Sunday, August 20, 2006

Hail native Language - clothe my thoughts

I recently came across a forgotten poem by Milton addressing his mother tongue (as you do!), written to open the English section of a day of speeches at College after the Latin one was completed. English then, of course, was far from being the global lingua franca it is now: it hadn't even had a significant literary output for all that long (Shakespeare had only died in Milton's childhood), and the nascent "Anglosphere" was a few scattered coastal settlements here and there. A poem in this vein now would surely be far more boastful, and contain repeated allusions to, come to think of it, Shakespeare and Milton; but the absence of such allusions here lends it a certain universality that a modern version would lack.

Hail native Language, that by sinews weak
Didst move my first endeavouring tongue to speak,
And mad'st imperfect words with childish tripps,
Half unpronounc't, slide through my infant-lipps,
Driving dum silence from the portal dore,
Where he had mutely sate two years before:
I have some naked thoughts that rove about
And loudly knock to have their passage out;
And wearie of their place do only stay
Till thou hast deck't them in thy best aray;
That so they may without suspect or fears
Fly swiftly to this fair Assembly's ears...

The metaphor of language as a clothing for thought contrasts interestingly with the well-known "conduit metaphor" (IDEAS ARE OBJECTS, LANGUAGE IS A CONTAINER), even though clothes technically do contain their wearer. A container and its archetypal contents are equally non-sentient, and the container's primary purpose is to allow the transport and storage of its contents; clothes, on the other hand, archetypally adorn and protect a sentient being, who is likely to choose clothes that somehow reflect how they wish to be perceived. On the conduit metaphor, the bare idea is mere substance; on the clothing metaphor, the bare idea is a personality in its own right, a sort of homunculus getting ready to go out and meet the world. On the conduit metaphor, an idea is successfully transmitted if what it provokes in the listener accords with the author's intent; on the clothing metaphor, one can envisage the idea as having a life of its own, perhaps misunderstood by the author as well as the hearer. (And what are the thoughts to the thinker/author in this metaphor - his/her children, or servants, or perhaps even constituents?)

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