07 October, 2013

Lingua Anglica

Language both is and is not ours. The anthropologically-rooted linguistic theories that language "appeared" in order for our species to convey information basic to their survival covers but that utility of survival itself and goes no length to offer a reason for its creative functions (the topic of this post). 

On a daily basis we encounter numerous examples which expose this theory as a fallacy. The radical differentiation of languages, even within themselves in their many dialects, regionalisms, and recent sub-divisions (made possible by the ever-touted technical innovations for communication) such as media newspeak and hyper-subjective textspeak, seem to prove the opposite. Indeed, a language's ability to harbor and synthesize the introduction of neologisms, colloquial slang and vocabulary from other languages, shows that the language one speaks is an ever growing and, arguably, debilitating tool for the lone benefit of communication. 

This is not an isolated occurrence of the modern era (See The English Language, 1985, Oxford University Press by Robert Burchfield, former chief editor of the OED). Being an English speaker in America, and with English being the language I have in mind while writing this post, the metaphor of great loads of English ivy climbing over trees and landscape as a rampant, ever encroaching and choking invasive species is, I should say, "spot on." Communication via language easily becomes entangled by the nature of its lively structure and we compensate with bodily movements, furrows of brow, smiles and frowns, laughter, and all the other sounds and gestures (culturally unique but also universally ingenious) to supplement the entrenched activity we learn to do -  from our first word to our last breath.

And so, why do we speak if it is not to communicate well? Perhaps we speak to understand it in its negative sense - not speaking. We cannot know what it is to be mute or silent in meditation without first knowing what our utterances perform, and their complications. And it is a complicated performance. Robert Graves, though long since debunked by the semantic and syntactical science of Linguistics, theorized that there had to have been an Ursprach or primary poetic language from which all languages share a root and from which poetry was born. This is a very beautiful and Platonic idea, or "Form." Language at its purest and most undifferentiated is the very source of the human expression we call poiesis. This is why we speak - to bring utterance to the composed - to sing. As I just stated, this does not accord itself with our modern notion of where language comes from and why it appeared. For the poets and the philosophers however, this couldn't be closer to the truth deduced by reason and reflection upon the nature of language and human nature itself, those conjoined twins of Babel.

Graves can still be shown to be relevant, as anthropologists and the archaeologists consistently find that the first utterances we have on record in most, if not all, major cultures are their oral traditions codified. Oral history did not become unreliable, but written language pushed the spoken word into an unknown territory, and the poetry we most often read there is of conflict. See Beowulf, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Homeric epics, the Mahabharata. East and West (and assuredly North and South) have at the root of the history of their languages the struggle between the force of words-in-mouth vs. the power of words-in-scribed. The struggles occurred at pivotal times where their language was undergoing mutations, both internally and externally, and masses of people moved beyond cataclysms and climate changes and encountered, or warred with, then assimilated and birthed new people and new(/old) tongues. And so, one can read that our first stories, no matter our sedentary heritage (as more nomadic tongues than settled ones remain "on the lip" and haven't dropped to the page) are stories of emergence, change and recapitulation in "new" Forms.

It seems that we need to speak as a way of continuing our humanity, of existing as beings of our degree in the chain of life on this planet.

I can't help but tangent my building argument by way of mentioning a subjective experience. When I encounter most casual conversationalists and mention my degree in English, their opinion rolls around from a condescending/sympathetic nicety directed towards me, to an utterance about the nature of the English language itself: "English is a poor/decaying language." "It's taking/taken over the world." "Our language is so messy - it's just a mishmash of other languages."

All of the above opinions are taken from real life.

What is so bemusing to this student of English is the equality of all three opinions. They all hold that English is somehow deficient and differ only in the stated cause - either from the low quality of its use, its past as the voice of British Imperialists or the continuing history of its morphology. What is not surprising but unique about these opinions is that the flip-side of their negative connotations denotes some positive ones. The use of poor English is the sign of a language changing. Whether or not in a future time this can be called "decay" isn't an aesthetic question. The linguists would say, to quote an old professor, that laziness is just as much, if not more, a factor for morphological change than successive ages of increasing elaboration & eloquence. The proliferation of English speakers due primarily to the latest and greatest sea-goers of the world, who happened to speak English (it could've been the Portuguese or the Dutch or the Spanish, but history has it as the British), cannot be a remotely useful argument to brand English in itself as a language of oppression. 

Lastly, every other language English has come into contact with has had an influence on the English we spoke in either the 15th century or the one we speak now. This is especially true, as the exception and the rule, in North America. No other diaspora on this planet has record of such quantities of tongues and peoples and cultural traditions being "mixed up" together in such a manner as it was in the 19th & 20th centuries here. And yet, I can understand a text written in Elizabethan prose with only minor attention to close readings or exegesis of peculiar vocabulary and syntax. How did this oppressive/tolerant and equally dynamic/lazy language ever survive? Precisely because of these attributes, and not because of their negative or supposedly unmerited reasons. A lesson in objectivity for our relativistic and subjective contemporary education.

If poetry is to survive as a creative form, it will be because of its merits in using the language it is composed of to its utmost and beyond. Read James Joyce's Ulysses or Ezra Pound's Cantos to get a sense of the boundary/boundlessness between the ursprach Graves speaks of, the languages English has inherited from, and the language of the modern era until the late 20th century. Our great poets of the 21st century will exhibit their likeness and compel our definitions of what English is to break upon itself, as a seedling breaks its own containment. The new plant shall sing.


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Portland, OR, United States
For the Observatory's Grand Opening