Thoughts (for Students) on Language

Unexpectedly in mid-summer vacation, my departmental chair asked me whether I could assume supervision of some courses previously taught by a faculty member who had taken retirement on short notice at the end of the spring semester. One course concerned the Anglo-Saxon and Norman roots of Modern English and in general the history of the language. The other course concerned theories of language, of which it is designed to offer a survey, more or less at the instructor’s discretion. The clientele for both courses comes largely from the current cohort of teachers-in-training in my college’s School of Education and in some part from English majors. The new assignment required me to marshal my knowledge of the two areas and quickly to devise two syllabi. In writing the syllabi, I decided to introduce each course to its enrollment in the form of an essay. There is some repetition of ideas in both introductions, but that is inevitable given that the subject-matter of the two courses necessarily overlaps. I share the results with my fellow Orthosphereans.

I. Dear Students: You have elected to follow the English Department’s course on the History and Development of the English Language. The course as I teach it is designed to raise to consciousness, and thereby also to commemorate, the philological relation of Modern English both to its immediate ancestor-languages, Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, and to the other languages ancient and modern of the Indo-European Family that inform it; to give instruction in the grammatical, morphological, and phonological basics of Anglo-Saxon and Middle English; to familiarize students with the central texts of those languages; to trace the subsequent phases of English after the Medieval Period through Elizabethan and Victorian English; and, by a careful examination of etymology, to reveal the historical strata and range of influences on Modern English, from the Proto-Indo-European roots of its fundamental vocabulary, to the many survivals in that same vocabulary of Anglo-Saxon usage, to the influences of Medieval Danish and Norwegian on Anglo-Saxon, and to the combination of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French after the Battle of Hastings (1066); to the assimilation of Latin and Greek vocabulary from the Fourteenth Century to the Twentieth Century, and more generally to inculcate in students an appreciation of the temporality and historicity of what is, for most of them, their native tongue. Concentrating on these topics, the course will necessarily touch on and draw into discussion numerous others.

The phrase, “to raise [something] to consciousness,” which appears in the first sentence of the foregoing paragraph, is an important one, whose implications deserve to be made explicit because they communicate so intimately with the concept of higher education. A rather hackneyed but still useful rhetorical question asks whether the fishes know that they swim in the sea. The implicit answer, in case anyone feels bafflement, is: “No, of course not. A fish never knows that he swims in the sea.” Language resembles the sea, as experienced (or not) by the fish. Language is the symbolic environment in which human beings, the only known language-makers, might be said to swim; or it is the atmosphere that they breathe and that sustains their lives from minute to minute. Like the fish in the sea, the human being takes his environment for granted; he regards it, when on those rare occasions he actually does regard it, as a given, the equivalent of a natural fact. Perhaps there is some justification for this widespread complacency about the how and the why of the cultural dimension. Technocracy and bureaucracy require people to discharge their routines efficiently, in what is called a job, not to contemplate the roses or to stand stock-still whenever they please, like Socrates philosophizing. Nevertheless, even the techno-bureaucratic regime recognizes that a few philosophers, at least, are necessary in a society and that those destined for elite positions (for example, college students) should participate during their advanced training, in the philosophical point of view.

Indeed, higher schooling (from the Greek scolia or “leisure”) takes as one of its main aims the temporary removal of qualified people from the pervasive routine of modern existence for the purpose of permitting them to become conscious of the things that they usually, and that most people all of the time, take perfectly for granted. Behold then the mystery of the English language! It is this language and not some other, a fact that only occurs to people when they suddenly confront another language that, not being theirs, remains opaque to them. It has these resources and no others, a fact that most people never grasp. It imposes this perspective on existence, and not some other perspective. Native speakers of English will strangely have little or no memory of having learned the language although on reflection it will occur to any intelligent person that having been born speechless someone must have taught him the details of his tongue. This insight is important. It tells the one who thinks it that “I am not the originator of my language.” Someone or something else must be the originator. Who or what? But even before setting off to discover the answers to those questions, the suddenly philosophical individual might pause to take thought of other quite startling issues and implications.

