Flusser: Melody of Language

(translation from: Vilem Flusser, “Die Melodie der Sprache,” unpublished.

The Melody of Language

Someone steeped in the ontological meaning of language is ill-advised to look for the secret that lurks behind language — that secret taken to be identical with what we call reality — by examining the origin, the sense and form of words, conjunctions and phrasing of individual languages.  What language means for our grasp of reality cannot be reached by way of these etymological, grammatical and phonetic routes in themselves, for they constitute just one of its many aspects.  The force with which language grips the mind, shapes, perhaps even constitutes it, never loosening its grip for a moment, is expressed not only in what it says, what our minds allow it to say, nor even in that it which our minds to do not allow it to recognize, nor even in its implications and allusions. These are certainly important expressions of language, and the etymological, grammatical and phonetic methods go a long way toward illuminating language. But they address language’s structure only, or, if I may put it this way, they concern themselves with the corpse of language. The study of these aspects of language can only be compared to the dissection of dead bodies. The replete living language, as it calls out within us for expression, holds powers very different from these formal ones.  For example, there is a magical aspect.  It calls on and commands higher and deeper powers.  This, the magical force of language is almost completely independent of its grammatical or logical meaning, as can be seen from the effect of murmured Latin or Hebrew prayers, whose logical sense is entirely concealed from those who are praying.  Tibetans have developed a technique for making use of this magical force of language, which I believe is comparable to our method of making use of the logical power of language by means of mathematics.  Just as our mathematical formulas expose all elements of language that are not logical and bring its formal structure to light, so do the lamas’ magical formulae expose all the unmagical elements and, if I may put it this way, lets the astral body of language come to light.  Prayer wheels may be comparable to our logarithmic tables, and the “om mani padme hum” may be comparable to the calculation of differentials.  Language has, in addition to its logical and magical power, additional powers used by poets, demagogues and hypnotists, to briefly mention just a few of the many aspects of language in passing.  I will come to consider each of these aspects of language from an ontological standpoint.  I want to call attention to the melody of language, and what this melody means for the reality of its speakers and listeners, namely that this reality is fundamentally attuned to this specific melody of this specific language.  When we hear a completely foreign language on the radio or in the street, we get an aesthetic impression of a very special kind, which cannot be compared to any other impression.  We might try to draw parallels to musical impressions or to those impressions we get from hearing animals, but such efforts would miss the essence of the impression.  With such an experience we face the naked melody of a language.  In our ears and mind an alien world opens, one which is different in principle from our own. We do not understand a single word of the speech, in fact we don’t even distinguish individual words in the speech, for all run together and become for us an amorphous porridge of sounds and pauses, and yet it is to some degree possible to make a judgment, not of the speech, but the language.  And this judgement is in fact independent not only from the sense of the speech, but also from the speaker.  What we perceive directly and what we are judging is language that is unknown to us.  We then say it is soft or hard, aggressive or defensive, fast or slow, rounded or spikey, barbaric or civilized, or whatever judgment we may have felt moved to make. And we know, without justifying it to ourselves, that the speaker, quite apart from what he is saying, is automatically in a soft or hard, fast or slow, barbaric or civilized world.

When we make the first, testing steps toward a new language, we come up against forms of sound that are adventurous for us at every turn, against moods we do not know and that we, in relating them to our own language, misinterpret.  Conversely, when we hear our own language spoken by a foreigner, however correctly, the melody isn’t quite right, and we have a slightly amused sense of inauthenticity, a slight dissonance as if we were hearing a plagiarist, we feel as though in some deep sense this person is not speaking the truth. In comparing two languages we know well, for example the sentences “es regnet” [It is raining] with “chove” [It is raining], we get yet a third sense, that they cannot mean the same thing when they sound so different. To say nothing of the Czech “prší”.  To express it bluntly without nuances: we feel that it rains differently for people who speak German than it does for people who speak Portuguese, and that it rains differently for us depending on whether we are speaking or thinking in German or Portuguese. And at the same time, we feel that it may rain in German or Portuguese or in any language, but we cannot imagine rain with no language at all. There is no original, real rain that expresses itself secondarily in some sort of language. Rather there are as many rains as there are languages.

