Horsey, Horsey

John Sturrock

  • The Search for the Perfect Language by Umberto Eco, translated by James Fentress
    Blackwell, 385 pp, £24.95, September 1995, ISBN 0 631 17465 6
  • Mimologics by Gérard Genette, translated by Thaïs Morgan
    Nebraska, 446 pp, £23.95, September 1995, ISBN 0 8032 2129 0

Anyone who has ever felt drawn to the remote but seductive question of what form the first human language may have taken will have been stirred the other day by Gillian Shephard’s announcement that the Government is going to spend (a very little) money on coaching our young inarticulates so that they stop ‘grunting’ and start using words. This looks rather like an attempt to recapitulate on the cheap the slow linguistic evolution of the species, as Trevor McDonald and his fellow therapists educate the grunters out of the animal and into the human state. Except, of course, that the grunts complained of are not natural phenomena but already signs, an admittedly crude but still authentic element of culture. All grunts are not identical, either in the way they sound or in what they may be taken to mean. They depend for their interpretation on how grunters grunt, in response to what, and who they grunt to (or at). They are not to be so easily dismissed as prehistoric intruders in our otherwise eloquent midst.

What they do, however, is to hark topically back to the big idea that binds these two learned, sceptical, on occasions witty, books together. This big idea concerns the relation we believe to hold between the words that we use and whatever we use them to refer to: between so-called ‘natural’ language and the extra-verbal world beyond it. It is an irony that we should have now come to call English, say, a ‘natural’ language when from one point of view that is exactly what it isn’t, since the form that it takes has been determined not by directions given to Anglophones by nature but by agreement among the generations of those who have used and elaborated it.

The deep question of how ‘natural’ human language is or isn’t goes a long way back, by scholarly tradition if not in historical fact to Plato and the dialogue known as the Cratylus. In this, two incompatible views of language are set in opposition. According to one view, argued for by Hermogenes, language is an institution founded on convention and on that alone. The forms that any particular language contains have arisen and have evolved through time, and bear only an arbitrary relationship to the world beyond language that they are used to refer to. There’s nothing inherently horsey, in short, about the word horse, or cheval, or Pferd, or any of the many other terms to be found in the world’s languages which may serve to identify this particular natural item. This is the doctrine of the ‘arbitrariness of the sign’ redefined early this century by Saussure and agreed to, I imagine, give or take some quite small refinements, by everyone today who has ever given the matter any thought. Hermogenes’ opponent in Plato is the Cratylus for whom the dialogue is named, though he cannot be said to have argued his way to victory. Cratylus’ view is that the relation of language to reality is not arbitrary or conventional but mimetic, that words imitate things, which have the names that they do because these are the ‘right’ names for them, imposed of necessity by the actual properties of what it is they name.

It might look as though any rational compromise would be hard to find between these two positions, but Socrates advances one, as Gérard Genette brings out in a typically rigorous analysis of the dialogue. Socrates emerges from it in the end as a ‘disappointed Cratylist’: his thesis is that whoever first gave things their names did a poor job on the whole, since so many of the names – though not all: this is something to come back to in a moment – seem to be wrong, or inappropriate, appropriateness being held to lie in a self-evident match between their sound and their sense. For Socrates, and for those who have thought like him in the many centuries since, the arbitrariness of the sign is an affliction, brought about by the incompetence of the first namer(s).

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