For example, insofar as other people know John Smith largely according to his verbal expression of himself, in his enunciation of his judgments, preferences, and affections, then they must know him largely through the medium of language. Insofar however as Smith depends on his linguistic competency to express and enunciate himself to others, and given that he did not invent the language that he uses, but rather that in acquiring it, it must in some part have invented him, then Smith (and everyone else in the hypothesis) must stand in a profound debt to the language, which in the present context means the English language. The individual’s very experience of himself is mediated and influenced by the language that the circumstance of his having been born here and not there and now instead of then has endowed on him. Furthermore, insofar as language and thinking are nearly identical, and insofar as the very thoughts that a person thinks depend on the language that he uses but did not invent, those thoughts may be said to be his thoughts only under several qualifications. One is that he will be incapable of thinking any thoughts that “his” language cannot, of itself, articulate. Another is that the language is already saturated with the thinking, and therefore also with the thoughts, of innumerable generations before Smith, so that the possibility of Smith’s thinking an original thought is diminishingly small the farther he stands from the origin of “his” language.

But to the extent that Smith can only with great difficulty think an original thought, disregarding the fact that the commercial culture in which he is immersed assures him of his originality and uniqueness, what could he do to distinguish himself from other people who begin invariably under the same limitation, which is to say under the endowment of the same potential treasure-trove, with which he begins?

Smith could increase his consciousness of his situation. He could take notice of that fact that he is like a fish swimming in the sea and he might begin scientifically to investigate the sea itself and his indissoluble relation to it. Or on another metaphor, Smith could suffer a sudden seizure of guilt over his adolescent self-centeredness, his lazy lack of interest in his family connections, and begin to atone for the lapse by reestablishing contact with his parents and siblings, his grandparents and great-grandparents, and finally his ancestors, as far back as he could trace them. The result resembles a paradox: It dawns on the subject that his sense of independence and adequacy, of originality and selfhood, has been in the nature of a delusion, because in it he differed not at all from anyone else; but that in coming to grips with his dependency on an inheritance, in investigating that inheritance in its historical, cultural, and philosophical aspects, and in acknowledging both his relation to a tradition and the tradition’s formative influence on him as tantamount to something transcendental, he has actually risen above the doldrums of complacency and can know himself in a new and startling way. He has actually differentiated himself from others and his openness to knowledge is the key to that alteration of his status. He has declared a kind of independence.

That, pardoning the repetition, is the purpose of this course on the History and Development of the English Language. The line of study that we shall pursue is therefore of immense potential value to anyone who takes the opportunity of genuine higher education seriously and seeks to profit by it. Our course is even more essential for students who are currently matriculating under an English major or who are studying pedagogy with the prospect of becoming a teacher. The fifteen weeks of the semester aim to make mere passive users of the restricted contemporary patois into connoisseurs of the full language in its main phases and their sadly untapped cumulus in the present moment.

Earlier the discussion invoked the thesis that “the very thoughts that a person thinks depend on the language that he uses but did not invent.” The subsequent argument claimed that, despite the incessant pandering of commercial culture, people tend not to be original in their thoughts, but rather to assimilate themselves to thoughts that have become, as it were, ensconced in the language. If originality were vanishingly rare, how then would individuals distinguish themselves intellectually? The discussion has already given one part of the answer: By the degree of consciousness. When Smith merely “has” a thought, which he perhaps mistakes for his own, he is in the way of being acted on rather than acting; but when Smith, recognizing that the thought while not originally his nevertheless has a value and is applicable, then he can move himself to implement it, meaningfully if not creatively, and actively rather than passively. Moreover when Smith ceases to worry whether his thoughts are original and becomes interested in them, as thoughts, and as to whether they are wise or stupid, brave or timid, sharp or dull, useful or merely diverting; when he begins to trace them to their origins and assess their relevance in a new context, then he has honestly taken control of them and in the same measure of himself. He begins to assert mastery over his inheritance. He now distinguishes himself from others according to the number and variety of thoughts that he possesses, his ability to connect them, and the depth of his appreciation concerning them.

