‚The Tongue Is a Fire‘

When I was asked to write some essays on the topic of language, I responded with some hesitation. It is not my field: I am not a linguist, or a poet, or a literary critic. But in the end I decided to make the attempt anyway (the word ‚essay‘ does mean ‚attempt‘ after all), in the hope that I might be able to contribute something that specific individual disciplines might have overlooked, and yet which may prove important to those who speak and write every day – that is, all of us.

1. Language

‚So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.‘ These lines from the Epistle of St James express what we should take as our starting point for this whistle-stop tour of the broad landscape of language – that is, the fact that it belongs inseparably both to Kant’s ‚realm of necessity‘ (i.e. nature) and his ‚realm of freedom‘, of human action and thought. This remarkable muscle, which we share in common with all other animals, is not the only anatomical prerequisite of spoken language, but its role in the process is so significant that we can find, in all known languages, a word that means both. The connection is so plain that we really do not need to ask to what extent this is or is not a metaphor.

Most living creatures possess the ability to produce and perceive sounds, and to use them for signalling. In humans, however, this has been greatly extended and differentiated, even just at the anatomical level. This is due not only to our vocal chords, but also to the position of gums and teeth in the mouth, manoeuvrable lips, resonant cavities in the head and, most of all, to the incredibly supple and flexible tongue, which can function as a valve (d,t,l) or a slit (sibilants), which can regulate the volume of the oral cavity and vibrate against the palate (to create the trilled r). All of these features have endowed human beings with wonderfully rich possibilities of articulation, which are crying out to be put to use.

We do not know when this happened, or how. Current estimates speak of hundred thousand years or more. We can only suppose that man would have been unable to arrive at more complex societal arrangements, and more complex notions of himself and the outside world, without linguistic communication. All we know is that every human community known to us uses some kind of language; it cannot be said of any of them that they are ‚primitive‘, and all known languages share several fundamental characteristics. All people use sound (voice) for fundamental communication, and all known languages articulate both at the sound level and at the word level. In other words, every known language represents a more or less complex system of permissible sounds and rules governing how these sounds should be put together.

The true character of the phoneme system was long obscured by the written word: we could believe that, as a language possesses a fixed alphabet, so too it possesses a fixed set of sounds, which could in their own right also carry meaning. It was not until the early 20th century that the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure realised that phonemes carry meaning (for example the distinction between two different words) only in the framework of such a system, and only ever in contrast to some other phoneme.

Human beings are able to articulate an almost continuous spectrum of sounds (have a go at saying all the vowels in a row – a-e-i-o-u), or the graduated voicings of consonants, from the unvoiced [s] to the voiced [z]. (The vocal chords are used in the creation of voiced consonants, whereas they remain open in the unvoiced ones.) Such a continuous spectrum may sound very expressive, such as a dog howling, but its uncertainty and lack of variety make it unsuitable for more advanced use. Surprisingly enough, for sounds to serve as the basis of a language, there needs to be a very limited number of them. So a language, or to be more precise the phoneme system of a given language, must lay down very strict categories and divisions: either ‚a‘ or ‚e‘, ‚p‘ or ‚b‘ – and nothing in between. This strikes us as completely natural, thanks to our grounding from a young age in the alphabet and written language. But nonetheless for our ancestors it was a remarkable intellectual advance, and even science took a long time to figure it out.

A similar paradox of discreteness can be found elsewhere, too. When measuring a quantity, the most obvious choice would seem to be to indicate the result in a continuous or analogue measurement, for example by showing the deflection of a needle – surely nothing is lost this way? When we take  a closer look however, the resolving power of analogue indication turns out to be hopelessly limited, so to achieve a more exact measurement, we must turn to using discrete units, whereby something is unavoidably lost but we can make this ‚something‘ as little as we please and indicate the result numerically, i.e. in digits.

