Friday, 14 September 2012

From Elvish to Klingon

Edited by Michael Adams.

I wouldn’t want to jam Zionist anti-Yiddish struggles, radix-happy C17th stabs at Adamic reference, Esperanto’s antecedent Volapük, Burgess’s Nadsat misfits, nor Beckett’s Worstward Ho weirdo between “Elvish” and “Klingon” . . . so this collection really ranges wider than is suggested by its title (although Paul Muldoon is defo a level 4 drow).  It’s a grand ol’ grab-bag, stuffed with eight essays (incl. introduction) plus eight responses (some commentaries, some more in the spirit of “yeah that reminds me”, and some li’l’ baby anthologies in themselves) by editor Prof. Michael Adams.  As Wilyam Shexpir put it “in the original Klingon” (255-6), “mu’, mu’, mu’” (Khamlet, Act II, Scene 2).  
            The approaches are also various – from the rock-solid academia of Arden R. Smith and Stephen Watt, to the more bloggerish, Tiggerish musings of James Portnow.  Though Portnow’s style of thought is apt given his essay’s subject – “From Gargish to |337” (doesn’t Net geekdom have its own ecology of intellectual legitimacy, partly insulated from that of the academy?) – I have a niggle with his Saussure paraphrase.  Portnow gives the guru’s principle of arbitrary signification as: “words [ . . . ] have no bearing on the real world; they mean nothing unless a group of people agree that they do”.  Now to me “no bearing on the real world” suggests confidence in the existence of an extra‑linguistic reality, and “agree that they do” suggests that languages can be thought of as contracts which establish how to communicate about this reality.
            But Saussure’s legacy is largely built on his attack on these connected assumptions – he argued our worlds are segmented and laden with value through languages and other complex systems of interdependent signs; individuals “encounter” these systems as an irresistible fait accompli, without exits, and which they are powerless – almost powerless – to alter. 
            Other essays explore the wiggle room that “almost” affords.  E. S. C. Weiner and Jeremy Marshall delve into Tolkien’s elves, who are “aware of the whole of their language at every moment” (106) and “will introduce a sound change throughout the language ‘as a weaver might change a thread from red to blue’” (106-7).  Could reality be improved by improving language?  Howard Jackson – I mean Womanward Jilldaughter! – proposes “politically correct” vocabulary as a real instance of such a project, prone to undermining itself with its “excesses” (61).  Or could some Big Bad invent an über-malevolent reality?  The same essay tackles Orwell’s notorious Newspeak.  Now, Mrs. Doe-erton didn’t raise no fool – the swift dismissal of linguistic determinism via elision with metaphysical nominalism is a red (threat!) herring.  What Jackson’s really fishing for is whether linguistic regulation could ever be a viable instrument for the state administration of social consciousness.  No, he concludes, quite plausibly.  The officials of Orwell’s authoritarian-totalitarian Party would find it tough to “stand outside the process in order to fashion the language” (63), let alone calculate how subjugated citizens would “consciously reflect about the words they use” (61).  What bureaucracy could cope with something so volatile and copious?  Too many moles, too few whacks.  Jackson even uncovers several places where Orwell’s usage departs – or mutates – from his own invented norms. 
            Still, we musn’t be complacent about centralised linguistic engineering.  Newspeak-style manipulation of social reality may be a tall order, but states do alter social reality, often unpredictably, through linguistic-legislative initiatives.  Suzanne Romaine’s superb finale focuses on revitalised languages – Hebrew, Irish, Cornish, Hawaiian.  Revitalisation, it turns out, demands invention aplenty.  Romaine points out by-the-by that English, French and other languages “whose legitimacy is taken for granted” (213) have been profoundly shaped by deliberate interventions, born of “desire for prominent ideological symbols of shared identity, purpose, and nationhood” (ibid.). 
            Besides, it’s not just language that is various and ever-changing.  So is state power – and new forms come constantly into being.  Could the elven tongues tell us more about elven socio-political organisation – and its autarchic, ecologically-responsive vibe – than all those unpersuasive trappings of patriarchal feudalism?  I enjoyed Weiner/Marshall’s bit about sound symbolism or phonaesthesis – the notion that certain sounds have “recognizable semantic associations due to recurrent appearance in words of similar meaning” (103) – and the question of pleasure in the relationship between sound and sense.  To an elf or a philologist (like Tolkien), such associations could also include superseded semantic systems, plus the reasons they shifted, vanished – the movements of peoples; the judgments of the powerful; conflict and assimilation; prosperity; persecution; disaster; diaspora; division; colonisation; abandonment; war.  Aesthetic aversion (such as to a piece of political correctness as “excess” (q.v.)) and aesthetic pleasure always contain such historical sediment.   But for Tolkien’s immortal elves, it is an information so rich, clear and complete that aesthetic response become inseparable from judgement as though in a public forum.  Feeling becomes a mode of reasoning.  
            Elves aren’t Party draftsmen (as in “linguistic legislation”), nor engineers (as in “linguistic engineering”), nor construction workers (as in “socially-constructed”), but craftsmen and artists, celebrants and mourners.  They don’t redesign their language, they elfvolve it.  Could a RL analogue be imagined?  Luckily that’s a tall, pointy-eared order.  Still, picture a state financially incentivising the general market of cultural production – via Digital Rights Management, automated statistical textual analyses, clickwrap-contracting and billions of micro-transactions, via any number of arm’s-length agencies and private sector partners – to align language use with some desired template.  Where authoritarian statecraft falls short of perfecting totalitarianism, liberal statecraft could conceivably succeed. 

(Review originally appeared in Interzone!!!)

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