II. Dear Students: You have elected to follow the English Department’s course on Theories of Language. This course as I teach it is dedicated to an intensive review of selected theories of language, reaching back to Classical sources. Thus Heraclitus of Ephesus (Late Sixth Century to Early Fifth Century BC), whose cosmology implies that the totality of existence takes its orderliness from a primordial Logos or “Word,” once wrote in a pithy meditation on the inner life that nothing is more difficult to plumb or to understand than the soul. Why should this be so? Insofar as a subject is a soul, then being a soul is the condition of the subject’s activity and knowledge; the subject acts and thinks as a soul and in so doing tends to take himself for granted. Examination of the inner life is difficult because the subject habitually turns his attention away from himself, so much so that the idea of self-inspection rarely occurs to him. It is easy to construct a parallelism on the topic of language, in which Heraclitus also took an abiding interest. Indeed, for Heraclitus, the inner life, or consciousness, is inextricably bound up with language. To think, for Heraclitus, is to participate in the cosmological Word and to recognize that, while one thinks, a correspondence exists between the outer cosmological Word and the inner personal Word of the soul. Knowledge under this theory consists in the attunement of the inner Word with the outer Word. The Ephesian put it this way in the best-known of the extant fragments of his work: “Though this Word is true evermore, yet men are as unable to understand it when they hear it for the first time as before they have heard it at all. For, though all things come to pass in accordance with this Word, men seem as if they had no experience of them, when they make trial of words and deeds such as I set forth, dividing each thing according to its kind and showing how it is what it is. But other men know not what they are doing when awake, even as they forget what they do in sleep.” (Diels-Krantz Catalogue, Fragment 1)

The case of Heraclitus is instructive because he was the first to make two linked observations about human nature. First, Heraclitus observed that insofar as a human being is a thinking creature that is due to the fact that a human being is a speaking creature, a language-user, such that language and consciousness are one and the same. Second, Heraclitus observed that consciousness encounters many an obstacle in studying its own nature, as though a mirror should be ordered to take a look at its own reflection; a mirror might reflect anything, but how might it contrive to reflect itself? Another metaphor that addresses the difficulty of thinking about language (which invariably requires thinking about the consciousness that is able to think) is the metaphor of the fish in the sea. An old rhetorical question poses whether a fish knows that it swims in the sea. Rhetorical questions omit to answer themselves, but for the sake explicitness the implied answer is that a fish never knows that it swims in the sea. The reason should be obvious. The sea is the all-pervasive medium of fishy life. The fish takes an interest in other things, such as tasty-looking smaller fish, that are also in the sea, but not in the sea itself, which it takes perfectly for granted.

Language is to a human being’s awareness what the sea is to the fish’s life: Language is metaphorically the sea in which consciousness swims; and more than that, language and consciousness form an indivisible unity, the aspects of which might be distinguished, but can never be dissociated, from one another. It follows that to theorize about language entails theorizing about consciousness and then again that to theorize about consciousness entails theorizing about human nature or anthropology. It is relevant to the topic to remark on the stereotypical form of the last word in the foregoing sentence, anthropology. The word’s first part is anthropos, Greek for “a human being.” The word’s second part, the -ology, which gives its name to the majority of sciences, is a variant of the Heraclitean lexeme, Logos, meaning in Greek “word,” “language,” “discourse,” and other related concepts. Anthropology would be defined as the orderly discussion of human nature. What is the word for the study of language? There is a crass modern word, linguistics, with a Latin basis, but a better choice is the older name with a Greek basis, philology, or “the love (philia) of language (logos).” As an alternative to “love,” one might use “devotion.” Philology would name the devotion to language, a construction that segues nicely into the phrase, theory of language.

For theory too is a Greek word, as almost all of the sophisticated vocabulary in English is, including the word sophisticated. The Greek noun theoria (its verbal form is theasthein) means to examine something devotedly, so as to come to know that thing’s essential character. It might help to know that the word theater derives from the same root as theoria and theasthein. When a person attends the theater, his attention goes out in sharp focus towards the action on the stage; he devotes himself to the performance not merely so as to understand the plot, but, as it might be, by the famous suspension of disbelief, to participate empathetically in the unfolding drama. In a similar way, a theory of language would be the result, in the form of orderly discourse, of devoting extended study to the phenomena of vocabulary, syntax, grammar, idiom, elocution, and everything else bound up in the word language, which, by the way, is simply Latin for “tongue,” which is why the terms native language and native tongue are interchangeable. Of course, devoting extended study to all those interconnected things would also be to devote extended study to consciousness, which is inseparable from language, as from human nature generally, because language and consciousness function as the distinguishing twin marks of human nature.

