Tuesday, October 2, 2012

On language

It find it odd that some people see language as either primarily a resource or primarily a constraint. It seems that everyone has an opinion on this issue, layman as well as all these big philosophers like Nietzsche or Wittgenstein who warn us against the dirty tricks of language, or scholars in different language related fields such as second language acquisition, composition studies, second language writing, linguistics, etc. Some people claim that language is what distinguishes us from other animals with pride, and I dare say arrogance, whereas some argue that language chains us without us even being aware of it. I think either view has merit but sticking to one of these views and ignoring the other is often quite misleading. Language is what it is, what we do with it, in it, to it, and what it does to us, for us, with us in return. It's not a corpse that we carry with us in our heads, it is not an omnipotent monster that colonizes our hearts, bodies and souls either.  Even if it was that evil we better learn to live with it. After all, there is no point in fighting language since we cannot exist without it, however we cannot surrender completely either since language is not all we are either. Now the question is what is it that causes this love-hate relationship between language and us. Would we be happier if we tamed language completely, or better yet pinned it down like a dead butterfly and looked at our poor victim as we celebrated our victory with pride--but then we would not know what to do with ourselves, or how to say "Yes, we did it, finally!" with joy that we had never experienced before; or would we be happier if we let language occupy us with its numerous and magical powers, or if we put it on a pedestal and danced to the voices of all the people we had heard without really understanding the words but just the music of language, or if we memorized and read great poems to our beloved, or if we chanted words that carried us away to what is sacred, what is divine, what is sublime as we endlessly repeated the words of others, but only that of others. I don't think either path would work. It is true that it is possible to poison someone slowly with words until their light dies away, you can really suck all hope from someone with words, but you can also heal with your words. It is not the words to blame or praise, it is us. I guess it is easier to blame some abstract concept of our own doing.
I give the last word to Gorgias of Leontini on the matter. Today I randomly opened a page from a book and my eyes ended up on these lines.


The power of speech has the same effect on the disposition of the soul as the disposition of drugs on the nature of bodies. Just as different drugs draw forth different humors from the body—some putting a stop to disease, others to life—so too with words: some cause pain, others joy, some strike fear, some stir the audience to boldness, some benumb and bewitch the soul with evil persuasion.  

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