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Philosophies of Language in the Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 33, Number 2, October 2009
pp. 386-401 | 10.1353/phl.0.0058

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I

In his book The Language-Makers, Roy Harris writes that "a concept of language cannot stand isolated in an intellectual no-man's-land. It is inevitably part of some more intricate complex of views about how certain verbal activities stand in relation to other human activities, and hence, ultimately, about man's place in society and nature."1 It is one of the salient features of human language that it is reflexive—that we use language to talk about language—and that this reflexivity is, in fact, a fundamental aspect of the way that language works.2 Human language is not solely a means of communication, it is also a subject for communication. It exists not simply as an entity used in everyday behavior but also as a concept; and given the fundamental role that language plays in life, it is a concept which becomes implicated in the beliefs and debates about wider human concerns. In other words, every conceptualization of language, be it a folk belief about correctness or a philosophical premise concerning truth conditions, is also in some way an implicit statement about human understanding of the world.

Conceptualizations of language exist in many fields and are expressed by various means. They can be the explicit assertions of government policy; they can be practice-based guidelines which constitute an educational curriculum; or they can be ontological assumptions that provide the basis for scientific theorizing.3 In any area where language itself is the discursive focus of interest, a particular concept of language will be used, and will be expressed within that discourse. This is the case not only in areas related to social or scientific practice (language policy, linguistic theory etc.), but also in fiction and literature of the imagination. In works of fiction in which language figures not merely as the medium of narration but also as a focus of that narration, a specific and historically contingent conceptualization of language will be used, and the nature of this conceptualization will, as Harris suggests, relate to wider beliefs about man's place in society and nature.

There are many works of imaginative literature, particular in the genres of fantasy and science fiction, which include invented or alien languages. A general rationale for this is that works within such genres are creating new and speculative worlds, and by detailing the languages spoken in these worlds they are able to further the sense of verisimilitude. In cases where the rationale for the inclusion of such fictional languages is primarily for this particular instrumental reason, the nature of these languages may not play any wider role in the narrative, and one would not therefore suggest that linguistic concerns feature as a central theme of the narrative.

It is likely, however, that cases of this sort will still reflect general contemporary beliefs about language and society, and that the reception of the narrative will also be guided by the sociolinguistic attitudes of its readership. For example, a review from the early 1970s of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange suggests that Nadsat, the fictional argot in which the narrative is told, is likely to have specific associations for the book's readership because of its linguistic complexion and, specifically, the prevalence of loanwords from the Russian:

For the Anglo-American reader the Slavic words connote communist dictatorship . . . . The medium becomes the message in A Clockwork Orange with a vengeance, and the message is similar to that in other distopias that deal in visions of society in the future after it has become static, completely controlled, amoral, and heartless.4

In this case, it is associations made between words from a particular language and the contemporary politics of the speech community most associated with that language, which create for this particular critic a significance that extends beyond the purely structural nature of the anti-language that Burgess has developed. For this critic, it is not merely the fact that Alex and his droogs have their own argot—a detail that adds texture to the imagined future in which the novel is set—but that the lexis of this argot is interdiscursive and borrows heavily from a language which, to his mind...



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