Saturday, 21 December 2013

Uncritical nationalism is linguistic voodoo

What makes Shakespeare great? What makes Dante great?

As my last blog entry suggests, I'm not a huge fan of Mark Abley types - you know the type: they're liable to say something like "this is an untranslatable word" then proceed to translate it. There is something contrived, stiff and Harper-ish about them because the "insight" is amateurishly handled and/or just plain wrong to begin with. Mark Abley would make a perfect writer for the History Channel. But what makes Shakespeare great, or - for that matter - what makes a Newton or a Riemann great?

It is not the creation of something new but a way of seeing something in a novel way. For the master of the sonnet it was the iambic pentameter - a constraint to test the limits of linguistic creativity. I highly doubt many of us could identify the cadence and rhythm of the iambic pentameter in our na├»ve state though all of us would be able to perceive, if not appreciate, the aesthetic quality of it - there definitely is a style afoot...

It was the same with Newton and his fluxions and fluents* to calculate the tides and orbitals with infinitesimals and limits. Ditto for Riemann: he used an old Euler formula but his innovation was to use the imaginary unit as an exponent to correct the errors in the prime counting function...for all cases, the elements were already there needing only fresh insights to naturally fall into place. Perhaps the semiosis was realized upon later reflection but the coherence and consistency was always there to be discovered.

*ironically, Newton's nemesis, Leibnitz' notations and terminology won out where we now have derivatives and such in calculus...

As a commentator of language and ideas it is my belief that uncritical linguistic voodoo and haphazardly juxtaposed over-romanticization of language (any language) is a killer of languages (at work in both the dominant and colonialized languages). I've always tried to demonstrate, by way of thought experiments mostly, that Inuktitut is just as effective in conveying ideas of the modern world as - say - English.

I know for a fact that the morphological structure of Inuktitut is better than English in many ways though in terms of grammatico-lexical flexibility and adaptability English is pretty fine. This is especially so for non-agglutinated terms (bare, stand-alone terms, that is - paradoxically, the more foreign the origin the better, it seems). I suspect that perfect conditions of linguistic efficacy (for modern English) have to do with both the grammatical structure of the language and the accidental choice of a phonemic writing system (ie, [f] is spelt variously as "ph", "gh", "f" etc.) that allow such adaptability. That English...I'm so jealous.

The symbolic notational systems of science and maths are not language-specific. In fact, the openness to arbitrary labelling of concepts and ideas in science make it not language-specific. What matters is that the taxonomical scheme has internal consistency and logic in order for this to work. The beauty of semiological spaces is that, once perceived, the logic of the terminology systems tend to fall into place regardless of what people like Harper, Abley and the like say.


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