And so we can observe, at the very roots of language, something which we also encounter in other areas. Language ‚chops up‘ a continuous spectrum of elements and places them in discrete categories. While this reduces complexity it also gains an invaluable specificity which enables us to communicate, and, especially, to construct further, more complex layers of meaning and comprehension from these ‚building blocks‘, or elements. Although we may dislike the ‚black-and-white‘ way of seeing, or the ‚violence‘ which language commits upon experience (and with which all poets wrestle), or the limitations of vocabulary or of individual scientific disciplines, we should understand that it is precisely this relentless insistence on sorting into fixed categories that lays the foundation for the incredible wealth of speech, and of human culture in general.

  1. Language and Speech

A bird – let’s say a sparrow – flies past my window. Although this is one single event, language compels me to express what I have witnessed in several words: ‚A brown bird is flying‘. There is no way around this (except in certain rare cases: if I say it is raining, we need not bother asking who or what is raining). But because we are so thoroughly used to this from an early age, it does not occur to us to even think about it.

The splitting up of one single experience into three categories – substance, accident and motion – has the effect of radically simplifying vocabulary, since we can use each of these three words – ‚brown‘, ‚bird‘ and ‚fly‘ – in many other combinations, rather than needing a separate word for each new experience. Nonetheless, this template that we acquire along with our native languages also has a fundamental effect on the shaping of our thoughts, which will forever be seeking to interpret experience in terms of some object, its qualities, the things that are happening to it, who or what is causing these things to happen and so on. This is the very basis of Aristotle’s theory of categories.

So we can see that every language imposes on its speakers these four things:

  1. a certain set of sounds, which children have to learn – or rather, they must unlearn all other sounds
  2. a general schema for the breakdown of experiences into learned categories
  3. an obligatory vocabulary, and
  4. a set of rules governing the forming of words into permissible sentences

In the inflected (synthetic) languages there is yet another feature, namely the declension of words, that is the expression of various relationships by changing the form of the words themselves. This, however, is a matter that each language deals with somewhat differently, and in doing so influences the thought-patterns of its speakers, with the result that people from different linguistic cultures have a somewhat different way of thinking.

So far we have been discussing those things related to the linguistic system as such, what Saussure called langue and Chomsky competence. However, language only really lives in concrete usages of this system, in individual utterances or speech acts, what Saussure called parole. A person cannot speak without having learned to speak, but can only learn to speak by actually speaking. This may seem like a contradiction in terms, and yet almost all of us have managed this feat. Our parents helped us along, and showed us how it should be done and corrected our mistakes for us, but every one of us had to learn it on our own. Language is not an eternal, immutable thing, rather it is made anew in every generation and by every individual, just like a living organism – no matter how much this fact may be obscured by written culture. Already Plato noted that a written text only pretends to be saying something, ‚but when you ask it a question it remains silent‘. So although books, dictionaries and primers have a significant stabilising effect, language is given life only by living speakers; languages which nobody speaks anymore are rightly called dead.

Language systems, as we know them from textbooks, appear to be a model of order. Of course, there are always exceptions, particularly among the most frequently-used (or ‚irregular‘) verbs, but nonethless there remains the impression of solid order. This is only true, however, while we remain in the realm of grey theory, as opposed to the green tree of living speech, which takes an altogether freer approach to the rules of language. The point of an utterance is to ensure that the person to whom it is addressed (the addressee) can understand it. Once we have had sufficient experience with language, we realise that we do not always need to speak the way we were taught in school, and that in fact everyone speaks differently. Although writing has had a significantly stabilising influence on language, we still have little or no difficulty understanding all sorts of ‚deviant‘ pronunciations, as a few examples from the Czech language will illustrate. You may hear Czech weather forecasters talking in terms of ‚stapňá Calzija‘ (rather than the formal ‚stupňů Celsia‚degrees Celsius‘) and understand them without difficulty. Back in the days when urban housewives chatted to each other across the balcony divides, they would talk about who told what to whom and when, and would use the marvellous ‚jasempáá‘  instead of the ‚correct‘ ‚já jsem jí povídala‘ (‚I told her‘). The youth of today use somewhat coarser abbreviations, such as ‚honovle‘ (an amalgam of ‚hovno‘ – shit, and ‚vole‘ – ‚man‘, ‚dude‘) and they understand each other perfectly well. Although here we must pity the poor foreigner, who will find no help in the dictionary.

