the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world
THE SEMI-REGULAR DOGMATIC, 3
There is no language but language. I am, I insist, nobody’s prophet (except perhaps mine). I take dictation not from anything as indisputable as an archangel, but from my own (?) mystical and barely comprehensible intuition, alias lusus naturae. Nonetheless, I seek to depose, or expose, a pantheon of non-beings to which I am tired of being told I owe reverence. Or possibly I have just misinterpreted the way these pseudogods are talked about; if they are not taken seriously, there is no reason for this diatribe to be.
The question, raised for me by the notion that foreign words should be italicized in writing, demands our attention, all the more so because most persons fail to consider it valid, the answer having already been assumed along with the rest of a large package of structural components in the standard worldview. Is there such a thing as a language? Are words ever foreign? How does a person determine when a word is foreign? How does a person determine what a particular language is?
The question is most appropriately addressed to self-styled grammarians, who have been spreading the gospel without doing the necessary theological introspection. There are two types of grammarians, prescriptive and descriptive, as the latter will proudly tell you, generally with a sneer of contempt towards the former. They maintain a clamorous debate. In fact, there is nothing wrong with either prescriptive or descriptive grammarians, except that the former are mostly stubborn orthodoxists and the latter are mostly scientist wanna-bes. (Students of all subjects want to be ‘scientists’, who get all the respect, but operate as an exclusive club, keeping out undesirables, pompously guarding turf ceded to them by people gullible enough to believe the presumptuous and arrogant claim “scimus” ― we know.) In actuality, few grammarians of either camp escape a quite severe misconception concerning language. It is generally spoken of like it were the Force, some sort of independently living thing, binding all thinking things together, surrounding us and penetrating us, controlling our actions and obeying our commands. No, no, no!
Language is just a tool. It means what we want it to mean. We should not pretend, as most describers do, that prescription is meddling, and language is beyond its users’ control. We should not pretend, as most prescribers do, that description is final or exhaustive, and that we simply await the compilation of the ultimate authoritative textbook-dictionary.
Quixotically, perhaps hubristically, here is my analysis: the objects of physical sensation are percepts. The objects of thought are concepts. A concept of perceptual patterns, abstracted from the percepts themselves, is a perceptual paradigm. A perceptual paradigm taken to represent another concept is a symbol. A system for deriving new symbols by compounding symbols is a logic. The total of symbols and logics understood by an individual is an idiolect. The intersection of two (or more) idiolects is a dialect.
Language is the use of symbols. What are called ‘languages’ and ‘dialects’ in general usage are actually indistinct. I call them ‘dialects’; the standard terms designate broad and not-so-broad dialects, respectively. The broader, more inclusive in terms of numbers of users, consist of narrower vocabularies (sets of symbols) or grammars (sets of logics), or broader perceptual paradigms. Interpreting percepts as symbols is a matter of matching up the observed patterns with the recognized paradigms. All paradigms must be to some extent loose, since idiolects and dialects are constantly changing, if only subtly (all flows, said Heraclitus).
I cannot explain the prevailing and pervading desire to draw boundaries and erect walls, both literally and figuratively, which I notice around me. But I can point out, as I am doing here, where I find such cordons to be not only disruptive but nonsensical.
As such, my idiolect contains no “foreign” words (that would be nonsensical). Because language is at my command, vice non versa, my idiolect will reflect my own logic in its idiosyncrasies, and that is quite deliberate. As my interest in persons here is not as bodies but as minds, every person is ‘it’, regardless of chromosomes or sex organs. For personal symbols, I try to keep the same form as that used by the person itself, as far as I can and as far as the person wants. (My own symbol is an exception; the important thing to me is not the form but the meaning, and I treat it accordingly, even if only approximately. In Mexico, I would be ‘Obispo Vado’.) For place symbols I try to preserve the forms in use in the places themselves. The preservation of personal and local symbols is crucial, I think, to the development of a generally accepted world dialect. As symbols change over time, there will be eventual consolidation. But if assimilation is forced, the group using the dialect will be exclusive rather than inclusive, contrary to the point. In any case, Yankees will have the easiest time of it (though you can expect there to be plenty of griping anyway). Yankeedom is the master of the current hegemony, the so-called “western” tradition ― sciences, alphabets, neckties ― and where once imperialists and missionaries subjected the world to this tradition, now peoples are falling all over themselves to adopt it, pathetically and shamefully believing the shit about neckties being an integral part of the opulent western lifestyle. The truth about our standard of living is that it only works for a minority, but the poor majority will have already entered the tradition by the time this secret is realized.
The dialect of these starving people in neckties will be much like that now spoken by us, me and thee; that is, its symbols will have evolved from ours, which evolved from those of the Normans and Romans and Greeks and, of course, preconquest England. But while the Anglo-Saxons’ logics and structural symbols have been largely retained, most of the concepts we use are represented by symbols taken from the less boorish, more respectable elements; the words of the folk became marginalized and contemptible. In common technical terms, our dialect is a creole, that is, a pidgin adopted as everyday language. A pidgin is a dialect developed to facilitate communication between two groups; generally one is dominant and provides the vocabulary, while the subordinate group provides the foundation. Even “pure English” is a mutt.
Building my idiolect so that it might include all the symbols of a potential world dialect, I try my best to import symbols, make them mine, with as little change as possible. While, as you may have noticed, this may be initially difficult to understand, getting used to it is not as daunting as it may appear. Indeed, only a few months’ work is required to develop the ability to use any unfamiliar symbols, at least on an individual basis (logics are a different story). Gestures are natural for most people; writing just needs extrapolation from drawing, and requires less precision; speech sounds are tricky for most people only because they won’t make the effort. But there are only so many things that can be done with the mouth, and plenty of patterns which simplify learning (watch the very young). And about half the world writes with the alphabetical system, unchanged logically since the Greeks began writing Semitic signs left-to-right three thousand years ago. Due to European imperialism and colonialism that system now extends through the range of longitude and latitude; if “western” society meets its inevitable doom later rather than sooner, its hegemony will soon be all-encompassing. All the compound symbols in the alphabetical system throughout the whole world can be formed from fewer than two hundred base symbols. Of course, that relates these visual symbols to neither audial symbols nor the concepts they are supposed to represent, but does furnish a powerful basis for learning them.
Learning symbols will expand your idiolect, which in turn will give you access to more dialects and set the stage for a broadening of a common dialect. The point of learning language is not to “be fluent”, to “know a language”, but to communicate, to understand and be understood. Start now and get used to new or looser paradigms, different logics, perhaps a totally new way of thinking. Be unorthodox; it’s okay. Join me in my eclecticism. It is not heresy. The gods will not object.
© BISHOP FORD
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and O.T. Ford