Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Languages

The word "language" can be used either literally or metaphorically. Thus, "body language" and animal signals are not literally "languages." Metaphor becomes problematic if misunderstood literally.

These observations are occasioned by reading Poul Anderson's The Night Face. Elfavy of the planet Gwydion lists "languages," which, she says, each describe a single facet of reality:

speech;
mathematics;
music;
painting;
choreography;
Gwydiona myth;
poetry.

I suggest that a language can not only express feelings but also convey information. Thus, music and choreography are media but not languages. Poetry, prose and drama are different media which can use a common language. Mathematics is closer to being a "language." The Admissions Tutor at an Institute of Science and Technology said that he wanted to know, of any prospective student, "Does he obey the laws that we obey? The laws of physics. Does he speak the language that we speak? The language of mathematics." (Here again, a word is used in an extended sense. We can break the laws of England but not the laws of physics.)

Elfavy mentions not myth in general but specifically Gwydiona myth as a "language." The latter was developed not by primitives confusing it with science but deliberately and systematically by trained semanticians to describe a facet of reality for which all the other "languages" were inadequate.

I buy myths like death and resurrection as describing reality but do not call them a language.

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