is only part of the story of meaning. Meaning is a process. "To mean" is a verb. The lexical meaning of a word is a potential, that needs to be actualized before it can actually mean something. It has to be realized in the act of meaning, of being meant by a speaker. To mean is an act of mind. The meaning of "to mean" in "I mean it!" in m my understanding is more fundamental than the one in "I mean this and not that". Meaning as an act of intention is a movement with a direction. It is only in this act of meaning that the conventional potential meaning or meaning-structure becomes filled with life: meaningful. This is, I think, what Wittgenstein refers to when he says that the use is the breath of language. The act of meaning re-enacts each time the essential mystery of language: the incarnation of a thought in the tangible forms of an utterance. Like the genetic "information" in our cells, which are not stored there like commodities in the shelves of a warehouse but have to be kept alive and put to work through the breath of our life, a word stays alive by being meant. It needs the breath of our voice and the power of intention and recognition.
Linguistic meaning does not only relate my mental world with yours, it also and most fundamentally, connects mind and
body, the mental image, concept or though with the physical experience of sound. Language as the unique link between
the inner and the outer world owes this essentially to the property of sound. Wilhelm von Humboldt, often seen as one of
the fathers of modern linguistics and yet so different from it, described much better than I can do how thought is getting
objectivized through language, while staying totally subjective at the same time. (Einleitung zum Kawi-Werk, in Humboldt 1973/1836)
On the physical level this is represented in the fact that when we speak we produce the speech sounds but also hear ourselves, besides being heard by our addressee, whose response then completes the process of objectivization. He stresses (as if he had foreseen the simplistic models of communication pushing bits of information through channels from sender to receiver ... ) that speech communication is not comparable to the exchange of material objects. Speaking and understanding both have to be developed out of the same inner power. What the hearer receives is only a kind of specific triggering of that process. So the speaker is simultaneously a hearer, and the hearer a speaker in the process of understanding. What's crucial here is not only the particular balance between the active and passive side of language which is so typical for von Humboldt's approach, but the fact that he does not pass over the fact that language is based on sound too quickly. Instead of seeing in sound just an arbitrary "carrier" of meaning he makes clear why language as it is only conceivable as a sound-based language.
It is in fact inconceivable, that the physical experience of the sound of words does not carry over to some extent to the mental level of understood meaning. Many of us know the alienated feeling and perhaps slight hesitancy to identify with it when our name gets pronounced in an unusual way by speakers of another language, even though the reference is perfectly clear. And, applied to the same loaf of bread, "pain", as we all know, tastes a bit different than "bread" or "Brot". Without recurring to ponderous semiotic terminology, Walter Benjamin calls this difference a difference in the way of meaning, "Art des Meinens", while "das Gemeinte", what is meant, stays the same.(In his essay: Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers, published in 1923)
Similar to Humboldt, he underlines the value of these differences between languages, which only all together give, in their complementarity, an idea what language as such can be.
So, paradoxically, the analogue side of language seems, on the one hand, to be a layer that stems from "before" Babel because of its pre-conventional immediacy, owed in part to synesthetic connections between the different senses and between the sensual and the cognitive understanding. But, on the other hand, it is also the analogue side of language that brings to bear the unredeemable differences between languages. Instead of deploring these differences, Humboldt and Benjamin and others who are sensitive to them, incite us to take careful notice of and relish them. In fact, the analogue side of language never really lacked advocates, before and also parallel to the development of modern linguistics, of course particularly in literary circles. But nevertheless, the bias towards the arbitrary side had its effect in the public sphere. Instead of heavily furthering and subsidizing the study of languages and the spreading of multilingualism (every citizen of Europe should at least speak three languages, even on the lowest educational level; among the higher educated four or five should be a minimum!), politicians speculate whether e. g. the Dutch should give up their own idiom in favor of the more widespread English; and a rumor, erroneous of course, that such a shift from Dutch to English is already at hand, is printed by Italian media and believed by a majority of readers, as happened recently; - certainly a consequence of the belief in the arbitrary nature of language - and hence arbitrarily substitutable for a small economic or practical advantage.
