Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Dr. Christine Mohrmann on Language as Expression

Under the influence of positivism [N.B.: a philosophical movement in the early 20th century that, among other things, sought to reduce all language to a pure form of communication as though we were computers feeding each other strips of data; the movement posited that language is merely for the purpose of communicating data; cf. George Orwell's "newspeak" in his Nineteen-Eighty Four for a good example of this "language"], people, especially people in non-professional circles, are still inclined to regard language as pure communication, as a utilitarian instrument, as a means of social intercourse, as language par excellence and as the only real linguistic phenomenon. Or, to put it another way: every linguistic form of expression is examined and judged according to its social utility and the ease with which it can be understood. The colloquial language is the language; the ideals of efficiency and intelligibility, the idea of language as communication, dominate the conception of language as a human phenomenon. People thus tend to forget that language as expression—which in many cases includes language as a literary tool—is certainly just as important a phenomenon, and plays a great role in many spheres in human life. In this latter case, i.e., language as a means of expression, it is not merely a question of the individual element, the personal style of the writer or poet. This phenomenon can also occur as a mode of expression based on a collective tradition. Linguistic form is then no longer chiefly and exclusively a medium of communication but rather the medium of expression of a group living according to a certain tradition. In such cases linguistic usage is often deliberately stylized, and there exist language and style forms, transmitted from generation to generation, in which people deliberately deviate from language as communication, as current in everyday life, in order to obtain a certain artistic, religious, or spiritual effect. Here we have the very opposite of the matter-of-fact development of languages as media of communication as they are so rapidly evolving in our times. This is probably the reason why the man of today, when confronted with the phenomenon of stylized languages as the traditional means of expression of a collectivity, languages not only accepted but maintained in use by countless generations, finds them incomprehensible, peculiar and, therefore, usually to be discarded. Thus we can understand too how the modern Christian, in the liturgical prayer texts, for example, longs first and foremost for intelligibility, clarity and lucidity; we understand also how it was possible for a translation of the Psalms to be made in our generation in which the mystery of the ancient prayer texts has been eliminated at all costs in favour [sic] of a lucidity and clarity dictated by a certain historical positivism [N.B.: the author is speaking of the Pius XII translation of the Psalms]. [...]

[Our concern is] the traditional, stylized use of linguistic elements which have little or no contact any longer with contemporary life, but which continue to survive in another, non-material connection. Whenever this phenomenon occurs in the field of literature, one usually speaks of stylized language. In connection with religion, one commonly speaks of sacral or hieratic languages. [...]

One of the artificial languages about which we know most and from which we can thus most easily gain an idea of the nature of this phenomenon is that of the Homeric poems. Homeric Greek, or rather the artificial language of the Greek epic, as we know it from the Homeric epics, from Hesiod and, in a more or less diluted form, from poetic inscriptions, was never a spoken language and never led an organic life in a civilized community. It is a combination of heterogeneous elements which together form the stylized instrument employed by the epic poets. It consists essentially of a great number of fixed expressions, word combinations, and turns of speech which must have had their origin in a long tradition of poetic oral improvisation, but which are also employed, with great virtuosity, by later poets who committed their works to writing. The epic vocabulary is a remarkable mixture of very early and later elements, of words and word forms taken from different Greek dialects. [...] This heterogeneous combination of various elements, which immediately sufficed to conjure up for the Greeks the world of the epic and which, as the consecrated language of narrative poetry, formed a structural unit, had a very long life. It not only provided the material for two of the greatest works in the history of world literature, but continued to be used for centuries as the language of epic poetry. Generation after generation of Greeks were brought up on it, and this explains its viability. Every generation took the trouble to steep itself in this artificial idiom, and in this way a great national artistic asset was preserved. As late as the fifth century A.D. a Christian poet, Nonnos of Panopolis in the Egyptian Thebaid, wrote a paraphrase of St. John's Gospel in Homeric Greek.


Source: Christine Mohrmann, Liturgical Latin: Its Origins and Character (London: Burns & Oates, 1959), 7-11.

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