Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 26

Hi again, everybody! ‘Hall Of Shame’ continues (main heritage trips over for now!).

26 W.G. SEBALD & JORGE LUIS BORGES (more oddity than shame!)

W. G. (Winfried Georg) Sebald (1944-2001) was a German literature scholar who spent much of his life in East Anglia, England. He wrote (apparently intentionally) in old-fashioned and elaborate German (an effect which is partly but not completely lost in the English translations to which Sebald himself contributed). His subject-matter is wide-ranging. His best known book is probably The Rings Of Saturn, which (like much of Sebald’s other work) displays the influence of the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), especially the 1940 short story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’.

The ‘storyline’ of ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ starts with an encyclopedia article about a country which is in the process of being fabricated and hence created by a cabal of scholars; this country is called called Uqbar or (as it is increasingly reified) Tlön, and eventually begins replacing Earth itself as a feature of the ‘real world’.

A substantial part of the story deals with the invented languages of Tlön and with its tradition of ontology/epistemology: a strong version of idealism. The languages reflect (and/or generate?) this position, for instance by having many sequences of short adjectives or else many impersonal verbs with no subjects; indeed, they have no nouns at all. These patterns are extreme versions of some which are actually found in some real languages, such as Apache. The absence of nouns relates to the absence of things (entities) in the philosophy accepted in Tlön – this, supposedly, excludes both propositions and deductive reasoning.

However, even if no entities are recognized, it is not clear that these further exclusions are necessarily implied. Indeed, some of Borges’ own linguistic formulations appear to express propositions, albeit in forms unfamiliar to those accustomed to English or other Indo-European languages. More generally, the linguistic strictures and notions developed by Borges appear interesting and not lacking in insight but as somewhat exaggerated. The same can be said of Sebald’s applications of these notions.

Of course, if either author’s intention be judged STRICTLY fictional, such objections are not in any way damning; and, even if Borges and/or Sebald are to be regarded as expressing genuine ontological/epistemological stances, their positions might still be arguable. But they do appear rather extreme. It is not clear that a language incorporating such features in strong versions would really be usable in practice, whatever philosophical ideas were embraced by its speakers and writers.

More next time!


For my book Strange Linguistics, see:

Copies are available through me at the author’s 50% discount, for EU 26.40 including postage to anywhere outside Germany. Please let me know if you’d like one, suggest means of payment (Paypal is possible) and provide your preferred postal address.

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