Much of what we do on this blog involves analyzing the meaning of our own language. But that is easier said than done. Mostly because the act of analysis is done using the thing being studied. We use English to talk about English and very often we are just plain deluded. Not intentionally. But rather blindly because it is impossible to see our own language objectively. Linguists should study a language that is not their own. Leave the mother-tongue to the mother and the poet. Poets make no pretentions to understanding their own language. They have a hard-wired code in their head telling them how they should write. And also all the rules that their English teacher taught them about dangling participles and the use of “whom.” But most poets I know delight in breaking the rules. In essence, they are saying, “Yes, my language can do that.” In my own writing I frequently use words like oompf and trumble. I delight in scrumbling grammar rules. Sentence fragmentization. Syntax synning. I stretch my language because as a linguist and a poet I know it is far more flexible than we give it credit. Children often say, “I branged it.” Instead of “I brought it.” Is branged an error? Personally I like that word a lot and I kind of hope it catches on.
This monologue was inspired by a recent post on Language Log bad-mouthing Orwell’s famous essay, “Politics and the English language.” The writer points out just how many times Orwell breaks his own rules. This is ironic on two levels. First, Orwell, the superb writer of English, is contradicting at almost every turn Orwell, the prescriptive grammarian. The blogger writes, “Orwell’s Politics and the English Language is a beautifully written language crime, though it pretends to lay down the law.” This brings us to the second irony. Orwell was laughing at the same “laws” he was laying down but the blogger missed that part. Orwell is speaking, not exactly tongue-in-cheek, but with a heavy sense of self-referential mockery. That’s the true beauty of his final escape clause: Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
The final irony for us is that when we are talking about translation we are really on thin ice. It is seldom simple to determine how the original writer meant to be interpreted since writers sometimes (or should I say most times?) say things without fully understanding them. And then in the act of translation we often render things in subtle ways without fully being able to articulate why we said it that way. “It just sounds right” is not a very satisfying answer for a linguist. But it is music to the ears of a poet. And that is the point at which translation passes from the science of linguistics through the art of poetry and into the realm of magic.
P.S. I’ve never used the word trumble before but I think it should mean “trundling around grumbling about Bible translations.” 🙂