When arbitrariness gets overstressed, we lose sight of our own rootedness in our own language. This however does not further the understanding of other languages or linguistic relativity. As pointed out above, relativity is not at all the same as arbitrariness. - Being born into a language, a "mother tongue" is perhaps the most essential part of our conditio humana. This language that we are finding together and as part of with/ and as part of the world we are born into is older than we are, richer than we can imagine and certainly as irreplaceable as e.g. a species of animals. It is this "natural" aspect of language that explains the lack of success and the somewhat embarrassing touch to the introduction of those systematized and simplified artificial "natural languages" as Esperanto or Volapük. Wittgenstein describes this reaction:
Esperanto. The feeling of disgust we get if we utter an invented word with invented derivative syllables. The word is cold, lacking in associations, and yet it plays at being 'language'. A system of purely written signs would not disgust us so much.
Culture and Value, p.52
Language as the result of a long and complex process of "natural" evolution cannot be replaced by artificial construction and arbitrary decision of a single individual or group with their limited insight and interests. Such a language would always be arbitrary, no matter how motivated the choices of the makers might be, because here we do not only have a forgotten history but no history at all. It seems that the motivation as we experience it in natural language cannot be substituted by motivated artificial form; there is no surrogate-for the diachronic dimension of language ("Gewordensein"), which keeps language as a whole, and particularly its productive devices (with "derivative syllables"), out of the grasp of goal-directed control. The influence we exert on language by our use of it is not an act of technical control but more comparable to natural processes like growth or erosion. Wittgenstein's observation that we are less sensitive to this artificiality when we are dealing with written signs confirms that written language is a derived, more artificial system itself; the nature or naturalness of natural language lies essentially in the dimension of sound.
POETRY AGAINST EROSION
A sensibility for the qualitative dimension in language, as displayed in the quote above, is no luxury. If language is, to speak again in
Humboldt's words, "das bildende Organ des Gedankens" (the formative/generative organ for thought), we cannot put off the idea of
"caring" for language as mere artistic, poetic concern.
The general thought of linguistic relativity and language as "Weltanschauung" does not need any repetition here. That language - that is a particular language - gives us our way of being in the world, this insight is by now a philosophical common place. But I want to remind us of the dependency, even inseparability between language and our world with respect to a more specific interrelation, the one between the ecology of language and the ecology of mind, an ecology that in its turn might directly (co-) determine the ecology of our environment.
Undeniably, the metaphors in which we speak about the world around us, shape our attitude and actions in our dealing with our environment. Similarly, the images in which we think and talk about language carry over ("meta-phore") to the way in which we treat this immaterial resource on which our species depends no less and in a more fundamental way than on material resources. Isn't it likely that we create parallels between the material and the immaterial goods? But sometimes these parallels might be deceiving or they might be based on misleading images. Unlike material goods, language seems to be a fairy-tale resource: inexhaustible, infinitely shareable without diminishing, carefree, not affected by use or abuse, and not even producing waste except for some quickly vanishing sound-waves. It is always there, ready and available. Isn't it conceivable that this idea of an infinite resource influenced our way of dealing other things "already there", like air, water, soil ... ? But even if we do not want to speculate about this transfer effect into the material world, we have an ecological responsibility for language.
The symbiosis of our intelligence with the intelligence of language can become apparent if we apply the appropriate images for language. If we see in language not only the arbitrary machinery but something that is alive and vulnerable - then not only our theories but also our way of dealing with language and our awareness of it might change too.
If language can suffer damage, where does pollution and erosion come in? What is, in that sense, a "dirty" word- Wittgenstein alludes to that notion of pollution in language in the following remark:
Sometimes an expression has to be withdrawn from language and sent for cleaning,~ then it can be put back into circulation. Culture and Value, p.39
Not only ideological, manipulative abuse can pollute parts of language, but every thoughtless, automatic, repetitive use causes usage and
erosion. If we want to distinguish pollution and erosion, one could perhaps say that pollution is mainly what is caused by the exploitation and
narrowing down of a given term in a instrumental, strictly regulating way in the service of a particular ideology or theory. Definitions can be
clarifying in the context of the theory in question, but they can harm the expression submitted to such a rigorous reduction of meaning potential.