Things become even more interesting when we arrive at the level of individual words – of the lexicon. Each word in a language has its own meaning, as found in the dictionary, but in fact could mean almost anything. Sigmund Freud observed that, in certain circumstances, almost any word could be used to mean something rude – and the addressee would understand what was meant, probably because he (or she) already knew, or could at least guess, what was coming. In the workshop where I once worked, there hung a picture on the wall depicting two naked individuals going about their business. Every morning a colleague of ours, Lojza, who was always the first to arrive, would go up to the picture and tuck the morning’s newspaper behind the picture so that the main headline always appeared above the frame. When the boss arrived, he had to take it straight down again, an action which was always accompanied by guffaws of laughter.

Unlike language – the linguistic system – in which language manifests itself analytically, bit by bit and without connection, speech is always spoken in a situation where the speaker and the addressee already have some kind of mutual understanding. Thanks to this pre-existing knowledge and understanding, the participants in a conversation do not need to spell everything out in a laborious manner; they can get by with a form of oral shorthand. Speech has a virtually inexhaustible capacity to come up with alternative ways of expressing things – metaphors – and this applies not only when we are dealing with taboo themes or trying to compensate for some deficiency in vocabulary. In fact, this ability can lend a wonderfully creative, playful flavour to our speech and, on the contrary, a person whose speech is devoid of these things will end up sounding extremely wooden. Surprising and unexpected metaphors, metonymy, euphemisms and ‚colourful‘ expressions lend life, wit and flavour to all speech (not just that of the poets). Even though their informational content may be zero, they are an essential part of language.

  1. Language Games

In the preceding paragraphs we have juxtaposed the linguistic system (or competence) and its concrete use in speech. On the one hand, language creates order through the process of distinguishing and separating. Speech, on the other hand, can take or leave this ‚order‘ as it sees fit. To illustrate this I will give another example from Czech, a sentence which I overheard in the street one day. Two drivers were talking about an engine breakdown and the one said to the other: ‚ A najednou vole prd a konec‘ (which translates – very loosely – as ‚and then, man, just pfff and nothing‘). You will struggle to find anything like a subject or a predicate in this ‚sentence‘, and yet it is undoubtedly a precise, economical and comprehensible piece of communication – albeit one that only a native speaker could make sense of.

Almost all of us can work with computers nowadays, and so it is common to hear language compared to a code. Like all metaphors, this one both hits and misses its target. Language certainly is a carrier of some kind of content, and its form is governed by certain rules. But language is not a code table, and we cannot simply say that a man who asks you a question or who says ‚get lost!‘ is ‚codifying his thoughts‘. Moreover, we use words and phrases to help us create our thoughts and, what is more, many of us ‚speak faster than we think‘. The German philosopher Ernest Cassirer observed that carriers of meaning fall into three categories: symptom, signal and symbol. So, for example, smoke is a symptom that something is burning, but it is not a signal as nobody has meant anything by it (although it could yet become a signal). Signals deal always and only with what is happening in the here and now, like a red light at a junction or someone shouting ‚stop!‘ A word, on the other hand, is a symbol with a specific meaning and may be used to communicate something which has been or will be, or indeed never was. The word ‚water‘ carries its meaning regardless of whether we are asking for an actual drink of water or complaining that someone has ‚poured cold water‘ on our suggestions.

And so we do not use language purely to communicate thoughts. Ludwig Wittgenstein introduced the term ‚language games‘ (Sprachspiele) to express that by using speech we are most of the time seeking something, usually from other people, within the framework of language rules. The utterance of the driver quoted above is simply passing on information about something; the speaker says something which he knows to another person who does not know it. Or at least this is how it seems – it is not out of place to ask in such instances if the utterance is a true one. The sentence ‚What’s the time?‘ (or any similar question) arises from the opposite situation – the speaker does not know something and assumes that the addressee does. In the sentence ‚Shut the window!‘ the speaker wants the addressee to do something, and moreover demonstrates that he (or she) has the right to make such a demand. If the speaker had no such right, he (or she) would perhaps say something like: ‚Would you please be so kind as to shut the window?‘, which is not a question because the speaker is clearly expecting an action rather than a verbal answer – the shutting of the window. In the case of questions, requests and instructions there is not much point enquiring into truthfulness or untruthfulness.

