natural linguistics

Natural Linguistics

I think quite of few issues concerning this poem have already been discusses, either in class, or by others on the blog. For that I will try to focus on issues that have not been addressed and occasionally react to post by others.

Allow me to start with the title, although discussed in class, there are a few points I want to add (hopefully explaining a bit how I came to the analysis also of the rest of the text). My first impression was that natural could also refer to human language (alongside animalistic communication) and would oppose to written language. The discovery that Peter Salus (to whom this poem is addressed) was a linguistic scholar, but also computer scientist who researched computer languages, enhanced this idea.

            My initial reasoning for the idea that the human speech is a natural language originates from my idea that humans of all times have had the ability to communicate (also in illiterate cultures); perhaps speech evolved more than animalistic forms of communication, but that to me does not make it less natural. Auden seems to disagree on this. And, after reading the complete poem I must acknowledge, as we also discovered in class, that the natural refers here to the non-human natural world, opposed to the human language.

Looking at the complete poem, Auden’s message seems to be that humans have lost their natural way of communicating, and that this loss means that communication gets more difficult (and therewith also the communication of our ‘ownhood’[1], and our ‘being’ becomes more difficult). Auden almost seems kind of jealous at animals, plants, or even minerals, for their simple and intuitive way of ‘being’ (I must admit that Auden may not consider animals’ communication  and ‘learning’ necessarily simple for he calls the mechanisms ‘a complex code’ but since they function intuitively without the linguistic and grammatical struggle).

            Auden makes the statement that ‘we may call them “dumb”’ for lacking a language but that they are actually not. I have some problems here to understand who (or even what) is addressed with the words ‘them’ and ‘they’. At first sight these words seem to refer back to the subjects that were discussed last, so the animals, but since this is Auden’s concluding remark I think we should look back the whole poem. Auden is thus telling us that even lifeless (but created[2]) objects, like minerals are not as dumb as we think.  Auden therefore also pleads for a more personal relation with these non-human objects and says they should be ‘rhetorized at’ rather ‘than about’ (Fuller mentions that his fits to ‘the Forsterian primacy of personal above conceptual relations’ (Fuller, 1998, p. 535)).

Now the question is twofold: ‘Is Auden right in claiming that human communication is not better then ‘natural linguistics’?’ and ‘Is gesture superior to speech?’

             I will start with the latter. Following up in Aline’s comment that gestures can have different meanings in different cultures I would like to add that (dangerous as it may be) gestures are often still an easier way to communicate than with language. Languages differ greatly; if I go to France and someone asks me: ‘souhaitez-vous ajouter un peu d’eau?[3]’ I probably don’t get what he/she is saying. If that same person would point to a glass of water, or move it in my direction I probably would understand.

            This is, I think, a point where Auden’s ‘natural linguistics’ are superior to our spoken language. Animals of the same kind can (by my knowledge) communicate with other animals of that species, no matter where they are from. Likewise plants and even minerals communicate to the outer world in a universal way. The fact that language has developed in such variety of dialects makes it no longer possible for us to communicate with every individual of our human species[4]. (Even though our ability to think about the WILL makes it a lot richer.)

Fuller, J. (1998). W.H. Auden: A Commentary. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


[1] I agree with Aline’s comment on Ranjit’s post that it would be wise to have a discussion in the meaning of the ‘self’, ‘self-consciousness’, ‘identity’ and, for that matter, ‘ownhood’. I will ignore this point in this post.

[2] This part, as mentioned in class, clearly refers to a creationist worldview. It supports to some extend my earlier claim that the ‘Thank God’ in ‘After Reading a Child’s Guide’ might be more than colloquial.

[3] Please blame Google Translate for any translation mistakes.

[4] I realize that the evolution of language, which as I will come to later also created dialects, could be opposed by a more creationist view. My knowledge of how language would have developed according to the latter is limited but as I see it speech was more or less a given characteristic of the human kind, however it was God who made sure that multiple languages came to exist (in the city of Babylon)

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