19 October 2009

Babel (2) - Language and Gnosis

In chapter 2, Steiner looks at the contrasting views of language as monadic or universalist: are languages all similar at some deep level or not? First though, he raises the question of why different languages evolved at all. He says it can't be an evolutionary process, because there's no benefit from the change. Why would a community lose the ability to communicate with neighbours? Well I can think of political reasons, which can be seen at work even now. Serbian and Croatian are, as I understand it, essentially the same language in different scripts, but I bet they are diverging more than coalescing at present. Similarly, I think it's likely that Portuguese diverged from Spanish as an act of national self-definition.

The discussion on the deep structure of language boils down to this paragraph right in the middle of the chapter:
Whether it is indeed 'possible to convey any conceptual content in any language' is what I seek to investigate.
and it's nice that he's finally expressed the purpose of the book.

I don't want to go into any detail of the discussion of linguistic theories for these reasons:
(i) the book's over thirty years old, and I'm sure the discussion of Chomsky's view has moved on a lot
(ii) I don't fully grasp the points being made or
(iii) the relevance of the detail to the general point.

As before, in this chapter Steiner displays the enormous breadth of his knowledge, but doesn't always show how it relates to the matter in hand. The multiplicity of examples hammer home arguments that aren't contentious. The book could be a lot shorter.

But here's a question. There's a film (Windtalkers) about the US military's use of native Americans to transmit messages in their language, which was so obscure and different from any known language, that it acted as an unbreakable code. The monadist view of language difference would surely say messages either could not be translated into and out of that language or that they would be irrepairably changed in the translation process. But apparently it happened. I haven't seen the film, and don't know more about the case, so I'll leave the thought there to come back to.

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