The language in which we think covers up the truth, point for point. What we can’t say, we can’t think, and what we can’t think does not exist. There are things we feel that we believe we cannot say, but when we look more closely, we realize that there are words for them after all, or, where there are no words, the feeling seeps away to nothing. What seeps over or under language, this inarticulate thing, is the mind’s boundary. And there really are things that we do not think but that we claim exist, as unthinkable as they are. Apart from the epistemological and logical difficulties of such claims, the fact remains that unthinkable things do not exist for us. And so, I repeat that the language we speak covers reality over, point for point. Not everything language says is real, but it says everything that is real.  Language contains reality, then, and goes beyond it. It is the totality of what can be thought at all, including errors and lies.  As a result, reality bathes in the melody of language.  To put it another way, this melody is the temper of reality, of which existential philosophers are making so much at present.  Or, to put it in still another way, reality is an aesthetically complete whole that coheres as long as we speak in just one language and think in just one language.  But the moment we start to translate from  one language to another, it falls apart. It actually falls apart not only when we become aware of the logical or other difficulties of translation, but immediately and of its own accord when we switch from one melody to another. Rain automatically divides into “es regnet” and “chove” and can never be stuck together again. It can never be stuck together again because in the structure of German reality there is no place for “chove”. There are two realities here, the German and the Portuguese, and they are comparable to one another in many respects. They are similar realities. They are so similar that we often don’t think that there are two. But within German reality there are things that are unthinkable in Portuguese, and the reverse is also the case. But that is to reason to optimistically maintain that we are dealing with two circles that overlap, whose centres lie close together and that therefore cover nearly the same surface.  For the melody of Portuguese is different from that of German, which is the reason we are dealing with two worlds that are different in principle. Everything a person says in Portuguese, even if it is identical with what is said in German (to the extent that is possible) is really something else, for it sounds different.

The matter is still much more complicated than it appears from what has just been said, however, for as far as the melody is concerned, language is no bounded or self-contained whole. Within the German language, for example, a practiced ear can distinguish a number of sub-melodies. It might even be possible to establish a hierarchy of melodies in each language. Its own melody would obviously stand at the apex of the pyramid. Such a method leads to a further splitting of reality into smaller and smaller pieces, and ends in patois, slang or cant, so leading to absurdity. But even this experiment is doomed to failure, for it shows that avoiding reality leads to absurdity.  Reality cannot be split beyond a limit, objectively set through language itself, through its communicability.  Specific deviations in the melody are not enough to disturb reality, as long as they are understood.  They lend it iridescence.  A speaker from Tras Montes lives in the same reality as a speaker from Recife, except that the reality is coloured differently, and the fact that is it coloured differently makes reality unstable.  On the other hand, between reality in Tras Montes and reality in Saxony the only bridge is the unsteady rope bridge of translation.  That is a completely different instability.  In the one,  particular things within reality come into question, in the other, reality itself comes into question and is splintered.  Or, to say the same thing differently: regional melodies within one language cause the fog that surrounds the reality of things, the melodies of separate languages the cause the chaos between separate realities.

One might suggest getting around the melody by reading the language rather than hearing it.  Perhaps misunderstanding in spoken words can be avoided in writing.  I will consider the relationship between spoken and written language in detail elsewhere, as well as the curious matter of trying to speak in written language, and to write speech.  In fact it is undeniable that written language sacrifices its melody, and so is poorer in this dimension, losing a source of it ontological power. Or, to put it differently, when the language becomes drier, it also becomes more exact and may avoid the fracturing of reality just described.  Reality becomes somewhat more cosmopolitan. But another aspect of language appears in the place of melody, namely its painterly aspect, if I may call it that.

Since the invention of print and even more since the introduction of the typewriter, writing in the West has been widely standardized.  It is no longer possible, as it once was, to identify a writer and his linguistic background from the script alone, without reference to the content.  At one time handwriting was characteristically German, English or French, and the same was the case with book print to a lesser degree, giving the reader an aesthetic impression that can be compared to the melody of a spoken language. That has now changed.  Writing is now stereotypical everywhere in the West, and the aesthetic aspect has almost completely disappeared. In the Far East, the development of writing took the reverse direction. There, the aesthetic quality of the language expressed itself in a painterly way, so that eastern language developed painterly ontological powers unknown in ours.  This is the reason our reality is so completely different from that of for Orientals, so that even a translation from one into the other is hardly possible, because it doesn’t actually consist of words, but of ideograms. If our reality is acoustic, so to speak, the reality of the East is optical. For us, reality presses against us through language into the ear; there it presses a  script into the eye. So music in the west is the art that presses most deeply into reality, and in the east it is painting that has this role. For us, music is absolute speech, that is, the essence of language, and in the East  it is painting that is absolute writing, that is, the essence of language.

