Pain has turned the threshold to stone

1:21 PM Posted by James Owens


“Language speaks…. To reflect on language thus demands that we enter into the speaking of language in order to take up our stay with language, i.e., within its speaking, not within our own. Only in that way do we arrive at the region within which it may happen—or also fail to happen—that language will call to us from there and grant us its nature.”

--Martin Heidegger, “Language”

Languages translate each other, not only in the sense of carrying meaning across, but they are mirrors in other ways, the contour of likeness and unlikeness in their ways of re-presenting the world, of pre-senting themselves.

I have been thinking about the “th” --- about how different this is in English and French, for example.

In modern English orthography the digraph “th” erases the distinction between the Anglo-Saxon letters eth and thorn, the voiced and voiceless dental fricatives that persist in speech but are no longer marked in writing. “Then” and “thin,” “path” and “paths.” A forgetting of history, a history of forgetting, oblivion of the origin, a Derridean privilege granted to the written.

In French, it is the other way. A word like “théorie,” where the “th” has long since ceased to sound a "theta," still preserves its history in writing, a trace of its origin in Greece.

The words “thé” and “tea” do something similar, though the history is different, here. Both words are adoptions of the Malay teh, but English makes an approximation of the spoken word and dispenses ruthlessly with any sense of its history. In French, the “h” has metathesized from the end of the word to make what looks like the digraph, though it never was pronounced like the ancient “th” of “théorie.” Still, “thé” preserves history, the marker of its originary movement from language to language.

This principle holds true for most words in the two languages. English “th” erases; French “th” preserves.

Small details, of course, and useless for grammar textbooks. Maybe more useful for poets --- but it is still hard to answer quickly if one asks, “So what?” Hard to answer quickly, but perhaps essential to answer slowly --- someday --- It is material for contemplation…. in suspense now….



Roxana said...

an exhilarating post :-) you already know of my facination with such etymology-related stories, so my enthusiasm won't come as a surprise. thank you.
I think that 'preserving' can be indeed a very good thing, but not when it is done with a fanatical desire to prove something. we've had in romanian a long battle as to the orthography of some words, and some insisted on preserving - even intentionally introducing - awkward forms that would be closer to the latin roots (a stronger proof of the latin character of the language).
after 1989 we had a very controversial reform of the orthography (opposed by all the linguists, still it became the law). do you know about it or should I give you details?

James Owens said...

I don't know anything about this reform. Please tell me about it. Perhaps this reflects a desire after 1989 for greater distance from Russia?

Of course, it is very different when this sort of preserving, or forgetting, is forced by politicians --- a violence --- and when it just happens in the language itself, some hard-to-grasp result of a certain language's weltanshauung. One of the things I find exciting about Romanian is its mixture of origins, Latin and Slav and others, too, and I would be sorry to see this erased.

Language speaks, H says. It isn't we who speak.

A story. Years ago, when I was in school, I attended a class on Beowulf. At the end of the semester, the exam was only one question: "Who wrote Beowulf?" And we had only five minutes to answer. (And the professor was serious; it was not a joke.) I took a chance: Instead of something conventional, I answered: "The Indo-European language family wrote Beowulf" --- just that, one sentence --- and I received the only A in the class :-)