This is not to say that definitions can or have to be avoided but only that we have to pay a price for it, particularly when the terms are taken
from the reservoir of normal words of the language. We all know what fascism did to words like "Volk" (folk, people), "Blut und Boden"
(blood and soil) etc.
Or that the centuries of discrimination on the basis of skin-color left such a burden on an initially purely descriptive word like "Negro" that it can no longer be used without its load of acquired connotation. Here we also see that we cannot draw a clear line between pollution and the usual change language undergoes in the course of times. Not only books, but also words have their own fate, - and we are the makers of it. But here I want to talk only about those cases where awareness of and conscious choices in dealing with language are at stake, not those where language inevitably shows the traces that history in general leaves in her. ( I know that we cannot draw a strict line here, but the distinction nevertheless makes sense.)
The erosive force lies mainly in the stereotypical and impoverished way of speaking that we find typically in or related to institutions enforcing standardization and ruling out individual expression. But not only there: erosion also happens to language where language is not fully meant, which, of course can coincide with the use of stereotypes and automatisms. The act of meaning and the awareness of the full potential of meaning of the chosen expression is the life-force of language. Waste of words wastes the words . A sterile language is caused by and causes sterile thinking. The rigid monocultures of standardized formulaic and pompous language, and the cynical and inflationary use of language, aiming at persuasion without being meant as true by any human subject, as we find it in advertising and propaganda, reduces the potential for resourceful, inventive and autonomous thinking, - a faculty which could turn out to be of vital importance in a world of fast change.
Language lives in its use, and with each use it can maintain, lose or gain some of its vigor. A creative and conscientious use reawakens the awareness of the power of a given expression. The play with the full meaning-potential, instead of reducing it to a particular instrumental function'. does not only increase our expressive capacities, it also can break the spell that language exerts on our thinking as long as we use it without reflection. In particular, the guiding power of images, hidden and yet visible to anyone who wants to see, in the semantics of any language, lose inevitability when their use or their avoidance becomes a conscious choice. - Using language with awareness means a creative use of language. This is the same as a careful and economical way of treating language, and in that sense "ecological": creative language, ideally, wastes nothing, because every facet of meaning "counts", unexpected connections between expressions light up neglected connotations, and , rising the sound qualities to consciousness and making them reverberate the meaning of the utterance, it achieves a momentary re-motivation or at least a faint echo of the dream of motivated language.
A CURE FOR LANGUAGE?
In his book
El Arco y la Lira
, an inspiring and inspired pleading for the life in language, Octavio Paz is relating a conversation between
Confucius and Tsu-Lu from The Annals. Tsu-Lu asks: if the Duke of Wei called you to rule his country, what would be the first measure
you take? The master answers: Reforming the language.
But what kind of reform could we think of that is not in its turn arbitrary? It can only be one that does not impose rigid regulations from outside but one that draws from the regenerative sources of language itself: a careful, creative way of speaking; including the ways in which we speak about language, in particular, the images we use. In this moment of reorientation, to which our culture seems to be forced, why not experiment with new and old images of and stories about language?
My favorite image to think of language is a river. A river that starts with clear, fresh transparent water, i.e. a language in which every word sounds understandable and yet as if said for the first time. But soon, and inevitably, the river, which just seems to follow a spontaneous course, starts to dig its own rigid bed - like language, when it gets more and more conventional and predictable, carrying along all the pollution from careless use and becoming increasingly slow and opaque. This movement "downhill" - it is only natural, and without any extra effort applied to language, we automatically follow this decline. But there is a movement upstream too: that is the walk of the poet. The clear and limpid sources do not need to dry up, a fresh language is always available - if we only know to find it, by re-thinking, replenishing, re-motivating it. Of course, this movement from and towards the origin is not meant to refer to the historical dimension but to the simultaneously present layers or qualities of language. We have the choice, to some extent, where we want to be at this river - in the grey zone of thoughtless routine or the freshness and pleasure of the nearness to the origin.
