By Arthur, Chris
Contemporary Review , Vol. 286, No. 1669
ONE of the characters in Brian Friel's play Translations, makes the following observation: 'It can happen that a civilisation can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of fact.' Whatever the historical accuracy of this remark (the play examines the struggle for dominance between English and Irish in nineteenth-century Ireland), the image of language as a contour map, a network of intricate lines capable of expressing every nuance of undulation in the underlying landscape of reality is, I think, an appealing one. Despite the inevitable shortcomings of such a simplification, it pinpoints some of the most important functions and dysfunctions of language.
Obviously some degree of mismatch between utterance and reality is inevitable. After all, a name is no more the thing named than a map is the territory it represents. One of Swift's deft imaginings in Gulliver's Travels shows how unmanageable communication would become if it attempted too close a correspondence with the things we want to talk about. Thus the sages of Balnibarbi were crushed under the sheer weight of the objects they had to carry in order to conduct communication without relying on the shorthand of signs. Likewise in the Universal History of Infamy, Jorge Luis Borges provides a metaphor for the absurdity of a point-for-point correspondence between words and things by ridiculing the notion of a map drawn on the same scale as, and coinciding exactly with, the ground it covers. Clearly a map or a language would be rendered useless if mere replication replaced representation. Borges' map was of such unwieldy magnitude that it was soon abandoned by the inhabitants of the fictional world in which he placed it, though it has remained a frequent point of reference for others interested in mapping the relationship between representation and reality. (Jean Baudrillard refers to it in his essay 'Simulacra and Simulation' and Umberto Eco uses it to good effect in his 'On the Impossibility of Drawing a Map of the Empire on a Scale of 1 to 1' in How to Travel with a Salmon and Other Essays.)
So, no 'linguistic contour' should ever be expected to map 'the landscape of fact' exactly. Quite apart from the absurdity of such intimate correspondence (as per Borges' map), such contours themselves surely help to determine the landscapes we perceive rather than just describing what is already there. To propose otherwise would imply that language is little more than a straightforward system of reportage--rather than something we think with. Such objections notwithstanding, I think we can usefully identify the poles of match and mismatch between what we say and the landscapes of fact we inhabit. Stretched out between these poles is a continuum of correspondence. This ranges from the most intimate consonance, where words seem to fit things like a glove, to such radical dissonance that misrepresentation replaces any mapping.
Without wishing to advance the absurdity of a landscape of fact mapped with perfect verisimilitude by the contours of our utterance, I want to argue that one of the key responsibilities of education is to police the correspondence between 'linguistic contour' and 'landscape of fact' and warn us when things get out of synch between our feelings, thoughts, intentions, the world in which they're set, and the words we use to bridge the space between them.
Is an ordinarily accurate choice of words as close as we can come to a verbal contouring of the landscapes in which we live? In his classic study of religious experience, Das Heilige (The Idea of the Holy, first published in 1917, English translation 1923), Rudolf Otto suggests that a much closer mapping can sometimes occur. The examples he gives could stand emblematically at the pole of closest possible match. Certain names of deity, according to Otto, started off simply as automatic cries (what he termed 'original numinous sounds'). These utterances were forced from the throat in the supposed presence of God. …