[ bookreviews ]
Echolalias is a rare find - a book about language where the language itself steers a course between the scholarly and the poetic. Difficult, erudite and full of luminous parables, it is worth multiple readings. Ideas burst forth, plucked like berries from the thorny bushes of academia and eating the fruits of this careful harvest sends us across multiple worlds, from the Tower of Babel down the boreens of Indo-European, back up the valley of the Indus and all the way down to the mouth of the most recent UNESCO pronouncements on the death of languages. After I've written that last sentence, Microsoft Word kindly asks me to choose something other than "boreen" and that, in a sense, is what this book is all about. As Paul Muldoon explains in one of his poems, boreen has entered English "through the air" despite the protestations of the OED. A diminutive of the Gaelic "bóthar", meaning a road, it derives from "bó", meaning a cow, and "thar," meaning, in this case, something like "athwart." But while a poem might use the naked eye to examine language, Heller-Roazen’s book is more reminiscent of the million-fold magnification of an electron microscope. Yet technical aspects inevitably spin out into myth, fable and legend to produce a remarkable hybrid. The seas crossed include theology, poetry and grammar, while the lands arrived at are peopled by philologists, nymphs, writing cows and ghostly letters. It is not, as John Updike describes reviews, "hugging the coast." And in an age when an English monoglot culture is taking hold for the first time in history, this account provides us with an insight into the future of language.
Heller-Roazen is not concerned about the cackling over disappearing tongues; more precisely he is not convinced that languages can benefit from our bungled efforts at conservation. Rainforests need to be conserved, languages do not. Our fears about the demise of language appear to be based on an ill-conceived notion of what "birth" and "death" mean in the field of linguistics. Language exists beyond humans and survives only as long as it changes. As a beast which cannot be killed, cannot even be trapped, the capacity of language for survival is inexhaustible. Through its twists and turns, its ghosts and metamorphoses, it is clear that it will never be laid to rest. William Burroughs called language a virus, and this book explains why.
The starting point of the study is infant babble, which was first analysed by Roman Jakobson in his monumental Child Language, Aphasia and Phonological Universals. Jakobson noted that babbling children accumulate dazzling phonetic skills including "articulations which are never found within a single language or even a group of languages: consonants with the most varied points of articulation, palatised and round consonants, sibilants, affricates, clicks, complex vowels, diphthongs, and so forth." He located an apex of babble just at the point when a child begins to speak its first coherent words. The developing mother tongue inhibits the babble as the child progresses from a linguistic Jackson Pollock to a Dürer. Thus, the forgetting of one alphabet sets another free and this is the beginning of the adventure. Forgetting is as important as remembering, and it is when we lose the ability to forget that problems arise. But to what extent it is possible to forget is also called into question.
The forgotten alphabet resurfaces in "onomatopoeias." The "brr" of a shudder and the "ukh" of disgust not only hark back to our babble but also contain elements of languages other than English. The exclamation "uh-oh," for example, contains a glottal stop reminiscent of Arabic. Dante was one of the first to discuss the phenomenon and in his treatise De vulgari eloquentia he concluded that ever since the Fall, human speech has begun with the exclamation of despair: "Heu!" The point is that for a language to be human, it must be possible to cry out, to howl, to reach beyond words to the non-language that precedes us and follows after us.
The ultimate expression of non-language can be found in the letter Aleph, which is a silent letter. In the Zohar, God honours it by saying that he will utter no other letter but the Aleph when he gives the Torah at Sinai. This has given rise to endless controversy over the vexed question of what the Jews actually heard at Sinai. Maimonides in his "Guide of the Perplexed" clearly thought that it smacked of heresy to suggest that god would present his case in an earthly language. He went on to say that the Israelites heard only one sound and that sound was the Aleph. Here, the revelation is reduced from the entire Torah to complete silence, proving more than a little troubling for the industry of Biblical exegesis.
But as is pointed out early on, every sound of every language, sooner or later, slips away into silence. Presently there are three French phonemes on the verge of extinction. The "obsolete e" seems to be in the greatest danger, often falling off the radar to become a chimera that does not correspond to any "observable reality." The only reason for holding onto the sound at all lies in poetry. "Ce lac dur oublié que hante sous le givre," is a line from Mallarmé consisting of 12 syllables, divided by a syntactic caesura after six - a form known as the Alexandrine. But if the "obsolete e" of "hante" is not sounded, the line becomes a hendecasyllable and the meter is missed. At first glance, such forensics might not seem relevant, but as a shoe can form a 20-mile long sand dune in the desert, these slight breezes have a dramatic influence on the shape of the language to come.
