Notes on Language and Poetry

By Michelle Mairesse





"You taught me language, and my profit on it is I know how to curse."

Shakespeare, The Tempest



  In Shakespeare's The Tempest, the magician Prospero reminds the monster Caliban that he taught Caliban language when the monster had "no language but a cry." Caliban is unappreciative of this boon because he is still a monster, albeit a monster who speaks. Animals can convey information with cries and gestures, but only humans have the vocal and neurological equipment to speak, create meaning, communicate, and understand spoken and written language. The German philosopher Ernst Cassirer believed that humankind's acquisition of an elaborate symbolic system has transformed our lives, so that we live in a "new dimension of reality."

All human societies have languages with complex syntactical structures, and normal children can learn the local version of any language without an accent until they are twelve years old. Feral children who lack the cultural stimulus of language during this crucial twelve-year period never acquire the range and fluency of acculturated children. The poorest, least educated children anywhere in the world who grow up in a community of speakers are the inheritors of incalculable riches, whatever language or dialect they learn to speak. (Linguists bypass the problem of differentiating a language from a dialect by joking that a language is a dialect with a navy.)

During their first twelve years, children learn to attach sounds to the visible and invisible world around them, and the sounds and structure of their primary language creates a kind of template for future language learning. We understand (or misunderstand) our native language directly, but foreign languages have to be translated into our native tongue. One meaning of babble (derived from the Biblical story of the tower of Babel) is "to utter meaningless sounds." Our word barbarian comes from the Greek word for foreigners, which was the Greeks' imitation of the outlandish bar bar sounds foreigners made when they spoke. (The barbarians, of course, thought it was the Greeks who were making funny sounds.)

Children and isolated groups who are unacquainted with other languages imagine that their native language provides them with the "real" names of things. The best cure for linguistic provincialism is the study of foreign languages. New concepts and different grammatical forms give us insight into the peculiarities of the mother tongue. The Italian expression "translator-traitor" acknowledges the danger inherent in the confusion of tongues.

The Japanese word mokusatsu means both "to ignore" and "to refrain from comment." The Japanese cabinet was preparing to accede to the Allied ultimatum in 1945 but wanted time to deliberate. The press release announcing a policy of mokusatsu was not translated as "to refrain from comment" but as "to ignore." Rather than lose face, the cabinet let the misinterpretation stand, and the atomic holocaust followed.

The brilliant amateur linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf discovered that Native American languages reflect different conceptual universes. Of the Hopis he says,
"I find it gratuitous to assume that a Hopi who knows only the Hopi language and the cultural ideas of his own society has the same notions, often supposed to be intuitions, of time and space that we have, and that are generally assumed to be universal. In particular, he has no general notion or intuition of TIME as a smooth flowing continuum in which everything in the universe proceeds at an equal rate, out of a future, through a present, into a past; or, in which, to reverse the picture, the observer is being carried in the stream of duration continuously away from a past and into a future.... Just as it is possible to have any number of geometries other than the Euclidean which give an equally perfect account of space configurations, so it is possible to have descriptions of the universe, all equally valid, that do not contain our familiar contrasts of time and space. The relativity viewpoint of modern physics is one such view, conceived in mathematical terms, and the Hopi Weltanschauung is another and quite different one, nonmathematical and linguistic." (Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, Edited by John B. Carroll, The MIT Press, c. 1956)

Where the subject-predicate form of Indo-European languages forces us to say, "The fire flamed up," the Hopis say, "Flame." Hopis have a single word to name everything that flies except birds. We can be more explicit and differentiate between airplanes and bumblebees, simply by naming them.

The Inuit have different words for various forms of snow but no generic term for "snow, generally speaking." All adjectives in Hottentot apply to cows unless something else is specified. Hawaiian has no word for "weather." Quecha has no word for "clean." There are Native American languages and Asian languages that classify things by shape (round, linear, granular), a less arbitrary distinction than some European languages make when they divide the universe into masculine, feminine, and neuter genders.

To the dismay of metaphysicians, all the categories they had believed to be embedded in the universe were merely projected onto the universe by their language systems. A number of twentieth-century philosophers made a career of linguistic analysis in the attempt to expose and eliminate the hidden categories of language. Alfred Korzybski went so far as to write his treatises without using the word "is" so as to avoid implying the category of "existence." (Sometimes, though, he slipped. Anyone who wishes to pursue the subject might want to consult Korzybski's General Semantics.)

Korzybski untiringly repeated, "The map is not the territory." A map that perfectly represented a city in its entirety would have to be the size of the city. The map is not the territory, and the word or proposition is not the thing it refers to; the spoken or written word has none of the referent's characteristics.

How many angels can dance on the point of a ball-point pen?

Philosophically, Occidentals have been living off Greek capital for over two thousand years. Greek grammatical classifications, rules for definition, and theory of logic have been basic in Western thinking. Even the term "semiotics," recently revived to describe the philosophical investigation of language, was used by the Stoics.

