Academic journal article Current Musicology

Nonsense and Unmusic

Academic journal article Current Musicology

Nonsense and Unmusic

Article excerpt

First thing.

Without nonsense there is no sense. Without sense there is no nonsense. Without sense there is no sense. Without nonce there is no once. Without out end there is no begin in. Without redundancy the waves would surge in one direction only.

Second thing.

I want to play a language game with you, a game that starts with a passage from a story by Jorge Luis Borges, concerning a man with an absolutely perfect memory:

   Me dijo que hacia 1886 habla discurrido un sistema original de
   numeration y que en muy pocos dlas habla rebasado el veinticuatro
   mil. [...] En lugar de siete mil trece, decia (por ejemplo) Maximo
   Perez; en lugar de siete mil catorce, El Ferrocarril; otros numeros
   eran Luis Melian Lafinur, Olimar, azufre, los bastos, la ballena,
   el gas, la caldera, Napoleon, Agustin de Vedia. En lugar de
   quinientos, decia nueve. [...] Yo trate de explicarle que esa
   rapsodia de voces inconexas era precisamente lo contrario de un
   sistema de numeration. Le dije que decir 365 era decir tres
   centenas, seis decenas, cinco unidades: analisis que no existe en
   los "numeros" El Negro Timoteo o manta de carne. Funes no me
   entendio o no quiso entenderme.

   He told me that in 1886 he had thought up his own original
   numbering system, and that in a very few days he had gone past the
   number 24,000. [...] Instead of 7013 he would say, for example,
   Maximo Perez; instead of 7014 he would say The Railroad; other
   numbers were Luis Melian Lafinur, Olimar, sulfur, the saddle pads,
   the whale, the gas, the cooking pots, Napoleon, Agustin de Vedia.
   Instead of 500 he would say nine. [...] I tried to explain to him
   that this rhapsody of disconnected words was precisely the opposite
   of numbering system. I told him that to say 365 was to say three
   hundreds, six tens, five ones; an analysis that doesn't exist in
   the "numbers" The Negro Timoteo or meat blanket. Funes didn't
   understand me or didn't want to understand me.

The game is to reverse Borges's premise: to imagine a language that consists entirely of numbers, by taking the Oxford English Dictionary and assigning numbers to each of its more than 200,000 words. (171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words, in the second edition.) So aardvark would be word number 10; zymurgy would have a very high number. If a new word were added to the language we could place it with decimal point 1, or 2, and so forth, added to the number of the word preceding it in the alphabet. Plurals and verb tense and numbers and moods could be indicated by pronouncing a suffix such as plus or tilde or backslash after the word-number. So speech would consist of a string of numbers. It would take a long time to say a sentence, but if signifiers are perfectly arbitrary, it would be as easy to use as our normal version of the English language, for two people with a lot of time on their hands. And it would have the advantage that you write could poems with indeterminate words, such as 86, x5y, thereby creating a new form of discourse unavailable in standard English. But normal forms of nonsense, in the Jabberwocky or Finnegans Wake manner, would be impossible: you couldn't create a portmanteau between lithe and slimy, because you can't elide two numbers in the way that you can elide two words. And there is no reason why the phonetic aspect of the word couldn't erode away into almost nothing: as numbers became the common medium of speech, you would need no sounds except those needed to pronounce the numbers. Eventually the word aardvark wouldn't exist; there would only be 10, meaning an ant-eating snouted African beast. But ant, and eating, and snouted, and African, and beast, would also exist only as numbers. Maybe all connection between the numbers and the concepts they were designed to represent would ultimately become wispy to the verge of non-being, and language would become Jacques Derrida's dream system, self-enclosed, hermetically sealed. …

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