Whence Language?

Sometimes you find an author has expressed an idea wonderfully except for its cast. Instead of an aphorism, a proverb, a quotable, you get something inextricable from its original source. Such is the case for this definition of creative writing (as I see it; you may call it something else) from J. M. Coetzee’s book Disgrace (which I have recently read and will review here someday soon):

Although he devotes hours of each day to his new discipline, he finds its first premise, as enunciated in the Communications 101 handbook, preposterous: ‘Human society has created language in order thay we may communicate our thoughts, feelins and intentions to each other.’ His own opinion, which he does not air, is that the origins of speech lie in song, and the origins of song in the need to fill out with sound the overlarge and rather empty human soul.

I think this gets at that ungettable definition of “good” we’ve been wondering about, puts poetically something we may have suspected: that language is not just about carrying the world from one person to another (though it can do that), that language is also about beauty and truth (in the artistic sense). Coetzee, by the way, is the 2003 Nobel prize winner for literature. He’s a South African. Dan has his book The Life and Times of Michael K.

PatrickQuotes04/24/04 7 comments


Dad • 04/24/04 6:41 PM:

You are right; that language is not just about carrying the world from one person to another…that language is also about beauty and truth (in the artistic sense). However, the premise referred to in the Communications 101 handbook speaks of why language was created, not how it may be used.

I’m inclined to believe that language was created out of the necessity of communicating our knowledge and intentions to others. “Let’s call that thing a Woolly Mammoth so you’ll know what I’m talking about next time I mention it.” Art, of course, came a short time later, but I think it was necessarily preceded by simple language to facilitate communication. One might ask, “which came first, Art or Science? (or commerce, or cooperation…).

Patrick • 04/26/04 8:43 AM:

It’s hard to know, but I can agree with you on the actual origin of language. I think I like the quote for its distinction between regular language and creative language. People ask me all the time what is creative nonfiction. I usually come up with some variation on what Coetzee wrote (even before he wrote it). But it is interesting to note, as AJ pointed out in his comment, that we have to know a language to really get its artistic value. If we hear German, we may like a scientific treatise as much as a poem. And yet that’s not completely true, I don’t think. Adam Gopnik wrote in Paris to the Moon about telling his son a serial story about a toddler who played Major League Baseball. One day Gopnik realized that his son had no idea what a lot of the words in the stories meant: bunt, bean ball, outfield, etc. But the kid loved the stories anyway. I found that same thing with my kids recently, when I was reading them a story in Spanish and realized that they had probably never heard some of those words before. But it didn’t quite matter. And even as adults, when we read we come across words we don’t know (and there’s a continuum: some words we’ve heard but don’t exactly know very well; some words we think we know but we don’t know the definition that’s meant; other words we just know) and we rarely stop, put our book down, and look them up in a dictionary. I myself often mark the words, thinking I’ll be able to go back later and look them up. And sometimes I do look them up, but while I’m reading, I just gloss over them and get my meaning from the other words.

Also, I realized not too long ago that we have several words for the same thing not because they have different nuances, but because we want music in our language. There’s a strange rhythm to the best writing and speech, and we choose our words not only to convey but to move. One extreme example of this is metrical, rhymed poetry (like Shakespeare, for instance). But even short of quantifiable meter and sounds, there is rhythm in sentences and across paragraphs that is perceptible, but maybe only at some subconscious level. We read it and smile because it’s written so beautifully. “It flows” we may say. I try to write that way, influenced greatly by Brian Doyle, who I think is a master of it. So often in my writing workshops (I’m in one this quarter) I find that people have no clue about this (and their grammar is horrendous, given their status as graduate students in English). It’s dismaying sometimes.

Patrick • 04/29/04 11:21 AM:

Here’s another quote that’s linked (at least in my mind). It’s from Scott Russell Sanders’s essay “Who Speaks on the Page?” :

Good prose is a kind of speech, more deliberate and shapely than the words we utter aloud, yet still akin to the living voice. Anyone who writes well, I suspect, writes primarily by ear, listening to the music of words.

Patrick • 05/01/04 12:56 PM:

Yet another similar quote, this time from Alphonso Lingis’s book Dangerous Emotions:

Prior to the speech that informs and the speech that directs and orders, there is the speech that articulates for those who were not there, and articulates further for those who were, what we laugh and weep over, what we bless and curse.

Dan • 05/23/04 10:43 AM:

If we hear German, we may like a scientific treatise as much as a poem.

There is a “song” on Tool’s Ænima album called “Die Eier Von Satan”. It’s a slow, industrial, weird interlude. Its title means “The Eggs of Satan”. It features a German guy giving a speech to a crowd over the slow beat in German. He sounds very angry and evil (“Satan” is in the title, after all), but as Ryan Westfield pointed out, the English translation of the lyrics is a recipe for cookies. The main part is near the end when the speaker yells and repeats angrily, “und Keine Eier!”, which means, “and no eggs!” The crowd erupts and the song ends.

Patrick • 01/06/05 8:31 PM:

I recently found another related quote, from Leonard Michael’s essay “My Yiddish,” which is reprinted in this year’s Best American Essays:

Ultimately, I believe, meaning has less to do with language than with music, a sensuous flow that becomes language only by default, so to speak, and by degrees.

Again, this may only apply to creative writing, though maybe it’s the drone, the utterly monotonous music of, say, legal prose or scientific prose, that puts us off, puts us to sleep.

Dad • 01/06/05 10:32 PM:

But even that legal prose can be music to an attorney in need of a precedent to defend his client. And scientific prose that explains the cosmos may bring the music of the stars.

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