CHAT: BOOK/CHAT: FW: Lunatic Lovers of Language
|Date:||Wednesday, September 23, 1998, 14:05|
--- On Mon, 21 Sep 1998 wrote:
Marina Yaguello, *Lunatic Lovers of Language. Imaginary Languages and
Their Inventors*, Catherine Slater, tr. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson
University Press, 1991. ISBN 0-485-11303-1 (hc)
Short book (223 pages), steep price ($40). I recommend it to anyone with
an interest in the wild side of linguistics. Excerpts follow.
Just take a look at the lunatic in love with language, the logophile, the
inventor of languages. Sitting in his book-lined study, he collects great
piles of information, he collates and classifies it, he makes lists and
fills card indexes. He is in the clutches of a denominatory delirium, of a
taxonomic madness. He has to name everything, but before being able to
name, he has to recognise and classify concepts, to enclose the whole
Universe in a system of notation: produce enumerations, hierarchies and
paradigms. A lunatic ambition; yet there is something grandiose in it
which you can't help admiring. So much energy spent for so little result.
I don't belive any other fantasy has ever been pursued with so much ardour
by the human spirit, apart perhaps from the philosopher's stone or the
proof of the existence of God; or that any other utopia has caused so much
ink to flow, apart perhaps from socialism.
The inventor is possessed by his idea, he sacrifices his personal life and
his financial resources to it, for he is often obliged to publish at his
own expense works that no publisher will touch. He knows that it is more
than the work of his own lifetime to get to the end of the task. With a
bit of luck, his son, or maybe a disciple or even a friend, will pick up
the threads of the unfinished work: Bishop Wilkins died without being able
to complete his project for a philosophical language, but he bequeathed it
to a group of friends; C. Nodier's *archeologist's* project, or repertory
of universal roots, had been handed on to him from the President De
Brosses via a pupil of Court de Gebelin's; Charles Callet's son devoted
himself to publicising the work of his father, and so on.
Now let's suppose that our inventor brings his project to the light of
day. The demon of logophilia will drive him to start another and then
another again. A good many authors of artificial languages have thought up
numerous languages, either successively or simultaneously. Thus the
Russian Petro Stoyan, a perpetual emigre, left behind him in his
wanderings through Europe over a dozen languages devised between 1910 and
1960 [p. 17].
The logophile is also a solitary figure for the most part, although he is
working for the good of humanity and engages in proselytising.
Unfortunately, every time he leaves his study to face the public, he falls
victim to the rivalry, jealousy, criticism, and infighting which
characterise the history of the Universal Language: "Almost always
unrecognised, they were met with scepticism and obscurantism, sometimes
even mockery", writes Monnerot-Dumaine (1960), himself a proponent of the
idea of a universal language.
The inventor of languages is a passionate amateur: in love with language
and with languages, and ignorant of the science of language. What moves
him especially is an aesthetic concern--a desire to produce something
complete, a totality, a self-contained but exhaustive whole, perfectly
symmetrical, and well-oiled down to the last cog, so that no false note or
ambiguity can creep in, where there is nothing wasteful, equivocal or open
to misunderstanding. He seeks to construct something pleasing to the eye
and satisfying to the mind, with none of the regrettable exceptions, the
failures, the gaps or the vagueness which flaw natural languages.
He is an idealist: if he creates a philosophical language, it is to
reconcile language and thought; if he creates a language for
international communication, it is to reconcile mankind. He is often a man
from Central Europe, born in a country divided and torn apart by history:
many inventors from the turn of this century came from the Russian or
Austro-Hungarian Empires. Mostly, he is a man of the church, a teacher or
a doctor, in other words precisely a study-dweller, a man with a pointed
beard and gold-rimmed spectacles, as he appears in the portrait gallery
which graces Monnerot-Dumaine's book, one of the two "bibles" of
If, however, there are logophiles who turn to the future, there are also
those who turn to the past; indeed they are sometimes one and the same.
Imagine now what it is like to reconstruct the original primitive
language. You have to accumulate words and roots from all the languages of
the known world; but of course you yourself only know two or three, or at
most half a dozen. There's no question, in these circumstances, of looking
at grammatical structures; it would be far too complicated, and besides,
you hardly imagine that your own language, or the Indo-European languages,
are *not* the only model of language. You work on written corpuses,
second-hand ones, on hit-and-miss transcriptions of "exotic" languages
brought back by travellers, for you are rarely a fieldworker yourself. You
grasp the world's languages from the safety of your study. You are not
concerned with the relationship between written and spoken forms. For you,
letters equal sounds. How could you know that there are systematic laws
governing phonetic correspondences? Bopp has not yet founded comparitive
grammar, nor have Grimm and Verner formulated their famous laws of
consonant mutation; or perhaps you have you have either never heard of
them, or else try to ignore them [pp. 18-19].
This then is the task of the logophile: on the one hand to grasp a
totality, the set of all languages, the totality of human language, in a
desperate desire for exhaustiveness; it is essential not to let anything
escape. Next, to reduce this totality to a minimum of elements by a
process of progressive atomisation. Thanks to which Marr, for example,
ended up with a hard core composed of four primitive elements. If he had
been able to arrive at a single and solitary primitive word, he would have
been even happier.
To carry out this reduction of all languages to a common denominator, you
track down coincidences, resemblances, however distant, and from time to
time, quite by chance, you hit on a telling comparison; but taken in
isolation, what is it worth? To reduce the irreducible there are many
devices, often borrowed from real features of natural languages--but in
isolation, what do they signify? You juggle with shifts in meaning, with
metonymies, metaphors, antiphrases, comparison of antonyms, metatheses,
epentheses, and goodness knows what else. Everything is grist to your
mill. It's easy when all you bother with is resemblances between isolated
words [pp. 19-20].
Who are these inventors of languages, whether philosophical systems or
ones created for utilitarian ends? Who are the authors of theories on the
origin and development of language?
Men, always men. Out of some four hundred inventors of artificial
languages listed by Couturat and Leau, and later by Monnerot-Dumaine, only
one is a woman, and she is a nun [p. 23].
And, given the culturally determined distinction we have seen emerging
between a female and a male relationship towards language, a worn
metaphor is bound to rear its head here: that of a language in the guise
of a mistress, of a woman: capricious, unpredictable, illogical,
unfaithful, deceitful (because ambiguous), fickle, unstable, prodigal with
herself (because full of redundancy), rebellious (because difficult to
master), needing man to tame her and bring her to heel. For these defects
are precisely the ones which the inventors of languages--all of them men,
remember--have always accused natural languages of showing [p. 27].
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