Date: Wed, 07 Sep 2005 11:32:49 +0200
From: Monika S. Schmid
Subject: Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Language
AUTHOR: Heller-Roazen, Daniel
SUBTITLE: On the Forgetting of Language
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
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
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