How do you pronounce biopic, synod, and Breughel? - and why? Do our cake and archaic sound the same? Where does the stress go in stalagmite? What's odd about the word epergne? As a finale, the author writes a letter to his 16-year-old self.
Date: Wed, 07 Sep 2005 11:32:49 +0200 From: Monika S. Schmid Subject: Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Language
AUTHOR: Heller-Roazen, Daniel TITLE: Echolalias SUBTITLE: On the Forgetting of Language YEAR: 2005 PUBLISHER: MIT Press
Monika S. Schmid, English Department, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
This book is a collection of 21 more or less closely connected essays, most of which deal with some aspect of the change or disappearance of (part of) a linguistic system. The first essay, "The apex of babble", takes up the Jakobsonian idea of infant babble containing the full range of possible phonemes, which are said to disappear before meaningful language acquisition starts. This leads on to "Exclamations", a consideration of what Trubetskoi termed "distinctive anomalous phonological elements" (15), sounds that are not part of an acquirer's or a language's phonological repertoire/inventory, but are present in onomatopoetical imitations of animals or mechanical noises, exclamations or loanwords. This chapter culminates in the startling statement that "the intensity of language is nowhere as great as in the interjection, the onomatopoeia, and the human imitation of what is not human" (18). (In what way these observations and speculations are related to the phenomenon of "forgetting" is not made clear.) Chapter 3, "Aleph" marks the start of a number of sections that are concerned with the disappearance of sounds, phonemes or graphemes from the inventory of particular languages. From the Hebrew letter Aleph, which "cannot be pronounced, not because its sound is too complex but because it is too simple; none may utter this letter because, unlike all others, it represents no sound at all" (19), and an in-depth discussion of its discussion in grammatical and kabalistic documents, the volume progresses to "Endangered Phonemes" (Ch. 4). Here, Heller-Roazen takes a look at phonemes which "inhabit the indistinct region at the limits of every sound system" (28) and are therefore considered good candidates for disappearance or 'forgetting'. Named among such "endangered phonemes" are the French "obsolete" or "silent e" (29) and the glottal fricative /h/ (chapter 5).
Chapters 6-10 concern themselves with notions of language death and shift. Chapter 6, "Exiles" offers some insights into and speculations on the fate of Aramaic as an exiled language (as opposed to an exiled speaker, who can "dream of being 'retrieved' by those who still reside in the country from which he came", whereas for the language "banishment is irreparable", 50). Chapter 7, "Dead Ends" offers a criticism of metaphors from the realm of organisms, life and death as applied to processes of the disappearance and maintenance of linguistic systems in use. As Heller-Roazen points out, analyses which pretend to offer a definite moment at which a certain language dies (i.e. the moment of death of its last known speaker) are inaccurate and facile metaphors for a gradual process of shift, in which some aspects of the original idiom always survive: "in language there may be no dead ends, and [...] the time of the persistent passing of speech may not be that of living beings" (65). This notion is further considered in Chapter 8, "Thresholds", where Heller-Roazen points out the difficulty of ascertaining the point in time at which one language changes into another, as is illustrated on the basis of Latin and French: "If one takes the pertinent trait of the ancient tongue to be its system of declination, one will date the emergence of the modern successor between the first and the fifth century, yet if one finds the kernel of the tongue in the architecture of its verbs, one will be obliged to set the decisive moment sometime between the sixth and the tenth century [...]" (69). Chapter 9, "Strata" offers some more speculations on the transition of one language to another, and the imprints that the former leaves on the new system "like a mineral slate marked by the layers of a history older than that of living beings" (77). In this way, Heller-Roazen argues, every modern tongue contains an "archeological remainder" (86) which contains remnants of the linguistic systems that preceded it. This notion is explored further in Chapter 10, "Shifts", where the question is posed of whether modern Hebrew is "not a Semitic tongue with a European overlay but rather a European language with a Semitic addition", i.e. a relexified form of Yiddish (96).
The following two chapters, "Little Stars" and "The Glimmer Returns" can be seen as a kind of interlude, where the function of the asterisk as marking a reconstructed form in the Neogrammarian tradition and its function of indicating ungrammaticality in modern linguistics are explained and compared, as "[t]he two stars seem united [...] in the obscurity of their sense" (116).
We will assume that there is no malicious intent behind the fact that Chapter 13, which is in large part about Hannah Arendt, is entitled "The Writing Cow". Here, Heller-Roazen draws an extraordinary comparison between the mythical character of the nymph Io who, abducted by Jupiter and turned into a cow by jealous Juno, was able to cry out for help because she had retained the knowledge of how to write the two letters that spelled her name, and Hannah Arendt, for whom the remainder of pre-Hitler Europe was the legacy of the German language which she had "always consciously refused to lose" (125). "In distinction to the thinker, who retained her relation to the German language despite the nation-state that claimed to represent its speakers, the fabled creature could not have conserved her speech, since the transformation she underwent [...] left nothing of her original form intact" (126).