So: what's natural about natural language?
Like nature, it is what cannot fabricated artificially but yet gets affected by the way we deal with it. It can be protected or damaged. But to see this is not enough, and that is why I have to end this paper in a somewhat unsatisfactory stage. Not only because of the embarrassing awareness, that I am in no way able to live up to the principles I advocate, using a rather clumsy and careless version of English. But also because the investigation ends where it should begin.
Central to an ecology of language, as I see it, is a better understanding of creativity in and through language. The secrets of creativity
and originality will, by their very nature, always escape analysis to some extent. But we must not be too quick to mystify these capacities
either but continue our inquiry which can certainly lead a few steps further than where we are now, even if it leads us onto shaky ground. -
The notions I have been recurring to, like revocation'. 'origin', 'originality' (in the sense of 'nearness to the origin', "Ursprungsnähe") etc.,
are concepts which have a certain intuitive clarity to me, being preliminary ending points for my path of -reasoning, at this stage. They
seem to delineate the borderline of how far I can reach with some stretching - by the tracks of reasoning of linguistics, in its widest sense.
But we cannot accept these terms as primitives, i.e. satisfactory explanatory terms and end-points of investigation, because they lack the
self-evidence of primitives. The real questions and - perhaps answers seem to lie beyond the threshold of this borderline.
Where would the step across that border lead us? I think it is heading towards a somewhat shady area of our mind which is - if at all - only
accessible to introspection: the area where meaning is made. The process of conquering semantic space is sometimes described by
poets and other writers, when they allow us a glance "into the kitchen" and give their view on language, based on their experience in working
with it. These views and reports show a quite amazing convergence, through different ages, cultures and styles. So we do not have to rely
solely on our personal introspection. This introspection - and reports of this
introspection might not catch more than a glimpse, but a glimpse it will get of the area where experience
It is the realm 'just-before-language', where the immediate singular unique experience in all its fluidity and just coming into awareness, is turning to language, looking for a "safe space", an appropriate form, similar and suitable enough to be recognized and inhabited by the vanishing immediacy of the first impression. The intensity of this negotiation varies greatly. In the usual routine of perception and formulation the experience is already so thoroughly structured by language, by our habitual conceptual frames, that there is not much need to negotiate: experience coincides already with linguistic routine. But we also know the situation where we struggle for a satisfactory formulation which does not come up automatically, or the moments when we read or hear a phrase and are struck by its freshness and, although never heard before, its surprising evidence. This area 'just-before-language' is the realm 'close to the origin'. Of course, I do not want to fall back behind the profound insight of the language-determined nature of experience ("Sprachlichkeit der Erfahrung"). But if we want to explore the quality dimension of language, we have to take notice of this realm and the different kinds of adequacy as the outcome of this pre-linguistic negotiation P which can be anything between mere routine, painful struggle and pleasurable sudden evidence.
Ecology is balance. I think it is safe to say that language rejuvenates from a balanced view and a balanced use of language, situated between the polarities of the arbitrary and the motivated, the solid (conventional) and the liquid (creative), the age-old and the ever-new. And there is another polarity inherent to language which is in need of an adjusted balance, the one of speaking and listening, which I can only mention at the end of this paper (I am dealing with it more explicitly elsewhere). For centuries or millennia, the attention for language went to the "ars bene dicendi"; eloquence in speaking and writing was the target of almost all linguistic effort, listening seemed derivative and secondary. (The only notable exception was the hermeneutics of written, and preferably sacrosanct text.) But isn't it harder to listen than to speak? Isn't a willing ear more scarce and sought for than an eager speaker? Can it be mere coincidence that the art of listening with its low status was seen for a long time as the domain of women? And the best motivation for careful speech, after all, is the careful listener.