To investigate something requires asking questions about it. Some of the questions that investigators since the Athenian Fifth Century BC have been asking about language are: What is it? (That is the toughest question of all and obviously the first question to ask about anything.) Has language always existed or has it an origin? And if language had an origin, what would that origin be? Again, if language had an origin, would it stem from an originator, or would it have come to be without an agency, through a natural process? Why are there many languages instead of just one? Was there originally only one language, which subsequently differentiated into many languages? If so, what drove the process of differentiation? If there were a single, original language, and if that language were at first simple, what would have driven the later phases of language in the direction of complexity? What drives historically attestable, grammatically complex languages like Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, and Gothic to simplify?

Again: How are the existing languages related to one another and to their antecedent languages? What is the minimal component of a language? Is it the sign? If so, what is a sign? What function does language serve? On the assumption that language and consciousness are intermediating, just how do they intermediate? How is spoken language related to written language? Does the acquisition of literacy alter consciousness, as some have argued? Given that almost every religion has a myth about the origin of language, what relation is there, if any, between language and religion or language and the sacred? What is the relation of language to culture? Can language be understood as an institution? How does a lay-person evaluate the many competing theories of language? This compendium by no means exhausts the possible total of questions concerning language.

That language is not only the defining capacity of human beings but that it also constitutes a great and abiding philosophical and religious mystery is attested by prominence of language in religion, myth, and scientific speculation. Heraclitus, whom this discussion has already introduced, is one of the earliest identifiable philosophers. For Heraclitus, language (Logos) provides being itself with a foundation; in Heraclitean discourse, the word Logos becomes interchangeable with the name of Zeus, chief of the gods. In Greek myth, when the Titan Prometheus created humanity out of clay, he endowed his creatures with consciousness by teaching them the words for things. The God of the Bible does the same favor for His creature, Adam, who on awakening to life must submit to a grammar lesson. In Genesis, God brings the universe into existence by uttering his word (dabar). The first line of the Fourth Gospel (The Gospel of John) asserts that, “In the beginning was the Word (Logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” That religion and myth should feel compelled to account for language, and that they should persistently identify language with the sacred and with divinity, suggests that for sensitive souls, language has always made the impression of something transcendent and sublime. Figuring out why this should be so also belongs to the theory of language.

The poets and novelists, for their part, have fretted over the misuse and degeneration of language. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882) wrote in his famous treatise Nature (1836) that language could become worn out through over-use and required regularly to be re-invented or at least re-invigorated. The French Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842 – 1898) asserted that the function of the poet is “to purify the dialect of the tribe,” the idea of purification implying that language might fall subject to contamination. Book Two (1948) of the epic poem Paterson by the New Jersey poet William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963) contains such lines as, “words without style,” “a / language, tongue-tied,” and “the language is worn out,” in criticism of modern usage. The blemish on language, Williams, a physician as well as a poet, implies, is symptomatic of a malaise in the culture, perhaps of a stultification of culture. In Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948), George Orwell (1903 – 1950) sternly warned his audience about political abuse of language as a means whereby a totalitarian order would first impose and then maintain itself. The work of Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918 – 2008) devotes much discussion to the language of propaganda in the Communist dictatorship of the Soviet Union (1917 – 1991). Everyone today is familiar with the regime calling itself sensitivity, but called by others political correctness, which forbids the utterance of certain thoughts, convictions, and observations of the empirical scene. A survey of theories of language, no matter how selective, must inevitably touch on all these issues.

16 thoughts on “Thoughts (for Students) on Language

  1. Translating the term would desiccate it, n’est-ce pas? Part of the richness of English is its propensity to borrow foreign terms, mainly from French, without alteration.