What is most enjoyable about the book is watching how language defies all those who care to classify it. Robinson Jeffers’ description of god as "too secure to want worshippers" seems equally applicable to language. As if by way of demonstration we are taken on a stroll through the graveyard of dead letters. From the Greek through to the Anglo-Saxon we walk over headstones that no longer rise above the snow. But the ghosts of letters return.
Consider the letter "h" and the phrase "to drop your aitches." More complex than a cliché, the dropping of aitches is a common feature of many languages. Heinrich Heine became Enri Enn when he first moved to Paris. Two more linguistic side steps saw him descending first to Enrienne and finally Un Rien, thus changing him from a writer of importance to, literally, "a nobody".
In the Roman world, "h" faded from a position of prominence in the fifth century BC, to complete silence by the fourth century AD. Philologists and grammarians of Ptolemaic Alexandria reduced it to a mark above the letter it modified and it later became a diacritic, placed before the modified vowel, similar to a modern apostrophe. With a nod to the graveyard above, they referred to it not as a letter, but a "spirit".
And just as letters fade, entire languages are wiped from the family album. Hebrew gave way to the "Syriak" of the Chaldeans, and "Syriak" in turn gave way to Arabic causing consternation among the Jews as the holy books of Judaism came to be translated into the Moslem tongue. The solution of one 10th century Moroccan poet was to write Hebrew poetry in the meters used by the Arabian poets before the coming of Islam. Going further he found that 12 of the 16 rhythms of classical Arabic verse could be recovered in metrical "translation." Initially he was derided for his efforts, but with time, Hebrew poetry written in Arabic began to flourish in Spain, giving rise to the suggestion that "the greatest secrets of a language are revealed to those who forget it."
The most forceful argument of the book is reserved for the need to revise our concept of a language as a biological entity which is born and then dies. The notion that Hebrew was "dead" would never have arisen for the Jewish writers in Spain, just as the Homeric or Attic idioms were neither "dead" or "alive" for the people who lived in Ptolemy’s Alexandria. Appending these biological terms to a language is a much more recent phenomenon, and with UNESCO announcing that we are reaching a "catastrophic inflexion point" in the history of humanity where "half of the world’s languages are moribund," it would be nice to know just what "moribund," "endangered," or "seriously endangered" mean when it comes to language. The author convincingly argues that the answer is not a lot. From Hebrew to Aramaic, from Latin to Italian, new languages are always forming and sliding imperceptibly into new territory. Birth and death are inappropriate terms for language because "for a language to die, is for it to change into another."
Lost as we are in a time when we require the state to determine the shape of our bananas, language can also resemble a genetically modified fruit that bureaucrats want to keep under strict supervision. One "expert" has stated rather worryingly that he would like to intervene on behalf of language in the manner of a doctor "with the primary aim of preserving the physiological health of patients." Academics have been no less sensational. A recent paper entitled "Burial of Ubykh," describes how the Ubykh language "died at daybreak, October 8, 1992, when the last speaker, Tevfik Esenc, passed away." But on closer examination, these and other claims prove to be largely meaningless. To begin with, even if you do believe that a language can die, its passing will occur when the last two speakers bid each other farewell.
It proves difficult to find a death certificate for a language and when the document is produced it often says more about those who try to issue it than it does about the language in question. Language survives by mutating constantly and any attempt to cryo-freeze it in a state of pristine health is doomed to failure. What highlights the vacuous nature of much of the debate is the relative silence regarding the birth of languages. A clearer understanding of how one language slides into another would most likely prove uncomfortable for those who have invested so much effort heralding the coming apocalypse. A second reason is the inherent complexity of emerging tongues. Trying to assign a date of birth to the French language emerging from the womb of Latin gives an idea of the problem. Going by a system of declination, the new language emerges between the first and fifth century AD, while a change in the architecture of verbs suggests a time frame between the sixth and 10th century.
Another complicating factor is politics. An astute observation is that the difficulty of analysing a language increases dramatically when it becomes "the official idiom of the political association known as a national language." A case in point would be Northern Ireland where Irish can be used more as a sectarian weapon than a means of communication. In 1948, Hebrew found itself thrust into the spotlight after 2,000 years without being tied to any political entity. The overseers of the Hebrew revival had to prepare an ancient language with a largely Biblical vocabulary for use in the nascent state of Israel. But for Hebrew, there is no real revival, as the modern idiom does not coincide with the ancient language. Sounds have been added and subtracted. The trilled "r" of modern High German has replaced the rolled "r" of Semitic languages while certain letters which once belonged to Hebrew can now only be found in Arabic.