The British philosopher John Langshaw Austin is famous for his analysis of utterances that themselves cause something to happen. We know these mostly from fairy tales: ‚Open sesame!‘ Every ancient culture took these wishes, blessings and curses, prophecies and spells extremely seriously. If you read the Czech ballads ‚The Daughter’s Curse‘ or ‚The Wedding Gown‘ you will see how much importance our ancestors gave to words spoken in earnest, even when they are not accompanied by any particular ceremony. We may have our doubts as to the real physical effect of, say, a curse, but we can be in no doubt that a society in which words were accorded such importance would look very different from the one in which we live today.

Whatever we think of their effects, or lack of effects, curses have stayed with us, although now we just say them without thinking much about them. There was a time when ‚Damn it!‘ or ‚Go to hell!‘ were about the most serious things you could say – they were, literally, ‚deadly serious‘ – whereas today we say them just to let off steam. As for blessings, they have fared even worse. All that remains of them are banal, ordinary greetings, which until recently at least gave the impression of carrying some content (‚I’m honoured‘, ‚Farewell‘) but which have since then been reduced to the content-free ‚ahoj!‘ (to use another example from Czech) or the monosyllabic shout of ‚hi!‘.

But Austin shows us that utterances which can change something simply by being uttered still play an important role in practical life today. Many of these utterances are bound up with the standing or function of the speaker. For example: ‚In the name of the Republic, I sentence you to three years‘ imprisonment‘. In this case everything depends upon who says it and when. If it is a high court judge, then the addressee goes from being a defendant to a convicted criminal and may indeed end up jail. A mayor or other dignitary may say ‚I pronounce this exhibition open‘ – and indeed the exhibition is opened. When the presiding officer at a graduation ceremony says ‚I confer the title of Bachelor of Arts upon you‘ then indeed the participants of the ceremony become Bachelors of Arts. Of course the Bachelors also need to have this written down on a piece of paper with signatures on it, because nobody would believe them otherwise.

Even more important than these, however, are the ‚performative utterances‘ that we all use as a matter of course. ‚OK, so tomorrow at three then‘. That may look like straightforward communication, but it is not. Something has been brought about, or changed, by this sentence; I have promised something, bound myself to something, ‚given my word‘. I am in a position where I really ought to do something which beforehand I did not have to. This is a matter of such crucial importance for human life in society that even the otherwise cynical Thomas Hobbes regarded it as the only indispensible command of that ‚natural law‘ on which every society is founded. And the fact that so many languages have the expression ‚I give you my word‘ as an alternative to ‚I promise‘ demonstrates that our ancestors also felt this.

  1. Spoken and Written

When children learn to speak, they are not only learning about speech and language, they are learning their world. Only with the development of language do we learn to break down experience into individual ‚things‘, and those things into substances and their properties. These ‚things‘, once they have been thoroughly examined and labelled, can then be offloaded among the world of ‚known things‘, where they no longer need to concern us. The German anthropologist Arnold Gehlen calls this ‚relief‘ (Entlastung), as the child is then able to prevent the onslaught of experience from overwhelming it, and therefore learns to cope with the world around it.

As I have already said, although children learn language from their parents, ultimately they must master it themselves. What is more, they must actually construct it – on the basis of some inborn capability, certainly, but still from the beginning. Parents, schools and contemporaries are there to ensure that children’s speech conforms to ‚the norm‘, so that others understand them. In today’s society this role has been taken over to a very large extent by television.

