The Great Conversation: Language

By Gabriel Blanchard

Language is the medium of the Great Conversation; accordingly, it is one of its most deceitful subjects as well.

Language itself is, inevitably, a topic in the Great Conversation. Interestingly, this is one place where the Great Conversation has impinged on popular culture a lot in the last few decades, largely thanks to the film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings. The Elvish languages Tolkien devised were used extensively, and many people know that Middle-earth was as much an excuse on his part to have somewhere to put his languages, as it was an imagined world that the languages filled out. Tolkien’s are not the only well-known and detailed “conlangs” (constructed languages) in existence—Valyrian, Klingon, and Esperanto spring to mind—but they are arguably the trend-setters, in prompting people who may not have an education in philosophy or linguistics to think about what language is and how it can work.

The most obvious purpose of language is communication. All three stages of the Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) are intimately concerned with language; the introductory material for most scientific and philosophical courses to this day still involves careful, exact definitions of terms. One of the great difficulties of language is that few words settle cooperatively into a single definition. Alternate senses, connotations, literary and historical allusions, and the like put every attempt to speak with exactitude in danger of pollution. Words like substance, which have unrelated and indeed almost opposite meanings in vernacular use and academic philosophy, are instances; so too, in a different way, are many political terms, which easily become charged with social or ideological connotations that they may not have on paper.

An entire mythology is stored within our language.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

It is partly this issue of irresolvable linguistic difficulties which drove the development of postmodernism, which is almost as much a school of literary criticism as of philosophy. Authors like Marshall McLuhan (who coined the phrase “the medium is the message”), Jacques Derrida, and Paul-Michel Foucault put forward the idea that language shapes our minds at least as much as our minds shape language. This idea was not completely new—a number of linguists and philologists had expressed it (including some of the Inklings). But it was given a new weight by postmodernists, who used language analysis as a way of approaching all previous philosophy.

Of course, the ambiguities of language aren’t necessarily a bad thing. They are inconvenient to most scientists and many philosophers, but the poet, the mystic, and the wit may find these polyvalencies quite helpful. Ancient and Medieval commentators on Scripture took it for granted that most if not all passages were meant to be understood in multiple senses. The peculiar deliciousness of the seventeenth-century Metaphysical poets relies heavily upon puns and “conceits,” a kind of word-play that generally relies on analogies between things that are very unlike each other in most respects. John Donne’s extensive use of astronomical imagery in his love poems is an excellent example, as in the lines:

Up, up, faire Bride, and call,
Thy starres, from out their severall boxes, take
Thy Rubies, Pearles, and Diamonds forth, and make
Thy selfe a constellation, of them All,
And by their blazing, signifie,
That a Great Princess falls, but doth not die;
Bee thou a new starre, that to us portends
Ends of much wonder; And be Thou those ends.

Suggested reading:

Plato, Cratylus
Aristotle, On Interpretation
Dante Alighieri, Letter to Can Grande della Scala
Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics
C. S. Lewis, Studies In Words

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