Paul Wexler stirred up considerable debate with his provocative paper 'The Schizoid Nature of Modern Hebrew: A Slavic Language in Search of a Semitic Past'. He argued that adding a Semitic lexicon to Yiddish and altering its pronunciation to make it seem more Mediterranean than Eastern European "hardly suffices to turn an Indo-European language like Yiddish into the "direct heir" of Old Semitic Hebrew." But here again, we have a case of one language melting into another as Yiddish finds new life precisely at the point where it flows into modern Hebrew.
The quest to find the source of all this babble got under way with Sir William Jones’ Discourse on the Hindus. Divining links between Sanskrit, Greek and Latin he opened the way for 19th century scholarship on the common proto-language of all peoples - Indo-European.
The work of the Indo-Europeanist is to construct an imagined language by working backwards from existing words to non-existing words. Importantly, there must be no evidence that an imagined word ever existed, because once a trace is found it falls back into the category of an effect-language while the imagined language slips away again. This means that simply writing down an imagined word excludes it from the proto-language. To get around the problem, theorists use a star. * designates invented words, securing them as undocumented postulates. It is as if by placing * in front of a word, the theorists are saying, what you see is not a word, it is an imaginary idea of what we think the word might be. The * allows their inventions to remain ghosts and no trace of their existence must ever be found if they want to remain a part of the fictional alphabet.
Not content with such Leibnizian confusion, August Schleicher in a "gesture of philological enthusiasm, rarely equalled in the history of scholarship" went on to publish A Fable in the Indo-European Proto-Language. The book appeared without a single star, as every word was in effect a starred word. In this fable a sheep and a group of horses converse in the primordial idiom of the Indo-Europeans.
The 20th century saw Structuralism emerging from Chomsky’s seminal work Syntactic Structures (1975). The new discipline called for the development of a more rigorous linguistic science where empirical propositions could be tested to determine what is grammatical and ungrammatical. But as much as Chomsky wanted to give linguistics the same status as chemistry or physics, he still noted that there are degrees of ungrammatical phrases and that in the end, the investigator must rely on the "linguistic intuition of the native speaker."
And Chomsky is followed, not by loud applause, but by a nymph trapped inside the body of a cow. This is the beauty of the book where more involved theoretical chapters alternate with short parables that echo and reshape the ideas that have gone before. They provide breathing holes for the imagination before going down again to the depths of the library.
And one of the sunken treasures is Freud’s On Aphasia which discusses the relationship between speech disorders and memory. While Broca had already shown that damage to specific brain centres causes an inability to speak, Freud was clearly nervous about the impending reductionist revolution. Seeking a more holist approach to the brain he was determined to show that psychological state could not be reduced to the physiological.
Freud’s theory was that as language deteriorates, it regresses sequentially along the path we have already travelled - specific names are lost first, adjectives later, verbs last. And in a move that would be forbidden to most scientific writers today, he went on to describe a personal incident when he experienced a threat to his own life. Believing he was about to die, he heard the words "now you’re gone," and simultaneously saw them printed on a piece of paper. This intense flash is an example of a speech remnant, but most speech remnants refer back to a time before a trauma occurs. A copyist, for instance, who experienced a stroke just as he was completing a laborious catalogue was left with the single phrase "list complete" for the rest of his life. But Freud’s remnant refers forward to a time when the speech capacity will be wiped out by the impending threat.
In a famous letter to his colleague Fliess, he outlined his concept of memory being laid down several times as signs. Between each layer of memory, "translation" must aim to mend gaps which appear, otherwise "anachronisms" will appear. A later transcript will inhibit its predecessor and drain the excitatory process from it. All this sounds like a clumsy version of plasticity, but it should hardly be a criticism, coming as it does a good sixty years before such mechanisms came to be understood in any detail.
The insight that Heller-Roazen draws our attention to is that the underlying cause of aphasia is often not forgetfulness but an excessive remembrance. Going further, he suggests that aphasics may be trapped in a state of infant babble where they cannot forget the tangle of language from which we all emerged. Forgetting would release them from their affliction. Kafka summarised the point in simple terms: I can swim just like the others. Only I have a better memory than the others. I have not forgotten the former inability to swim. But since I have not forgotten it, being able to swim is of no help to me; and so, after all, I cannot swim.
