The Misery and the Splendour of Translation IV: We Don’t Speak Seriously

José Ortega y Gasset

Tower_of_BabelIn this fourth part of his essay, Ortega y Gasset uses the voice of an anonymous French linguist to propound a theory of languages as “anachronistic instruments”, as different catalogues of classifications that impose a system of understanding reality that was constructed by our forebears, making us “hostages to the past”. Although this section deals more generally with language than specifically with translation, the ideas set out here are fundamental for understanding Ortega y Gasset’s perspective on the importance of translation, which will be set forth in the fifth and final part of the essay.

My prediction was wrong. The squall I had anticipated did not occur. The paradoxical statement penetrated the minds of my listeners without provoking shocks or spasms, like a hypodermic injection which, fortunately, makes no contact with nerve tissue. It was thus an excellent moment to make a retreat.

“Just when I expected the fiercest rebellion from you all, I find myself immersed in an atmosphere of peace. It will come as no surprise to you if I take the opportunity to cede to another the monopoly over the conversation that I have been holding against my will. Almost all of you know more of these matters than I do. Indeed, there is among you a great scholar of linguistics who belongs to the new generation, and it would be of great interest to all of us if he were to share his thoughts on the matters we have been considering here.”

“I am no great scholar,” began the linguist. “I am merely an enthusiast of my field, which I believe is coming to its first time of ripening, a moment for a most fruitful harvest. And I’m pleased to report that, in general, what you have been saying, and furthermore what I discern and sense to be behind what you express, concurs considerably with my own perspective and with what, in my opinion, is going to dominate the immediate future of the science of language. Of course, I would have avoided the example of the Basque word for designating God because it is very much a vexed question. But, in general, I concur with you. Let us consider deeply what the primary operation of any language is.

“Modern man is much too proud of the sciences he has created. Through them, it is true, the world takes on a new appearance. But this innovation is relatively superficial. It consists of a thin film stretched over other images of the world constructed in other ages of humanity, which we imagine to be our own innovation. We are always making use of this vast wealth, but we don’t realize it because we haven’t made it ourselves, but have inherited it. As is typical of heirs, we tend to be rather stupid. The telephone, the combustion engine and the oil drill are monumental discoveries, but they would have been impossible if twenty thousand years ago human genius had not invented a method of making fire, the ax, the hammer, and the wheel. The same is true of the scientific interpretation of the world, which relies and feeds on other precedents, and especially on the oldest, the first, which is language. Science today would be impossible without language, not because of the truth of the platitude that to do science is to speak, but quite the reverse, because language is the original science. It is precisely because of this that modern science lives in a perpetual polemic with language. Would this make any sense if language were not a science in itself, a knowledge which, because it seems inadequate to us, we try to overcome? We tend not to see this obvious truth clearly because for a long, long time, humanity, at least in the West, has not “spoken seriously”. I cannot understand why linguists have not sufficiently pondered this amazing phenomenon before. Today, when we speak, we don’t mean what the language in which we speak says, but rather, by using by convention and as if in jest what our words say for themselves, we say, with the phrases of our language, what we mean to say. My paragraph has turned into a stupendous tongue twister, has it not? I will explain: if I say that “the sun rises in the East”, what my words, and thus the language in which I express myself, are actually saying is that a male being capable of spontaneous action—the so-called “Sun”—performs the action of “rising”, that is, jumping up, and that he does so from a place which is the one among places where births occur: the East. Of course, I don’t seriously mean any of that; I don’t believe that the sun is a young man or an agent capable of spontaneous action, or that its “rising” is something that it does of its own accord, or that the place of its rising is where births most commonly happen. In using this expression of my mother tongue, I am behaving ironically; I discredit what I am saying and take it as a joke. Language today is a pure joke. But there was of course a time in which Indo-Europeans actually believed that the sun was a male being, that natural phenomena were spontaneous actions of autonomous entities, and that the beneficent star was born and reborn every morning in a region of space. Because they believed it, they searched for signs to say it and they created language. To speak was thus, in that age, something very different from what it is today: it was to speak seriously. Words, morphology and syntax were truly meaningful. Expressions said what seemed to be the truth about the world, enunciating knowledge and understanding. They were anything but a series of jokes. We know that in the ancient language out of which both Sanskrit and Greek evolved the words for ‘word’ and ‘say’—brahman, logos—held a sacred value.

