For the Love of Language

Disclaimer: This is a bit of a departure from my usual subject matter, but after all I can’t spend all my time considering the opportunities for grace one finds in a dirty diaper.

A while ago, Simcha put up a very interesting post about what English sounds like to non-English speakers. Even if you don’t go read the whole post, at least watch this video, which is supposed to be an example of what American English sounds like to non-English speakers.

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After watching it, my comment to the Ogre was that we can never really know what English sounds like to non-English speakers because this video (in which the only recognizable word is “alright”) still sounds familiar. It sounds familiar because it retains the cadence of American English. At first, the Ogre disagreed and said that English must sound to foreigners exactly like any other foreign language sounds to us…basically, like lyrical gibberish. I totally disagreed and told him to go watch the video, which he did. When he came back, he said that I was right, American English (and British English, to a lesser degree) have a unique cadence that is remarkably different from the cadences of other languages…and not just the famously lyrical Romance languages. German, Polish, Greek, and Russian all have a lyrical quality to the foreign ear. (I’m leaving the Oriental and African languages out because they are so completely other. I think Japanese sounds like someone repeatedly stuttering the letters K and T and I don’t have enough experience with the African languages to make a judgment.) We tried to pinpoint exactly what kind of cadence English has. I insisted that it’s not musical at all, it’s heavy and nearly clumsy. Then the Ogre whipped out this really interesting passage from an article written by our old Latin professor, Dr. Karl Maurer, a brilliant and bizarre man.

English meter is based on mere stress accents. As Robert Graves once said, in words that apply to both iambs and to alliterative Saxon verse, English has “the meter of the tugged oar and the marching footstep.” It is thus a barbarous thing, compared with Greek meter; but it can get much closer to naked living speech. Only English can have a Shakespeare, a Frost, or a Hardy.

I thought this was a wonderful way of putting it. English does have a barbarous sound, a sound of marching, drums, and the beating rhythm of the human heart. And it is precisely that rhythm which makes a master like Shakespeare possible; someone who can make the language sing, make it beautiful and lyrical, and then all at once cut through to the heart of us by writing lines so attuned to the innate cadence of the language that they seem to dispense with the need for words altogether. Although Shakespeare’s histories were never my favorite, I still remember being fascinated by some lines in Henry IV, Part 1.

The land is burning; Percy stands on high;
and either we or they must lower lie.

Words aside, it seemed to me that the rhythm of the words themselves bespoke Hal’s desperation. Years after reading those words I remember them with absolute clarity, even if I had to hunt for their location (it’s Act III, scene iii in case you’re wondering).  

After the Ogre left for work I kept thinking about language and the beauty of it. In the movie Donnie Darko, Drew Barrymore’s character talks about a famous linguist who once said that the most beautiful words in the English language are “cellar door”. (This checks out, according to the all-knowing Google.) That part has bothered me for years, because I do not think those words are beautiful. There are so many absolutely lovely combinations of words out there, and I’ve always been annoyed at the choice of “cellar door.” What about “half-light,” “midsummer’s eve”, “dim crescent”? All of those words are far more lovely and pleasing to the ear than “cellar door.” But perhaps it’s not the sound of the words that I’m hearing; perhaps it’s the association behind them. Perhaps I can’t get over the fact that when someone says “cellar door” what I think of is, well, a cellar door. Maybe I find “midsummer’s eve” beautiful because visions of Titania and Oberon reclining in a bed of moss  springs into my mind when I hear those words. And really, isn’t that what language is supposed to do?

I hated reading critics like Richard Rorty in college. I despise it when people deconstruct language; when they try to separate sound from meaning, meaning from intention, intention from the author. All those deconstructionists ruin the very thing they are trying to understand. Poets choose their words carefully, with the utmost precision, because only those words said in that particular way can accurately convey what they mean. Language is mysterious and beautiful, and all the critics and philosophers in the world can never say anything more true, more beautiful, more penetrating and insightful than this:

The dove descending breaks the air
with flames of incandescent terror
of which the tongues declare
the one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
    Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
    To be redeemed from fire by fire.

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  • Andrea

    Really, really interesting post!

  • Melanie B

    I was about to say that the linguist who thought "cellar door" beautiful must have been cracked. But then I thought of the children's song: "Say, say my playmate, come out and play with me…. slide down my rainbow into my cellar door." Where the cellar door is a part of a catalog of romantic childhood images. So now I wonder if it's a generational thing. Come to think of it, I could imagine an Anne Shirley who was enamored of cellar doors. When I was a girl I was always fascinated by cellars and attics because the houses we lived in didn't have such things. There are no cellars or basements in Central Texas. So I had a sort of romanticized notion of cellars that living in New England and having to do my laundry in the damp, dirty basements of a couple of houses has completely dispelled.I do think though that trying to divorce the sound of a word from its emotional connotations is virtually impossible. Oh and I can't say anything worthy of the Eliot except to say that I am in complete agreement. "lies in the choice of pyre or pyre" Brilliant. That is why Eliot it my favorite poet.

  • Anonymous

    1) Wow, you really made me miss Maurer. Usually when I think of Maurer I get PTSD, but you really made me miss him.2) I'm under the impression that that linguist was Tolkien.~Mary Catherine (not using my Google account because Ryan's logged in)

  • mrsdarwin

    I also thought Tolkien said that. I heard the cadence of American English in the video, but I couldn't pay much attention to it because I was completely absorbed by the funky dancing.

  • Calah

    Melanie, I see what you mean, particularly the point about Anne Shirley! And yes, Eliot. So brilliant.Mary Catherine, actually I never had Maurer. I'm not sure why I said "our" when really I meant "his", because the Ogre had him, unless it's because I tend to think of everything at UD as having been ours at one point. I only heard the funny stories about Maurer, like how he used to forget chalk wasn't a cigarette and how my sister in law once yelled at him. But you should read his articles; he's one of the most beautiful essayists I've ever read, which is really strange, considering. My heart almost broke when you said it was Tolkien, but after doing some thinking I realized that that sounds about right. After all, this is the man who named the High Elven city, the most beautiful city in Middle Earth, Tuna. Mrs. Darwin, I too loved the dancing. I sort of bobbed along to the rhythm until my daughter said "are you having a heart attack or what?"

  • Sarah

    I love your last paragraph especially (and dislike Mr. Rorty heartily). I also love that you quote Eliot so readily. :)

  • Charles Curtis

    Midsummer’s eve reminds me of douche. Not a good association. But cellar door, besides evoking stuff like my grammy’s redolent and magical cellar, Tumnus Faun asking Lucy about the city of Wardrobe land of Spare Oom, is I think a beautiful sound – if you respell it, as say ce la dor (ah, but you hate French, right?) se’ lador, celladour, sellardor, selador, I think it disassociates the meaning and lets you hear the sound, which is in fact beautiful..