The ghostly nature of language is highlighted in a close reading of a short story by Edgar Allen Poe. The case of a tongue that survives the death of the body leads into a discussion of the funerary inscriptions of antiquity. Both cases demonstrate how language is capable of floating out through the walls of whatever sepulchre we care to entomb it.
But how do we coax the spirit into the body in the first place? Elias Canetti is taken as a case study of possession by language. Growing up in Bulgaria within earshot of eight languages, he picked up three and lost one before he was a teenager. At home he spoke Bulgarian and Ladino (an ancient Judeo-Spanish tongue), moving to England, he picked up English, and by the time the family returned to the continent following his fathers death, he became fluent in German over the course of a single summer. Somewhere along the line he lost Bulgarian, while still retaining memories of events that occurred in that language. Dramatic incidents, such as murders or manslaughters, had somehow been translated into Ladino, while Bulgarian fairytales and other more peaceful memories had slipped into German. Although acutely aware of these transformations Canetti resisted a detailed analysis for fear he would undo the precious threads that had sustained his life’s writing.
But forgetting is never a simple matter. Passing through Prague in his 20s, Canetti was intrigued by the Czech language. It seemed to echo in his head, and pick at the lock of his "lost" Bulgarian which remained "in an inexplicable way, left over inside him." Canetti’s case history also calls into question the validity of the term "mother tongue." But many people have pointed to the problem before. The Russian poet, Maria Tsvetaeva, said that to compose was to compose after. For her, the mother tongue was a wordless presence of feeling, while language was merely the hapless and inadequate translation of the first unnameable alphabet. In a sense, every language is a stenogram of the ghost within.
The problems of forgetting led one schizophrenic to the brink of madness as he attempted to translate every English word he heard into a corresponding word in a foreign language. 'Know' might be converted into 'connais' or alternatively into the Russian 'Ya znagou'. 'Sore' was translated into the German 'Schmerzhaft', "bed" into 'Bett', and so on. His considerable linguistic skills were crucial to his success, and yet they also doomed his project to failure as he was forced never to forget to translate each word of the dreaded English language into something less painful.
And if memory can kill, it can also be a hindrance for certain exams. An aspiring Arabic poet was once asked to memorise 1,000 pages of poetry before he could begin his craft. Completing his task, he was then told to forget the thousand lines before he proceeded. But while the poet returns to his master telling him that that he has forgotten everything, the problem remains insoluble. It can never be proved that he has forgotten all of his lines, and the exam should prove as taxing for the examiner as it is for the student because it is not possible to explicitly examine the depths of oblivion.
All of these stories and more link back to the book's primary premise which is that forgetting is as much a part of language as remembering. The final chapter is a model in miniature of what has gone before. Combining scholarship with parable, the chapter is both a serious discussion on amnesia and a memorable fiction that could stand alone as a short story. In his parting glass, Heller-Roazen visits the many versions and interpretations of the parable of the Tower of Babel, singling out one variant from the Sanhedrin of the Babylonian Talmud for special attention. In that version it says that one third of the tower was burnt, one third was sunk, while a third is still standing. And in a curious aside it mentions that "the air around the tower makes one lose one’s memory." This detail offers the possibility that those abandoned in the tower have forgotten its destruction and that they live for eternity within its ruins, without any knowledge of their surroundings. Amnesia guards the memory of their destruction, and is in effect the safest refuge of their past. The full details of the story sheds more light on the nature of memory than any array of functional magnetic images of the brain are ever likely to. And moving further into the unknown the final reading of the Tower of Babel suggests that we may be the ancestors of those who remained within the ruined tower. The surest sign that we still live there today is that we don’t remember it.
The difference between this kind of work and more scientific accounts of language and memory is that what is deduced is constantly in conversation with what we don’t know and are never likely to know. As in the works of Sebald, it moves through the shadows to tell us more about the sun. Ultimately however the darkness around us will always be deeper and more far reaching than the rays of any sun, and it follows that writing which spins from light to dark will always surpass words that remain forever visible and illuminated.
And answering all this philosophy is the wag who says "the table exists because I scrub it." Recent news that Heller-Roazen has received $172,000 from the Mellon Foundation to continue his studies of Arabic language at the University of London suggests that he will be scrubbing this table for some time to come.