  2. Pingback: Thoughts (for Students) on Language | Reaction Times

  3. Dear William:

    Here are the book lists for the two courses —

    Theories of Language

    [01.] Stanley Appelbaum (editor): English Romantic Poetry – An Anthology. Dover. ISBN-13: 978-0486292823
    [02.] Owen Barfield: History in English Words. Lindisfarne Books. ISBN-13: 978-0940262119
    [03.] Martin Heidegger: On the Way to Language. Harper and Row Paperback Editions.
    ISBN-13: 978-0060638597
    [04.] Plato: Cratylus. Hackett Publishing Company. ISBN-13: 978-0872204164
    [05.] Jean-Jacques Rousseau & Gottfried Herder: On the Origin of Language. University of Chicago Press.
    ISBN-13: 978-0226730127

    History and Development of the English Language

    [01.] Stanley Appelbaum (editor): English Romantic Poetry – An Anthology. Dover. ISBN-13: 978-0486292823
    [02.] Owen Barfield: History in English Words. Lindisfarne Books. ISBN-13: 978-0940262119
    [03.] Bob Blaisdell (Editor): Elizabethan Poetry – An Anthology. Dover. ISBN-13: 978-0486437941
    [04.] James Campbell: Anglo-Saxon Society. Penguin. ISBN-13: 978-0140143959
    [05.] Geoffrey Chaucer: Canterbury Tales. Penguin. ISBN-13: 978-0140422344
    [06.] Seamus Haney (Translator): Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (Bilingual Edition). W. W. Norton.
    ISBN-13: 978-0393320978

    • Thank you forn sharing the readings. I actually own a couple of those books, and will look to own more of them.

      What do you think of Barron’s interlinear translation of the Canterbury Tales?

      Have you read John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, and, if so, what did you think of it?

  4. Don’t know if this helps, but A Dictionary of English Etymology by Hensleigh Wedgwood (1862) is available on google books. I think you can download it for free.

    • Thank you. I believe that Weekley’s Etymological Dictionary is also available through Gutenberg or one of the other online libraries.

  5. “That language is not only the defining capacity of human beings but that it also constitutes a great and abiding philosophical and religious mystery is attested by prominence of language in religion, myth, and scientific speculation.”

    True. I was never really able to figure it out. In the dictionary, we define words with other words. It is quite circular. What does the circularity of the dictionary rest upon? Sensory phenomena? Can language really be “bootstrapped” that way – we refer to basic sensory phenomena by different “grunts” and then use these grunts to define other, more abstract grunts and that way we bootstrap ourselves up to a full language? Or is there something more innate to it, in the Platonic way, more of a discovering or remembering than learning or constructing?

    The Pure Language is mathemathics. And Sir Roger Penrose it is not at all sure what it is. Sure, it looks like a construction, it ought to be a construction, at least to a skeptical, non-theistic person. Yet, according to Sir Roger, mathemathical discoveres look, feel, and behave very much like real discoveries i.e. finding something that was already there. Which smells a whole lot like Platon. Hm.

  6. The basis of language is the sign. As there is no mid-point between not-sign and sign, and as logically there must have been a first sign, it follows that the origin of language was a singularity, an event. The theoretician of this idea is Eric Gans, to whose Origin of Language I refer any curious party. Language “bootstrapped” itself.

  7. Glad to see you’re including Beowulf. A pity that the admirable Murphy-Sullivan translation is not bi-lingual.

    You might enjoy browsing in Stephen Barney’s Word-Hoard, described thus by its publisher Yale U.P.:

    Designed for introductory courses in Old English, Word-Hoard offers a vocabulary of some 2000 words drawn from the poems that beginning students normally read. Exploiting the natural curiosity we feel about our own language, Stephen Barney draws etymological connections, provides mnemonic aids, and introduces the student to cultural and literary concepts as well as words.

  8. “In our day many ingenious theories have been put forth as to the origin of language. But Dr. [E. B.] Pusey believed that the only one which does justice to what it is in itself and to its place in nature as a characteristic of man is the belief that it is an original gift of God; the counterpart of that other and greater gift of His, a self-questioning and immortal soul. Language is the life of the human soul, projected into the world of sound; it exhibits in all their strength and delicacy the processes by which the soul takes account of what passes without and within itself; in it may be studied the minute anatomy of the soul’s life – that inner world in which thought takes shape and conscience speaks, and the eternal issues are raised and developed to their final form. Therefore Dr. Pusey looked upon language with the deepest interest and reverence; he handled it as a sacred thing which could not be examined or guarded or employed too carefully; he thought no trouble too great in order to ascertain and express its exact shades of meaning…”
    — H. P. Liddon, 1884


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