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Old 02-11-2009   #1
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Passages on Language and Etymology

If I were an early, primitive man, instead of the man that I feel these days, and if I had not yet built a language for naming my tree, dumbstruck, I would go looking for a small child. What is it, I would ask. The child would say a word never heard before, pointing up into the tree in eagerness for my attention. The word would have the sound of ai, then a gentle breath, aiw, and it would sound right for this tree. The word would then enter the language by way of me, I would tell it to my friends, and thousands of generations later, long after my time, it would be used to describe many things, not trees but the feeling that was contained in that particular tree. Aiw would become EVER, and AYE, and EON and AGE. The Sanskrit language would have built it into the word ayua, meaning life. Gothic would have used it for a word, aiwos, eternity. Latin would have placed it in aevem and aetas, for the connected ideas of age and eternity. The Greeks would have put it into aion, vital force, and we would receive it in our word EON. German would have it as ewig, the word sung over and over in a high voice in Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. And some of the languages, in their hopes, would insert a yeu sound as a prefix, and the new sound would form words for YOUTH, YOUNG, JUVENILE. By this time all trace of meaning of the chestnut tree would be gone.

In order to get a language really to work from the outset, as a means of human communication by speech, it must have been technically obligatory to make, first off, the words needed to express the feelings aroused by things, particularly living things in the world. Naming as a taxonomic problem could come later and would take care of itself. But for ideas to begin flowing in and out of minds, so that the deepest indispensability of language could take hold, the feelings would have to come first into speech, and that sense of the roots must persist like genes in all the words to follow.

-- Lewis Thomas, Et Cetera, Et Cetera: Notes of a Word-Watcher (1990) cited in Kristin Linklater, Freeing Shakespeare's Voice: The Actor's Guide to Talking the Text (1992)

"Reality is the shadow of the word." -- Bruno Schulz
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Old 02-11-2009   #2
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Re: Passages on Language and Etymology

From George Steiner's After Babel

We are, in the main, 'word-blind' to Pre-Raphaelite and Decadent verse. This blindness results from a major change in habits of sensibility. Our contemporary sense of the poetic, our often unexamined presumptions about valid or spurious uses of figurative speech have developed from a conscious negation of fin de siecle ideals. It was precisely with the rejection, by the Modernist movement, of Victorian and post-Victorian aesthetics, that the new astringency and insistence on verifiable structure came into force. We have for a time disqualified ourselves from reading comprehensively (a word which has in it the root for 'understanding') not only a good deal of Rossetti, but the poetry and prose of Swinburne, William Morris, Aubrey Beardsley, Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, and Richard Le Gallienne. Dowson's 'Cynara' poem or Arthur Symons's 'Javanese Dancers' provide what comes near to being a test-case. Even in the cool light of the early 1990s, the intimation of real poetry is undeniable. Something vital and with an authority of its own is taking place just out of reach. Much more is involved here than a change of fashion, than the acceptance by journalism and the academy of a canon of English poetry chosen by Pound and Eliot. This canon is already being challenged; the primacy of Donne may be over, Browning and Tennyson are visibly in the ascendant. A design of literature which finds little worth commending between Dryden and Hopkins is obviously myopic. But the problem of how to read the Pre-Raphaelites and the poets of the nineties cuts deeper. What conceivable revolution of spirit would redirect us to a land of clear colours and stories
In a region of shadowless hours,
Where earth has a garment of glories
And a murmur of musical flowers...?
It is, literally, as if a language had been lost or the key to a cipher mislaid.
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Old 02-12-2009   #3
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Re: Passages on Language and Etymology

Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language. "English," writes Virginia Woolf, "which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear has no words for the shiver or the headache... The merest schoolgirl when she falls in love has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her, but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry." True of the headache, Woolf's account is of course more radically true of the severe and prolonged pain that may accompany cancer or burns or phantom limb or stroke, as well as of the severe and prolonged pain that may occur unaccompanied by any nameable disease. Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned.

-- Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (1985)

"Reality is the shadow of the word." -- Bruno Schulz
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Old 02-12-2009   #4
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Re: Passages on Language and Etymology

Poetic creation begins as violence to language. The first act in this operation is the uprooting of words. The poet wrests them from their habitual connections and occupations: separated from the formless world of speech, words become unique, as if they had just been born. The second act is the return of the word: the poem becomes an object of participation. Two opposing forced inhabit the poem: one of elevation or uprooting, which pulls the word from the language; the other of gravity, which makes it return.

