Confessions in February 2011

Updated February 28, 2011

Thoughts at the end of the February

I did not want to let a whole month pass with no new updates, yet I've had too much and too little to say - random fragments that did not coalesce into coherent posts. No promises that what follows will be an improvement upon this, but at least there will be something new in this space.

I've been reading about calculus, the classics,hieroglyphics and memory. All of them feed together in their own ways, and reading about the associative power of memory leads me to make them do so at any rate. Still, I'd like to take them separately and see if they fall into some order of their own along the way.

The calculus: It seems a strange thing to mention on a language blog, and yet it is completely appropriate. When we first started counting things, that's exactly what we were doing: counting things... individual, discrete items. Yet the world does not really divide into discrete items. Yes, the face has two eyes, one nose and one mouth. Yet what defines a face is the inumerable curves - the cut of the chin, the shape of the nose, the way the eyes crinkle with a genuine smile. The calculus knows this, knows that the slope of the curve at a point is important, that the area under a curve is important, and that the most important numbers may not be counted out in a human lifespan. The calculus, of course, is limited, by us - we cannot live long enough to know even all the digits of pi, so we can't even fully comprehend the wonder of a perfect circle, never mind the appeal of an ever so slightly lopsided smile. Yet the calculus, like language, tries to describe this. It tries, like language, to be a way to capture and conceive of the world in more precise terms than we can actually grasp.

The classics: The classics pose their own problems. For starters, what are they? With the arguments about the canon, it's becoming harder and harder to have read the books that everyone should have read. No one agrees on what they are, or criteria for selecting them. And yet there's no doubt that some books have an influence and others don't, and that even at this late date a familiarity with certain written works aids in understanding the world and in talking with other people about it. While there's much disagreement about what the classics are or ought to be, the one thing I would be wary of is dismissing the whole notion. Just as the calculus tries to encapsulate the world in mathematics, the idea of the classics carries with it the notion that the written word can capture the world and that a body of literature can give us at least some sense of the world we inhabit.

Hieroglyphics: I find I drift back to the hieroglyphics every three or four years, not getting too far, but maybe a little further with each stab. These follow directly from the classics, for the texts that we still have are mostly a direct effort to capture the most important things for a person to know - how to lead and behave, how to manage death and how to find our place in the cosmos. And, mysteriously enough, they did it with language.

And memory: With memory, there is a practiced effort to build and maintain the associations that let us keep track of the things we need to know to get through the day, the week, the month and the year, and to make sense of our years along the way. Language people always drift back to memory because they have to keep track of words. It's not enough to trust to the words that come to us spontaneously. We have words that were searching for and words on the tip of our tongue. Sometimes we rue that one language lacks a word where another language has one. And so we try to keep track of words and rules and all the things that led language go beyond the everyday to open us up to newer and brighter worlds.

A final note: While I haven't had much to say here, the Assimil experiment continues apace and is linked at right.