Children learn their language in the form of the spoken word and in particular the form of conversation, dialogue. The fundamental role of dialogue and conversation in language is demonstrated by the use of ‚person‘ (I, you, he, she, they) as a grammatical category. Today we give them the names first, second and third person, but older grammarians had a more eloquent title for them: who, to whom and about what. Grammatical person does not actually indicate any particular person, rather simply the roles that they happen to be playing within a given conversation. ‚I‘ is always speaking, ‚you‘ is the one being spoken to, or the addressee and ‚he‘, ‚she‘ or ‚it‘ is the theme or subject. The roles in conversation change around but this need not bother the participants, as they can always see who is doing the speaking. When speaking on the telephone, however, we can sometimes encounter difficulties – such as when a child is asked ‚who’s that?‘ and naturally answers ‚it’s me‘.

And so the basic ‚element‘ of language is speech, dialogue between people in the same place at the same time. It has the advantage that a question can be quickly followed by an answer and any uncertainty can be cleared up on the spot. Nobody has a monopoly on the role of speaker (although we have all met people who act as though they do). For all that, though, dialogue is purely of the present moment, a sequence of events which flows by and is gone, leaving only memories of the sentences uttered. And so the medium of the spoken word both requires and helps to strengthen the memory – and the ancient poets and reciters of poems had nothing else to rely on. This is most likely the reason for the various repetitive features of traditional texts, such as verse and rhyme, as well as the frequent repetitions which act as an aid to memory and protect the text from becoming muddled.

The passing on of spoken texts, the ‚oral tradition‘, is by its nature supple but delicate  – it is really the overall meaning of the text that is handed on, and each generation tends to ‚smooth out‘ the texts, removing redundant passages as well as parts that it does not understand. All of this was radically changed with the advent of writing. As Socrates complained, writing encourages people to be lazy, does not convey sense but only dead characters on a page, and ‚if you ask it a question, it remains silent‘ – it requires the intervention of a living reader. On the other hand, it possesses a remarkable ability to preserve fleeting communication for as long as is necessary, and to relay this communication on to others across great distances of time and space. Written texts are the basis, not only of literature, law and science, but also of bureaucracy and espionage.

The oldest surviving written documents belong to one of two types: the first are ceremonial writings to the ‚eternal memory‘ of rulers, and the second are inventories, accounts and other related official documents. Writing ancient scripts is not an easy skill to acquire – it took the scribes many years to learn it. Hieroglyphics, and even Hebrew texts with their complete absence of vowels, are really no more than a kind of guide, and the reader must have mastered the language in question. The Czech verb číst  (‚to read‘) is related to the older verb čítat (meaning ‚to count‘) and originally meant something like ‚to guess‘. It was only with the arrival of alphabetic writing (invented by traders) and the very much later introduction of punctuation, that reading and writing came within reach of almost everyone, becoming a virtual necessity for all, or at least for city dwellers, in the late Middle Ages and during the Reformation.

Of course, written speech is something entirely different. The primary difference is the disappearance of the addressee, the ‚you‘ to whom I speak ‚face to face‘; and with this disappearance, utterances lose their currency. Questions are merely rhetorical, commands turn into regulations, and promises become legal bonds; precise and permanent, but dull and impersonal. Written texts are dominated by declarative sentences in the third person, they are monologues and they can go on for as long as they wish. Plato’s dialogues, the parables of Jesus and folk tales are the last remnants of the oral tradition – that is why they are so vivid (and so short). But if it were not for the written word, they would most likely have been lost to us long ago. Unlike speech, which is always addressed to ‚you‘ and therefore private, written texts are for everyone and no-one alike, or ‚to whomever it may concern‘, and any private messages that they may contain must be protected by ciphers, safes and the secrecy of correspondence.

Language itself has been fundamentally altered by writing. The elastic, uncertain pronunciation of sounds has been replaced by the uncompromising hardness of letters, which are bereft of intonation and gesture. And the endlessly variable language of speech has been shackled to the ‚correctness‘ of written norms and the rules of spelling, which are guarded over so jealously by the red ink of schoolteachers.  Nonetheless, only written language could have enabled mass communication and the creation of modern ‚nations‘, which long ago ceased to be the communities of blood so fondly imagined by racists everywhere, and have become instead the amorphous mass of those who are able to communicate with each other – or, to put it more precisely, those who read the same newspapers and watch the same television programmes.

 (Homage to Petr Zima, Prague 2015)                   

                                                                       Translated by Neil Cairns