--Octavio Paz, The Bow and the Lyre (1987), trans. Ruth Simms

"Reality is the shadow of the word." -- Bruno Schulz
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Old 02-12-2009   #5
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Re: Passages on Language and Etymology

From Book 2, Section 2, Chapter 4 of the New Science (1725), by Giambattista Vico, trans. David Marsh

All the philosophers and philologists ought to have begun their discussion of the origins of languages and letters with the following three principles. (1) The first pagan people conceived ideas of things using imaginative archetypes of animate beings, or personifications. (2) In their mute condition, they expressed themselves by using gestures and objects naturally related to their ideas, such as three ears of grain or three scythe strokes to mean three years. (3) And they expressed themselves using language with natural meanings. This language, which Plato and Iamblichus said was once spoken in the world, must have been the most ancient language of Atlantis, which according to scholars expressed ideas using the nature of things, or their natural properties.

The origins of languages and letters are inseparable. But the philosophers and philologists treated them as separate, and so the inquiry proved too difficult. For while both questions involved equal difficulties, they paid little or no attention to the origins of languages. . . .

The Egyptians related that the entire history of the world was divided into three ages: the ages of gods, heroes, and men. And people in these ages spoke three languages: first, the hieroglyphic, or sacred and divine, language; second, the symbolic language, which used signs and heroic emblems; and third, the epistolary language, by which people at a distance communicated their current needs. Two golden passages in Homer’s Iliad make clear that the Greeks shared the Egyptians’ view. The first passage relates that Nestor lived through three ages of men speaking different languages. Thus, Nestor must have been a heroic archetype representing the Egyptian chronology of languages; and the proverbial phrase “to live as long as Nestor” meant to grow as old as the world. In the second passage, Aeneas tells Achilles that, after Troy was moved to the seashore and Pergamum became its citadel, Ilium was inhabited by people speaking different languages. To this first principle, we may join another Egyptian tradition, which said that their god Thoth, or Mercury, invented both laws and letters.

With these truths, we may group the following ones concerning the first human institutions, beginning with names and laws. In Greek, the nouns “name” and “character” were synonymous, so that the Church Fathers use both interchangeably in their writings about divine names and divine characters. In Latin, the nouns “name” and “definition” are likewise synonymous. Hence, in rhetoric, the definition of the fact is called the question of name, quaestio nominis. And nomenclature is the area of medicine which defines the nature of diseases. In Roman personal names, the nomen or surname primarily and properly referred to a person’s extended clan of families. The names of the early Greeks shared this meaning, as is shown by their patronymics, meaning the names of the fathers, which are often cited by the poets, especially by the first poet Homer. (In Livy, a tribune of the people likewise defines the Roman patricians as those “who can cite their fathers by name,” qui possunt nomine ciere patrem.) With the rise of democracy throughout Greece, these patronymics eventually disappeared; but in the aristocracy at Sparta, they were preserved by the Heraclids. In Roman law, the word nomen, name, means one’s right to something. In Greek, the phonetically similar nomos means law. From this noun, comes nomisma, meaning coin, as Aristotle observes; and some etymologists also derive Latin nummus, coin, from it. (Similarly, in French loi means law, and aloi means coin. During the medieval return of barbarism, the term “canon” meant both an ecclesiastical law and the feudal rent paid to the owner of a fief) . . .

To turn to property, the Latin term praedia initially meant rustic estates, and only later urban ones. These were so called because the first cultivated fields were the world’s first booty, praeda . . . Such fields were the first to be tamed, and thus in early Roman law were called manuceptae, taken in hand; and a person under real-estate bond to the public treasury was called a manceps, bondsman. . . .

Let me conclude these observations with the following three indisputable truths. (1) Since all the first pagan nations were at first mute, they must have expressed themselves by gestures or objects naturally related to their ideas. (2) They must have used signs to secure the boundaries of their estates and to provide lasting witnesses of their rights. (3) They all used some form of money. All these truths indicate the origins of languages and letters, and in turn the origins of hieroglyphics, laws, names, family coats of arms, medals, and coins, as well as those of the language and writing used by the first natural law of the nations.
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Old 02-12-2009   #6
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Re: Passages on Language and Etymology

From the Preface to A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), by Samuel Johnson

Every language has its anomalies, which, though inconvenient, and in themselves once unnecessary, must be tolerated among the imperfections of human things, and which require only to be registered, that they may not be increased, and ascertained, that they may not be confounded: but every language has likewise its improprieties and absurdities, which it is the duty of the lexicographer to correct or proscribe.

