The Sensorium of Language

‘Natural Linguistics’ in a certain sense is an incomplete exposition on the nature of ‘natural’ communication. As the title implies the poem deals with the science of ‘natural’ language. Here, natural would imply how ‘every created thing’ communicates its ‘ownhood’ in Nature, as it exists on this planet. Auden uses four out of the five senses known to humans that can be used to communicate with each other. The four that are used would be:

  1. Vision
  2. Audio
  3. Smell
  4. Taste

And the one that he does not use is touch. In a certain way, touch is a limited sense. It cannot be used to communicate one’s self. It can only be used to communicate with the other. Though, the poem engages with language as a means of communicating the self and interacting with the other.

Auden understands communication as a sensorial activity. It is not simply about the grammar and syntax of a spoken language. It is about the way you look, the way you smell, the way you behave; everything can be syntactically used to communicate your ‘ownhood’. He believes that every created thing in the world can be understood through sensorial perceptions and they present their self in a language that is ‘so much richer and subtler’ than ‘our own heaviest lexicons.’

He laments the loss of sensorial perception in our everyday life. We rarely acknowledge the existence of any other species apart from our own. This reaction stems from our inability to communicate with other species. He extends an invitation to understand the world sensorially rather than relying completely on artificial languages that humans have created to communicate.

He explains the first level of communication in the ‘hieroglyphically koine of visual appearance.’ Everything has a shape, color and place. In that sense, visually everything expresses itself to a human who is willing to see. Moving on from things to living animals, he uses odor and taste to elicit intention. He also claims that intentionality can be expressed in the language of gestures and he believes that the distinct advantage of gesture is that they are ‘instantly taken in’ and ‘seldom, if ever, misread.’ Within these three senses, he captures a level of communication that happened before animals ‘managed to break through the primal barrier of Silence.’

Sound provides more opportunities for expression. Emotions can also alternately be expressed through sound where gestures fail. Elaborating on the level of consciousness, Auden believes that animals do have a sense of self as they declare their presence in the audible world finding an ‘indicative AM’. They have a notion of the past, but he believes that they don’t have a sense of the future as they can’t ‘conceive of a WILL.’ Without the sense of the future, the world of morality seems to be absent in the animal worldview where there is no ‘self-reproach or repentance.’

There is a certain magic in a lifeworld without a sense of the future. Humans cannot possibly envision it for themselves, but it does provide a simpler existentialist viewpoint. It requires a certain harmony and peace with the environment around. In this simpler imagination of a world, there is no necessity to be original; there is no sense of behavioral customs that warrant a right combination of words to formulate a thought; there is no situation where one would be at a loss of words; there is no need for multiple languages; all that one has to do is do ‘their thing.’

It is a liberating idea in a certain way, having the freedom to just practice your being rather than being subjected to societal requirements of behavior. The only disadvantage of this level of consciousness would be that one would be unaware of the concept of laughter. But, even if one wouldn’t be able to laugh, they would also be unaware of the concept of torture, war or talking ‘drivel.’

In a certain way, the development of language has aided our sense of self-consciousness. The more words that we find to express ourselves, the more complicated we become. In that sense, a sensorial language becomes a means of experiencing the other, while a vocal language is a means of exploring the self. We might call animals ‘dumb’ as they perceive the world sensorially, it would be preferable to respect their identity and treat them as equal beings co-existing with us on this planet.

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