How the World Obeys Language

When a newborn baby looks out a window, what does it see? It has no apparatus by which to clump together an infinite number of details, package that clump, and dismiss it. It cannot instantly coalesce vein, leaf, stem, twig, branch, bough, bark, gnarl, root into the single, dismissive word: tree. Even each of the component words—vein, leaf, stem—compacts an infinity of details into a single dismissive concept. What it sees, then, must be an infinitely various, constantly shifting, kaleidoscopically colored field. Trying to encompass such a vision would drive adults crazy: They must exclude most of it, reduce the rest of it, and organize the reduction into identities they can name.

The baby has no such necessity. It has not yet been separated from the world. It is what it sees: infinity. Adults are separated by what they see: What they see is the seen, and they are the seers. Unless they can reduce what they see to something they can encompass, it will overwhelm and encompass them. What enables them to see will blind them. There is no alternative. Language separates the inseparable whole into parts, confers identity on each part of the whole, gives that part a name. Each name holds the rest of infinity at bay.

What a tremendous, profitable, necessary instrument language is. It enables us to pit our bounded intelligence against the boundless universe.

How it binds us. That baby could see a leaf seated in the air about it as a shape, a form, an entity, if it wanted to. But then it would invent a word to identify that entity. And then it would be condemned forevermore to see the entity the name identified. And it would no longer be a baby. It would be one of us.

A language is a world. Language does not describe the world we see: We see the world language describes. Each language creates an arbitrary, limited order from the totality of chaos. If you speak a language foreign to me, you occupy a universe alien to mine.

We can help each other. Your language creates a world that helps me escape from mine. My language helps you escape yours. What a shock it is to discover that the world is not self-evident. That it is a mischievous fluid that will flow into the shape of any concept we are capable of formulating. That the language we are taught invents the world, the identities, the relationships we see. Thank God your language makes the world do different tricks from the ones my language does.

Gertrude Stein would like Chinese. She hates in English the dependence on nouns. She knows that they are necessary, but she knows also that they are wrong. A noun is a lie if all phenomena are in a state of change. If there are no things in the universe, only constantly changing states, then a noun—which names a thing, freezes an instant in the change, and gives that instant a name—is an anachronism the next instant. Chinese does not see a thing that has a quality—it does not say, "The tree is green"; it sees an action in progress, "The tree greens itself."

My name is Leonard. If you make my acquaintance on Tuesday, will you, when you meet me on Wednesday, see Tuesday's Leonard? Am I a Leonard the way a table is a table? As a matter of fact, is a table a table the way a table is a table? I, too, want to be rescued from nouns. Chinese will rescue me.

Translators are lucky. Each language has a personality. Each human being is affected by the personality of the language he or she speaks. Nowhere is this more striking than in the multilingual speaker. The speaker of English switching to Italian, to Russian, to German assumes a new posture with each.

We are talking about the power of language, not the power its user exercises, but the power it has over its user.

If we want to be rescued from ourselves, if we do not want to be condemned to repeat ourselves, if we do not want to imitate ourselves, we should learn another language. With each language, we can be reborn.

Outlook is dedicated to ideas, to stretching the imagination, and to exploring trends. The column is a communication medium; feel free to write or call the authors. S. Leonard Rubinstein is professor of English at Penn State; his office is S225 Burrowes (phone 814-865-0011). He teaches writing and a comparative course on the short story. He hosts a weekly talk show, Odyssey Through Literature, sponsored by the University's Comparative Literature Program, on radio station WDFM. He holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from the State University of Iowa in Iowa City. Rubinstein is, he says, a bewildered man who believes that bewilderment is power. He treasures confusion, because confusion generates questions, and questions generate answers.

Last Updated September 01, 1982