Paramount among Greek thinkers are Aristotle and Plato. (Alfred North Whitehead said that all of philosophy is a footnote to Plato.) Plato's enduring accounts of the speculations that engaged the best minds of Athens in the fifth century BCE have fascinated readers over the centuries.

Plato immortalized his teacher, Socrates, in the Apology, Crito, and Phaedo, which depict an extraordinary man who lived by his principles. Even when in 399 the Athenian authorities sentenced him to death for religious heresies and for "corrupting" youths with his teaching, Socrates serenely comforted his students before drinking the poisoned chalice. Socrates thought of philosophy as "the pursuit of meanings." He methodically questioned his students, forcing them to define such terms as justice, good, and piety, terms they used liberally in discourse without considering what their words meant.

Socrates knew that the great enemy of communication is ambiguity, and abstractions like justice are subject to several interpretations. Is justice being served when a serial killer is executed by the state? The term justice is ambiguous. If you look up "justice" in a dictionary, you will find several definitions. (Dictionaries define words in terms of usage, and usage sometimes changes, which accounts for the frequent revisions and new editions of dictionaries.) One definition for justice is "the administration of law." Another is "righteousness." Disputes about the justice of state executions come about because the disputants are using key words in very different ways. Although they may not agree after a discussion, they would certainly understand and communicate their positions better if they defined their terms before arguing.

Speakers sometimes use words for which there are no actual referents. We can discuss griffins, gargoyles, and unicorns without for a moment believing that any of them have ever existed, yet we often think of such theoretical entities as super-egos and neutrinos as if they were pieces of furniture. We call this tendency to turn abstractions into objects reification.

The problem of fictions has intrigued many contemporary philosophers. When we make a distinction between something that is real (this computer) and something that is not real (unicorns), to justify our unbelief, we will appeal to the evidence of our senses, authority, or whatever convinces us that unicorns are not real.

A related problem is that of paradoxes. How are we able to make some statements that apparently contradict themselves? Here are some examples:
  • The statement after the semicolon is false; the statement before the semicolon is true.
  • All generalizations are false, including this one.
  • Epimedes the Cretan said, "All Cretans are liars."
  • The barber in our neighborhood shaves everyone who doesn't shave himself. Does he shave himself?

The school of Logical Positivists claims that all natural languages lead to paradoxes and verbal quibbles. They invented a calculus to express propositions from natural languages in unambiguous form. A group of words which show relations (if, and, or, no , all and some) are the constants of their systems. The symbols which represent these terms never represent anything else, just as the arithmetical plus and minus signs refer always to the relations of addition and subtraction. Unfortunately for their theory, symbols cannot stand alone. Just as mathematical formulas must be accompanied by a text in ordinary language so that its symbols can be interpreted, so must the axioms of symbolic logic be translated into ordinary language.

But what about extraordinary language, the rhythmical, metaphorical, singing, swinging language of poets?

"A new meaning is the equivalent of a new word." Wallace Stevens


Poets make some philosophers uneasy. Plato would have banished them from his ideal republic because they deal with unreality. The poet Wallace Stevens says , "For Plato, the only reality that mattered is exemplified best for us in the principles of mathematics. The aim of our lives should be to draw ourselves away as much as possible from the unsubstantial fluctuating facts of the world about us and establish some communion with the objects which are apprehended by thought and not sense."

But Stevens protests, ". . .poetry has to do with reality in that concrete and individual aspect of it which the mind can never tackle altogether on its own terms, with matter that is foreign and alien in a way in which abstract systems, ideas in which we detect an inherent pattern, a structure that belongs to the ideas themselves, can never be. It is never familiar to us in the way in which Plato wished the conquests of the mind to be familiar. On the contrary its function, the need which it meets and which has to be met in some way in every age that is not to become decadent or barbarous is precisely this contact with reality as it impinges on us from the outside, the sense that we can touch and feel a solid reality which does not wholly dissolve itself into the conceptions of our own minds. It is the individual and particular that does this. And the wonder and mystery of art, as indeed of religion in the last resort, is the revelation of something 'wholly other' by which the inexpressible loneliness of thinking is broken and enriched. To know facts as facts in the ordinary way has, indeed, no particular power or worth. But a quickening of our awareness of the irrevocability by which a thing is what it is, has such power, and it is, I believe, the very soul of art. But no fact is a bare fact, no individual is a universe in itself."

Stevens objects to abstracting the poem's meaning and appraising it by non-aesthetic standards. "The 'something said' is important, but it is important to the poem only in so far as the saying of that particular something in a special way is a revelation of reality. The form derives its significance from the whole. Form has no significance except in relation to the reality that is being revealed." Wallace Stevens, Opus Posthumous , Alfred A. Knopf, 1957

So we need poetry not only to "purify the language of the tribe," but also to expand the concepts of the tribe.

The poet Charles Simic says it best: "Poetry proves again and again that any single overall theory of anything doesn't work. Poetry is always the cat concert under the window of the room in which the official version of reality is being written."