The Knots of Language @ Link Wanderlust


Richard Seymour talks about the origins of the meaning of language and goes into great depth about how civilization perceives meaning from text. The essay is thorough and well-thought out. It may take two or three readings to get to the heart of the essay but it is well worth your time.

On one hand, language has a sacred identity and comes forth in the wake of divine proximity.

Caedmon… the ‘illiterate cowherd who couldn’t sing’. Only in a dream does the gift come to him; he is visited by a figure who might be the Christian God, and urged to ‘sing the beginning of created things’. And so he does, and ‘gorgeous verses praising God pour forth’.

In order to understand how language works, it is important to understand where the mnemonic systems came from. Seymour starts with the ‘talking knots’ of the Incas to trending emojis.

Ironically, speech is most closely approximated by using non-phonetic elements such as emojis. The term ‘emoji’ is taken from the Japanese, and transliterates as ‘picture-letter’. It resuscitates the pictogram familiar from Sumerian cuneiform, or medieval manuscript marginalia, in modern-day written language, allowing social media users to convey aspects of speech not included in the alphabet, such as register, mood and expression.

Another contention he has with perceptions about language is that clarity is overvalued. The poet Ezra Pound may have had ‘a puritanical suspicion of ornament’ and Orwell may have had reservations about excess but obstacles in language could inspire the reader to glean more out of oblique prose than simple text. We all know how Marxism shook world politics- fancy language may have done more than we give it credit for.

Granted that those examples of left-wing writing which Orwell mocks are indeed needlessly ugly, why should clarity necessarily be an alibi of political insight?

Read Caedmon’s Dream: on the Politics of Style by Richard Seymour.

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