As language was at its beginning merely oral, all words of necessary or common use were spoken before they were written; and while they were unfixed by any visible signs, must have been spoken with great diversity, as we now observe those who cannot read to catch sounds imperfectly, and utter them negligently. When this wild and barbarous jargon was first reduced to an alphabet, every penman endeavoured to express, as he could, the sounds which he was accustomed to pronounce or to receive, and vitiated in writing such words as were already vitiated in speech. The powers of the letters, when they were applied to a new language, must have been vague and unsettled, and, therefore, different hands would exhibit the same sound by different combinations.

From this uncertain pronunciation arise, in a great part, the various dialects of the same country, which will always be observed to grow fewer and less different, as books are multiplied; and from this arbitrary representation of sounds by letters proceeds that diversity of spelling observable in the Saxon remains, and, I suppose, in the first books of every nation, which perplexes or destroys analogy, and produces anomalous formations that being once incorporated can never be afterward dismissed or reformed.

Of this kind are the derivatives length from long, strength from strong, darling from dear, breadth from broad, from dry, drought, and from high, height, which Milton, in zeal for analogy, writes highth; Quid te exempta juvat spinis de pluribus una?: to change all would be too much, and to change one is nothing.

This uncertainty is most frequent in the vowels, which are so capriciously pronounced, and so differently modified, by accident or affectation, not only in every province, but in every mouth, that to them, as is well known to etymologists, little regard is to be shown in the deduction of one language from another.

Such defects are not errors in orthography, but spots of barbarity impressed so deep in the English language that criticism can never wash them away: these, therefore, must be permitted to remain untouched: but many words have likewise been altered by accident, or depraved by ignorance, as the pronunciation of the vulgar has been weakly followed; and some still continue to be variously written, as authors differ in their care or skill.
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Old 02-13-2009   #7
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Re: Passages on Language and Etymology

"Take one step across the threshold of his stories, and you plunge into color, sound, taste, smell, and texture - into language."

-- Ray Bradbury on Clark Ashton Smith's fiction

"In my imagination, I have a small apartment in a small town where I live alone and gaze through a window at a wintry landscape." -- TL
Confusio Linguarum - visionary literature, translingualism & bibliophily
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Old 02-13-2009   #8
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Re: Passages on Language and Etymology

Word clones / Word Clowns

MY WEBSITE: www.nemonymous.com
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Old 02-16-2009   #9
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Re: Passages on Language and Etymology

Athenaeum Fragment No. 435 by Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829), trans. Peter Firchow

Some grammarians seem to want to introduce into language that principle in the old law of nations that says every stranger is an enemy. But a writer who knows how to manage even without foreign words will always have a right to use them wherever the demands of his genre require or make desirable a coloration of universality; and a historical mind will have a respectful and loving interest in old words and will occasionally rejuvenate them. After all, they often have not only more experience and understanding, but also more vitality and unity than many so-called human beings or grammarians.
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Old 02-17-2009   #10
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Re: Passages on Language and Etymology

From El or the Last Book (1973), by Edmond Jabès (trans. Rosmarie Waldrop)

O crumbled word, O book turned to dust. You thought you had done with letters, with symbols. But is that possible? Dust begets more dust.

It is clear that, facing nothingness, any sense is nonsense, any reality crushingly unreal, any alliance a sealed avowal of its useless strength.

Pages full of eyes turned towards death, towards evening.
Long have we searched the horizon in the dark.

O spent point, infinite defense of the book.
A single grain of sand holds out against the desert.

In the word commentaire,” he repeated, “there are the words taire, se taire, faire taire, ‘to be silent, to fall silent, to silencewhich quotation demands.”)

All other life ceases in the life put into words.

The difference between the living and the dead is that the living talk while the dead do not.

Our body decays when it is suddenly robbed of its language, no longer conversant with itself, unable to form, to inform, to confirm.

We speak to the dead in order to bring them back to life. All we manage is the illusion of a general resurrection.
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