It appears that in reading and writing it is actually possible to get around the melody of the language and so to reach a more general reality. On closer examination this turns out an error. We are  not in a position to perceive language optically. We automatically carry what we read into our minds in tones.  Our written characters do not replace words, as in the East. Rather they replace sounds. Our writing is fundamentally notation only. We actually read only scores. So, taking the melody of languages into account, what happens when we read is that the language appears in our own melody instead of in the melody of the author.  To say it differently, all literary works are Saxonized for Saxons, and cocknified for Londoners. Writing is not proof against the balkanization of reality, for a Saxonized Bible is  not the same thing as the Bible or Homer in cockney. As far the melody of the language is concerned, the language in which the author wrote is of no consequence. The deciding factor is the language of the reader.  Saxonized or cocknified eyes will see the character “a” somewhat differently, with no bearing at all on the eyes of the writer.

I don’t mean to exaggerate the effect of melody on forms of reality, however. When a Cockney and a Saxon read the Bible, the impressions they get are probably related. But it is difficult to judge, because I am caught up in my own language melody, and everything I say about Saxon or Cockney is a translation. Still, I am in a position to say that if a Saxon and a Cockney both read the Bible in Latin, the impressions they get will be very similar, exactly because it is possible to translate. And still, basically and in principle, these things are different. The word “God” will sound completely different to a Londoner or a Saxon, and so must mean something a little different. The Latin Bible automatically translates itself as it is being read into Saxified or Cockney reality, and so divides into two fragments that can no longer be unified. Just as in the case of the rain, it is impossible to locate the error in thinking there is an original Latin Bible that transforms itself into a secondary one the eyes of readers. There is no hypothetical Latin Bible that has not been seen and so not been read by anyone. There are just as many Latin Bibles as there are languages on earth. And each physical copy of the Latin Bible shifts from one reality to another, as soon as it passes from the hands of the Englishman into the hands of the German.  We can see that this is the case simply by having a German or Englishman read the same Latin text aloud, so as to perceive it acoustically.

I will attempt to summarize what I’ve said so far: because we experience reality as language, we experience the melody of our language in thinking or reading, and the melody of a speaker’s language if we’re listening. If the speaker’s speaks in one of our own melodies, a real conversation becomes possible, for we then find ourselves in a cosmos internally tuned. If the melody he speaks is completely unknown to us, conversation may seem to be possible, but it isn’t. If he speaks a melody that we recognise without being familiar, a conversation arises that consists entirely of somersaults from one reality to another, the conversation of an aesthetic translation. Such a conversation is truly an enrichment of both realities, although we should not hope to achieve unity, in the sense of amalgamation. I will discuss this secret aspect of translation elsewhere.

I now come to another aspect of the problem of the melody of language. What we call human culture, that is, the sum of human knowledge, experience and creativity, is, to very significant extent, preserved in books, and so is, to a very significant extent, available to us only as literature. Or, to put it in another way, we perceive the world of culture differently from the world of nature, in that we translate natural phenomena into words, but phenomena of culture are words already, specifically written words.  We can say that stones and stars, lightning and rain are primary elements of the German language, whereas the insights of Parmenides and the teachings of Jesus are German only in translation.  Or, to express it more exactly: stones fall in a German melody, a star moves in its orbit in this melody, lightning cracks and rain rains in the melody of this language. But Parmenides speculates and Jesus preaches, the Roman general conquers and the Jewish prophet foretells only secondarily in translation into in German. The original melody of Parmenides and Jesus are definitively lost. We can no longer reconstruct the sound of the Sermon on the Mount or what we would have experienced, had we been there. What is preserved for us is writing, of which it is rightly claimed that it is a dead letter, for it has lost its melody.  The Sermon on the Mount has a melody only secondarily, in our case. Now the question arises: What do Jesus and Parmenides have to say? To what extent is a conversation with them possible: Or to say it in another way, to what extent is culture real? Stones and stars are real, because they are German, but Jesus and Parmenides are only secondarily German.  To what extent are they real? Could Jesus and Parmendies be real only to the extent the dead letter, through which they press into our language, is real, or is there something else, something real behind the letters that we call Jesus and Parmenides? I think the answer to this question should be formulated as follows: lightning and stones are real because they are a part of our language, Jesus and Parmenides are real, because they are part of our language and because they helped to form our language, as melodies lost, among other things. I would like to formulate this answer more exactly: the world of nature is the content of language and so real to me. The world of culture is the content and the root of the language, and so for us real as well, and formative of reality. The melody of the German language and of all other languages is the result of cultural influences that affect one another, and what we call reality is therefore the result of these influences.

