Thursday, March 29, 2007


Well, I might as well tell you now since I know you were going to ask anyway - yes, I am entirely fascinated with language, and yes, I do often wonder at the philosophical implications that are embedded in the very words and structure of English.

Take the word "be": a presumptuous verb that tells a lot about our assumptions on existence. It gets even more interesting when you throw in its suppletive friends, "were" and "was". There's a lot implied about time and transience and singularity there. Then take be's future-tense counterpart and auxiliary cousin, "will". I find it mighty interesting that this word (and, as far as I can tell upon shallow inquiry, the homonyms come from the same etymological source) stands for both the capacity to make a choice (as in "I will myself to get up in the morning") and for certainty: a set path (as in "I will die some day"). There are other words - "everything", "nothing", "could", "should", "me", "you", "us", "through", "happen", "on", "down", "with", "of", prepositions in general.

I also find "my" to have intriguing implications. It could denote possession or how you relate to something, like your mother or your country. C.S. Lewis would argue that "my" is used only to signify a relationship to something, because you can never truly own anything. Isn't it interesting that we use the same word for those two concepts, and what that says about our relationship with God, the world, and our connections?

And the heaviest word of all - "it". What is the "it" in the sentences, "It's not like that", or "It's going to rain today"? Is it the universe? Is it general existence on as grand or as common a scale as you require? Even in Borges' nounless language, "it" exists. Jorge Luis Borges, one of my absolute favorites in all the world, wrote a short story about an obscure encyclopedia article on an obsolete culture. It's entirely fictitious, but it's treated so well that you doubt that sometimes. Let me share with you an unnessecarily long and poetic excerpt from the encyclopedia article itself:

For the people of Tlon, the world is not an amalgam of objects in space; it is a heterogeneous series of independent acts-the world is successive, temporal, but not spacial. There are no nouns in the conjectural Urspache of Tlon, from which "present-day" languages and dialects derive: there are impersonal verbs, modified by monosyllabic suffixes (or prefixes) functioning as adverbs. For example, there is no noun that corresponds to our word "moon", but there is a verb which in English would be "to moonate" or "to enmoon". "The moon rose above the river" ... succinctly translates: "Upward, behind the onstreaming it mooned."

That principle applies to the languages of the southern hemisphere. In the northern hemisphere (about whose Urspache Volume Eleven contains very little information), the primary unit is not the verb but the monosyllabic adjective. Nouns are formed by stringing together adjectives. One does not say "moon"; one says "aerial-bright above dark-round" or "soft-amberish-celestial" or any other string. In this case, the complex of adjectives corresponds to a real object, but that is purely fortuitous. The literature of the northern hemisphere is ... filled with ideal objects, called forth and dissolved in an instant, as the poetry requires. Sometimes mere simultaneity creates them. There are things composed of two terms, one visual and the other auditory: the color of the rising sun and the distant caw of a bird. There are things composed of many: the sun and water against the swimmer's breast, the vague shimmering pink one sees when one's eyes are closed, the sensation of being swept along by a river and also by Morpheus. These objects of the second degree may be combined with others; the process, using certain abbreviations, is virtually infinite. There are famous poems composed of a single enormous word; this word is a "poetic object" created by the poet. The fact that no one believes in the reality expressed by these nouns means, paradoxically, that there is no limit to their number. The languages of Tlon's northern hemisphere possess all the nouns of the Indo-European languages - and many, many more.

How would life and the way we see it be different if our language consisted of verbs or idealistic adjective strings instead of nouns? Do I see this as so beautiful just because of some grass-is-greener complex? Write me something pretty. Write me a poetic object, some nounless prose. Or invent a new language system - one free of philosophy, or one so full of God and truth that the very words are a testimony by themselves.

I dare you.

4 reason(s) to click here:

Thirdmango said...

Zany jovial yet also tender wide-eyed seeks (a.k.a. longs) for jittery twicthy in whom is vastly ugly and yet small almost microscopic love exists which actual beauty is felt. Alas, tis tricky and tough yet frailty is new strength.

Olympus said...

At least in business, use of the word 'it' as in "It's not like that" or "It's going to rain today" is called an 'expletive' and isn't accepted at all.


Thirdmango said...

I tried doing the peoms thing a couple more times past that last one, it's hard doing it without any nouns, I'm not sure if I like it as much. Maybe writing a song without nouns would work. Hmmm...

flippin said...

Rather, write me something truly from your insides that isn't beautiful.