21 April 2006


Expletives are useful for their function as manifestations of the boundaries of language. Although it's usually blamed on a paucity of vocabulary, cursing will never diminish to zero as vocabulary extends. Smash William F. Buckley's foot with a sledgehammer and his first verbal expression won't be G-rated. Wait a few days and he will have time to form a more expressive anecdote about the event, but language is a poor medium for a real-time articulation of anguish. There are times when what we're feeling inside has no appropriate surrogate when mediated to the outside.

The often quoted remark writing about music is like dancing about architecture touches on a similar limit. Although it's somewhat overly didactic, it does illustrate assumptions we have about language. We forget that language is only a mediator for our subjective experiences. A great deal of those experiences that we communicate are trivially equivalent when transferred by language (e.g. "daytime" or "pencil box"), so we can forget the limits of it as a transfer system. Some possess varying degrees of differences in meaning ("beautiful music" or "poor selection"). Because music is also a symbol system of a completely different domain, music criticism involves people using one language to discuss the quality of "speech" in another language. Translation errors are inevitable, and that's what the quote was pointing out.

On the other hand, our primary means of communication is language, so criticizing the limits of language as absurd is a little unfair. No one would seriously use an art form to communicate quotidian concepts. You wouldn't make a shopping list with dance. You just wouldn't. Language--as opposed to music, art, or dance--can be more precise in representing the physical world and so becomes the lingua franca to discuss anything that resides in the physical world (such as music, art, or dance). The limits are accepted simply because there's not a better choice.

[ posted by sstrader on 21 April 2006 at 1:51:27 PM in Language & Literature ]