Chapter 14, "The Lesser Animal" concerns itself with the phenomenon of aphasia and psychoanalysis, building mostly on Freud's observations and speculations. The chapter ends with a quote from Kafka, where a speaker claims to be able to swim, but to be prevented from exercising this ability by the memory of his "former inability to swim" which he is unable to forget. Heller-Roazen argues that Kafka describes someone who "stands in the same position with respect to swimming that the Freudian aphasics occupy with respect to language" as these latter "can – or could – speak 'just like the others'" of which the formulaic expressions these patients allegedly keep repeating "are the proof." Heller-Roazen's argument would thus be that it is only their superior memory which prevents them from speaking normally: they simply haven't forgotten what it is like not to be able to speak (146).
Chapter 15, Aglossostomography, discusses some cases mentioned in historical writings of human beings who, through sickness or birth defects, had no tongues, but this notwithstanding are reported to have been able to speak almost or perfectly normally. A parallel is then drawn with a character in an Edgar Allan Poe short story who is described as "a tongue [...] without a mouth, which, beyond the end of the living body, continues to talk in the absence of the being to whom it once belonged" (154).
Chapters 16 and 17, "Hudba" and "Schizophonetics" touch on the linguistic autobiographies of Elias Canetti and Louis Wolfson, the ambivalent feelings both authors have towards some of their childhood languages and some psychoanalytic interpretations thereof. Chapters 18 and 20, "A Tale of Abu Nuwas" and "Poets in Paradise" concern themselves with elements of the forgetting of Persian poetry, while chapter 19 recapitulates a short story by Tommaso Landolfi about a poet who took lessons in a language he thought to be Persian but which he later discovered appeared a linguistic system unknown to anyone but himself (the teacher, too, denying all knowledge of it). Finally, Chapter 21, "Babel" takes a look at the biblical tale of the confusion of languages.
While a superficial reading of the text gives the impression of polyglot erudition, a closer look reveals some serious shortcomings. The author appears to be laboring under some fundamental misapprehensions about modern linguistic theory, as evidenced, for example, by the following: "unlike all earlier forms of the study of language, the study of "grammar" defined by Chomsky aimed to be a science in the modern sense of the term, which is to say, strictly empirical." (114). Throughout the text, there is evidence of such lack of familiarity with contemporary linguistic theory. As may have become clear from the above summary, most of the actual linguistic sources Heller-Roazen quotes are quite dated (much of what he writes comes straight from Jakobson and Trubetskoi), and have in many cases been long since refuted. The Jakobsonian view, for example, of infants using and then losing the full range of phonemes available in all human languages has been demonstrated to be inaccurate, as is pointed out even in textbook treatments of language acquisition (e.g. Oerter & Montada 1998:715).
The same has to be said for the sections on Aphasia, which more or less exclusively base themselves on Freud's observations, except for the truly Kafkaesque hypothesis that it is the memory of a pre- linguistic stage which is to blame for the aphasic's failure to speak normally.
Similarly, Heller-Roazen's views on persistence and disappearance are hampered by lack of familiarity with recent views on where and how linguistic material that has apparently disappeared can persist and survive, such as the ones posed by Ritt (2004) or Lass (1990).
The volume is at its strongest where it argues against sentimentalist conceptions of language as an organism that can live or die, although these chapters leave the reader with a feeling that the argument was not taken to its full conclusion. (Here, too, a rather restricted knowledge of the literature, which seems largely to be limited to the writings of David Crystal on the matter, is evident.)
Overall, the volume leaves one with the impression that this is a book on language written by a literary scholar who is not sufficiently up-to- date on current linguistic theory. Furthermore, the abundant use of metaphors, such as "Perhaps the loss of a limitless phonetic arsenal is the price a child must pay for the papers that grant him citizenship in the community of a single tongue" (11) does eventually irritate.
What is left is a collection of anecdotal accounts of aspects of the history of language(s) and literary accounts thereof. In these sections, it does become clear that Heller-Roazen can draw on an impressive store of knowledge, which is presented in a fashion that can both fascinate and entertain.
Lass, Roger. 1990. "How to do things with junk: Exaptation in language evolution". Journal of Linguistics 26, pp. 79-102.
Oerter, Rolf & Montada, Leo (eds). 1998 [4th ed.]. Entwicklungspsychologie: Ein Lehrbuch. Weinheim: Beltz Verlag.
Ritt, Nikolaus. 2004. Selfish Sounds and Linguistic Evolution: A Darwinian approach to language change. CUP.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Monika S. Schmid graduated in translation of literature in English, French and German from the Heinrich-Heine Universität Düsseldorf in 1996 and was awarded her PhD (summa cum laude) in English linguistics from that same institution in 2000. Since August 2000, she has been a lecturer in English linguistics (specialty area language variation) and researcher (specialty area: first language attrition) at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Her recent publications include a monograph and a collected volume on first language attrition, published with John Benjamins, Amsterdam. In August 2005, she co- organized the 2nd International Conference on First Language Attrition at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (www.let.vu.nl/conference/icfla2005).