Had Jesus and Parmenides not lived, and had their lives not entered into languages, the reality in which we live would be different. In theory, it would be possible to recognise an effect of Parmenides or Jesus in each word we think, and that as a result they have definitively marked our reality. They are furthermore part of reality inasmuch as they appear as writing. The melody of the Sermon on the Mount maintains itself in living language, not in the Bible. We converse with Jesus and Parmenides indirectly and in translation when we read, but directly and authentically when we think.

It’s a very difficult and peculiar problem, this question about the origin of language, even if we confine ourselves to the origin of the melody of language as we are doing here. We can think only in the language, and so can inquire of the language only in the language. We are forced to turn in a vicious circle. Jesus and Parmenides, seen as composers of language, are themselves products of language. Human culture, as the root of language, is itself a product of language.  It is in fact true that the melody of languages is the result of the diversity of culture, but no less true that the diversity of culture is a result of the diversity of melodies of language, and other diverse powers of language. We can’t escape this vicious circle.  We are caught in language. If we force our minds to focus on listening to language, we discovery its cultural roots, and if we turn to these roots, we recognize their source in language.  I will illustrate the impossibility of escaping this circle with an example.

Let’s assume we want to support the theory that the melody of language began with the human capacity for onamatopoetic expression. Human beings imitated the sounds they heard, and so produced a melody, from this melody came language, and from language culture, which then had a reverse effect on culture, and so on ad infinitum. In order to make such a theory more attractive, one could slip another segment of thinking in between the one for imitation and the one for melody, and say that the drive to imitate is the reason human beings are able to think abstractly, and that this thinking is the reason language came about. In addition to many other secondary difficulties, this theory has the following basic fault, which it has in common with all largely materialistic world views: it starts from the premise that there is a reality independent of thought. It stipulates a world in which nothing has been recognised, but is still there. And this theory tells us many things about  this unrecognised world, for example that there are people there who are able to imitate.  It stipulates a world temporally prior to thinking, and in which there are variations and similarities and causes and effects. It stipulates, to put it differently, a world of thinking before thought. It shows a world before language using the categories of language. It does use scientific references, for example archaeology, biology, and psychology, etc. But these sciences themselves are products of language.  It pastes language back into a pre-linguistic time without knowing what it is doing. The theory assumes that below and before human language there was a world of space, and of time, and of numbers, and of causality, etc., that is, a world with a grammar, if an inhuman grammar. What the theory basically says is that human language arose from a grammar of reality as such, that it follows from the grammar of reality as such. Or, still more succinctly, the theory maintains that human language arose from language as such. Such a language is not accessible to us, we are bound to human language. As a result, this hypothetical language doesn’t exist for us and the theory collapses. The melody of language is a historical phenomenon, it changes and responds to influences, it is at the same time both senseless and hopeless to investigate its origin.

I will now summarise briefly what I’ve said so far: in addition to its logical, magical, poetic, etc. aspects, language also has a melodic aspect. For this reason, we experience reality in a specific melody, in a specific tone. This tone changes from language to language, and reality has as many tones as there are languages in the world. These melodies can change and are shaped by human beings, that is, by culture. So we can say that the tone of reality depends on culture. But since we are caught in language, we cannot say any more that this, and it is senseless and hopeless to investigate this tone’s origin.