“The structure of the Indo-European sentence transcribes an interpretation of reality in which what happens in the world is always the act of a gendered agent. Hence, it must contain a masculine or feminine subject and an active verb. But there are other languages with very different sentence structures and which constitute interpretations of reality that are very different from ours.

“And this is so because the world that surrounds us does not appear with unequivocal articulations. Or to put it more clearly, the world, as it is presented to us, is not composed of “things” that are fundamentally separated and clearly different. We find infinite differences in the world, but these differences are not absolute. Strictly speaking, everything is different from everything else, but everything also resembles everything else a little. Reality is an endless “continuum of diversity”. To keep from losing ourselves in it, we must make cuts, delimitations, sections in it; in short, to establish differentiations with an absolute nature that are really only relative. This is why Goethe said that things are differences that we ourselves impose. The first act taken by humans in our intellectual confrontation with the world was to classify phenomena, to divide what we found before us into classes. To each one of these classes is attributed a sign made with the voice, and this is language. But the world offers us innumerable classifications and imposes none. Hence, each culture cuts up the unstable elements of the world in a different way, making a different set of incisions, and this is why there are such diverse languages with different grammars and different vocabularies and semantics. That original classification is the first supposition made about what the truth of the world is; it was, therefore, the first knowledge. This is why, in the beginning, to speak was to know.

“The Indo-Europeans believed that the most important difference between “things” was their sex, and they gave every object, a little indecently, a sexual classification. The other great division they imposed on the world consisted of the assumption that everything that exists is either an action—hence the verb —or an agent— hence the noun.

“Compared to our pathetic little classification of nouns into masculine, feminine and neuter, the African peoples who speak the Bantu languages have a far richer catalogue. In some of these languages there are twenty-four classifying signs—that is, compared to our three genders, no less than two dozen. Things that move, for example, are differentiated from inert things, the vegetables from animals, etc. Where one language barely establishes distinctions, another yields up a luxuriant differentiation. In Eise there are thirty-three words for expressing different forms of human movement, of the verb “to go”. In Arabic there are 5,714 names for the camel. Obviously, a nomad from the Arabian Desert and a manufacturer from Glasgow would have a hard time seeing eye-to-eye about the humpbacked animal. Languages separate us and alienate, not because they are different languages, but because they are grow out of different mental pictures, of disparate intellectual systems—ultimately, of divergent philosophies. Not only do we speak a particular language, but our thoughts slide intellectually along predetermined lines to which our verbal fate restricts us.”

The linguist fell silent and still with the tip of his sharp nose pointing towards a vague quadrant of the sky. In the corners of his mouth a smile seemed to suggest itself. I understood at once that this insightful mind was one of those that moved dialectically, striking a blow to one and then to the opposite side. As I am of the same stock, I was pleased to uncover the enigma that his speech had posed to us.

“Surreptitiously and with astute tactics,” I said, “you have led us to the abyss of a contradiction, no doubt to make us feel it all the more intensely. You have in effect sustained two opposing theories: one, that each language imposes a specific set of categories, of mental routes; and the other, that the original sets that constitute by each language are no longer valid, that we use them by convention and in jest, that what we say is no longer to say quite what we mean, but merely “a manner of speaking”. As both theories are convincing, the conflict between them invites us to raise a problem that until now the linguist has not studied, to wit: what is alive and what is dead in our language; which grammatical categories continue to inform our thought and which have lost their currency. Because, of all you have told us, what is most obvious is this outrageous proposition that would make Meillet’s and Vendryes’s hair stand on end: our languages are anachronisms.”

“Indeed,” exclaimed the linguist. “That is the issue I wished to suggest, and that is my perspective. Our languages are anachronistic instruments. When we speak, we are humble hostages to the past.”

Translated by Martin Boyd

Go to Part Five of the essay: “The Splendour”

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