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Language, that most mysterious gift of humanity, is usually singled out as the one faculty that distinguishes man from animal. I could think of other less flattering differences; but at any rate it is true that language separates man from man, that it is the most faithful mirror of growth and decline. For instance, it has often occurred to me that as inconspicuous an event as the disappearance from English usage of the nominative pronoun of the second person singular, i.e., of “thou,” may have represented a greater upheaval for those concerned than many more famous revolutions. God, lovers, and letter-carriers are addressed in the same manner; the majesty of intimacy has given place to a polite remoteness; the indispensable ritual of changing from vous to tu has become the victim of a grammatical egalitarianism that has corroded the poetic core of the language.

Its lyrical labyrinths have been filled up and made useful for all purposes. After this happened, only the greatest of poets have been able to break through the utility barriers of a tired vocabulary.

There must, of course, have been reasons why this happened, but I am not eager to give, or ask for, an explanation. My long life in the midst of the explanatory sciences has made me tired of explanations. They are, except in the most trivial instances, a placebo for our reason, dulling us to the mysteries surrounding us, without which we could not live. Great as is my admiration for the modern concept of “biological information,” I do not, for instance, believe that it is some form of genetic change-the loss of a few purines from English DNA-that has caused the disappearance of the invaluable pronoun.

For this reason, and for many others, I look with great diffidence on the struggles between the various schools of modern linguistics: between what one could call molecular or Cartesian linguistics on the one hand and behaviorist linguistics on the other. Those who assume that the ability to form syntactic structures is born with us are probably correct. Does this mean that there are certain regions in our DNA that “program” us for the ability or, better, for the compulsion? I doubt it. Life is the continual intervention of the inexplicable. It is likely that we could learn more about the initiation of language from following the creation of a lyrical poem than from studying sentence structures. If the abrupt throwing of bridges above the dark abyss of the onset of human life, if the explosive formation of associations, in which sense and sound become undistinguishahle, make the great poet or the great wit, then the young child is probably both.

Although I have often said that, were I given a second life of learning, I should take up the study of language, I must say that I have always learned more about language from great writers than from textbooks. Unfortunately, few poets have spoken about words, since they very rightly did not consider them as tools. But there exist a few passages of great interest.

It is not accidental that in following the numerous hypotheses on the origin of language, which have been put forward in the last 200 years or so, one is constantly reminded of the more recent, and equally fruitless, discussions on the origin of life. The substitution of the experimentally provable “could-havebeen” for the experimentally inaccessible “has-been” is an old trick of pseudo-scientific prestidigitation that usually ends in calling “life” what is not life and “language” what is not language.

The attempt to define the undefinable, to achieve a retrogression into the origin of origins, will always end in the banal recognition that the experimental sciences are not historical ones and that they are even less philosophical than is presentday philosophy. Goethe, so often maligned by idiots in his capacity of thinker about nature, has said it once for all. It is the highest bliss for the thinking man to have explored what can be explored and quietly to worship what cannot. Even in this simple instance, there appears the predicament of the translator-traitor. All languages are equally rich, but not in convertible currency.

In the evening and at night, my friend Albert Fuchs and I often walked through the beautiful streets of Vienna, and we talked endlessly about writing: what made a text genuine, what caused a poem to be good. We distinguished between Aussage (statement) and Ausdruck (expression), and we concluded that only the genius could “express,” whereas any talent could “state.” Something of this distinction has remained with me, and I would still say that only what is “stated” can be translated, but not what is “expressed.” That is why Thomas Mann is eminently translatable and Stifter or Rimbaud are not.

There exist mysterious links between language and the human brain; and the heartless and brutal way in which language is used in our times, as if it were only a power tool in public relations, a shortcut from sly producer to gullible consumer, has always seemed to me the most threatening portent of incipient bestialization. It is frightening to observe that a progressive aphasia, not organically determined, appears to overtake large numbers of people who seem to be unable to express themselves except by hoarse barks and (undeleted) expletives.

Erwin Chargaff, The Forest and its Trees (from Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life before Nature).


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