Return to Brian Kiteley's home pageThis is background material I use in my fiction workshops. If you have any questions, my email address is email@example.com.
From the 1960 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica:Modern French is a Neo-Latin tongue or one of the Romance Languages. Its syntax is analytical and its vocabulary comes for the most part from popular Latin, enriched from the 14th Century onward with words borrowed from Classical Latin, for abstract ideas. The spoken word is no different from the written. It has been shaped by generations of moralists and analysts who worked to give it the utmost clarity. It is an instrument for the expression of lucid and definite ideas rather than of lyricism, and of an irony more subtle than humor. It answers the need of the French mind which drives back the shadows from reality, at the risk of impoverishing it, and which is constantly testing the efficiency of its intellectual instrument.
From Paul Auster’s introduction to his Random House Book of 20th Century French Poetry:Although English is in large part derived from French, it still holds fast to its Anglo-Saxon origins. Against the gravity and substantiality to be found in the work of our greatest poets (Milton, say, or Emily Dickinson), which embodies an awareness of the contrast between the thick emphasis of Anglo-Saxon and the nimble conceptuality of French/ Latin—and to play one repeatedly against the other—French poetry almost seems weightless to us, to be composed of ethereal puffs of lyricism and little else. French is necessarily a thinner medium than English. But that does not mean it is weaker. If English writing has staked out as its territory the world of tangibility, of concrete presence, of surface accident, French literary language has largely been a language of essences. Whereas Shakespeare, for example, names more than five hundred flowers in his plays, Racine sticks to the single word "flower." In all, the French dramatist’s vocabulary consists of roughly fifteen hundred words, while the word count in Shakespeare’s plays runs upward of twenty-five thousand. The contrast, Lytton Strachey noted, is between "comprehension" and "concentration." "Racine’s great aim," Strachey wrote, "was to produce, not an extraordinary nor a complex work of art, but a flawless one; he wished to be all matter and no impertinency. His conception of drama was of something swift, inevitable; an action taken at the crisis, with no redundancies however interesting, no complications however suggestive, no irrelevances however beautiful—but plain, intense, vigorous, and splendid with nothing but its own essential force." More recently, the poet Yves Bonnefoy has described English as a "mirror" and French as a "sphere," the one Aristotelian in its acceptance of the given, the other Platonic in its readiness to hypothesize "a different reality, a different realm."
Fredric Jameson, in his preface to Marxism and Form:Nowhere is the hostility of the Anglo-American tradition toward the dialectical more apparent...than in the widespread notion that the style of these works [Lukacs, Benjamin, Adorno and Marcuse] is obscure and cumbersome, indigestible, abstract—or, to sum it all up in a convenient catchword, Germanic. It can be admitted that it does not conform to the canons of clear and fluid journalistic writing taught in the schools. But what if those ideas of clarity and simplicity have come to serve a very different ideological purpose, in our present context, from the one Descartes had in mind? What if, in this period of the overproduction of printed matter and the proliferation of methods of quick reading, they were intended to speed the reader across the page in such a way that he can salute a readymade idea effortlessly in passing, without suspecting that real thought demands a descent into the materiality of language and a consent to time itself in the form of the sentence? In the language of Adorno—perhaps the finest dialectical intelligence, the finest stylist, of them all—density is itself a conduct of intransigence: the bristling mass of abstractions and cross-references is precisely intended to be read in situation, against the cheap facility of what surrounds it, as a warning to the reader of the price he has to pay for genuine thinking. The resolute abstractness of this style stands as an imperative to pass beyond the individual, empirical phenomenon to its meaning: abstract terminology clings to its object as a sign of the latter’s incompleteness in itself, of its need to be replaced in the context of the totality.
From Samuel Weber’s introduction to his translation of Theodor Adorno’s essays in Prisms:If conceptual concreteness may be measured by the density with which thought and articulation permeate each other, then Adorno’s style can be characterized by the constant striving to be concrete. It is, however, a concreteness which has no place within the intellectual horizons of English. In English what is concrete is what is immediate, tangible, visible. Whatever the historical causes of this empirical orientation may have been, contemporary English does not tolerate the notion that what is nearest at hand may in fact be most abstract, while that which is invisible, intangible, accessible only to the mind may in fact be more real than reality itself. "Aren’t there enough words for you in English?" Joyce was once asked: "Yes," he replied, "there are enough, but they aren’t the right ones."
Eli Gottlieb, in "Contributors Advice" at the back of the magazine Caliban, where he published a story:A few words on Italian. After living abroad and speaking it for a few years, one finds upon returning home that one’s native language has become strangely raw, pushy, and—more subtly than these—possessed of that isolating feeling of negotiation which seems to lie at the heart of speaking "American." In contrast with English, Italian is never inadvertent, but contains a continuous and uncanny congruency within itself, sponsoring sentences which push directly forward through the spoken space. In its implacable linearity Italian sometimes seems a descendant of those famed Roman roads driven rule-straight through forests and mountains. But it is also a sweet and sheltering language, rich in rhetoric, with a great benevolent curve wound diagonally across its rigor—a windbreak of sorts behind which the more modest operations of daily life may take place unmolested. To fully grasp Italian one must first grasp the simultaneity of the straight and the curved as felt properties within the language. Latin, building beneath two millennia of Mediterranean family life, produces the paradox: a linguistic instrument of great tensile precision which is filled to bursting with bathos and sentimentality.
Whither American English in all this completeness? The main animating event of our native language has been industry, arriving unlike its British counterpart without a great linguistic culture behind it, but as ranged against the sheer difficulty of naming at all in the New World. With the country’s industrial boom well underway in the mid-19th century, Whitman quite rightly noted that along the quays and wharves of America a new language and nomenclature was forming which was unlisted in the dictionaries of the time. This was not only seaman’s slang but the commonly used words for objects themselves, thrown out by inventive American business faster than they could be ordered into accepted speech. The cluttered catalogues of Whitman’s verse are a testament both to the enormous sprawl of things in America and to his belief that the process of naming was itself the most democratic and poetic act. But Whitman’s dream of the "nomenclative sublime" was to remain unfulfilled outside the artistic confines of his poetry, and our language has come down to us inherently sized to descriptions of commerce, transfer and exchange rather than anything of a human scale.
To a writer this simply means more work of a differing kind. The positive virtues of American English—its agility, great absorptive and synthetic powers and the unique range of its vocabulary—place its novelists under the necessity of inventing the ground of their own language before they can begin to build on it (a situation which would explain the absence from our literature of a Calvino or Robbe-Grillet, masters whose stable native languages allow them the luxury of sustained detachment and scientific study of narrative). The notorious inability of American writers to maturely describe love between men and women derives in part from our linguistic weightlessness, whose centrifugal influences a writer uses up the better part of his mind combating. Wide but not deep, fast without being grounded, American English moves with great, disinterested velocity over its landscapes—arriving quite naturally as language of choice for that new modern prince of anti-language and metaphor, the computer.
The poet Paul Celan spoke of the "fatal once-only" of the mother tongue. Returning home after several years abroad, one feels more uncomfortably certain of this than ever, and impressed by American English, and dismayed by it.
Timothy Mitchell, from Colonising Egypt:The vowel is a peculiar European invention, and is not something "missing" from Arabic. Arabic words are formed by what Arab grammarians call the "movement" of a sequence of letters. Each letter is pronounced with a particular movement (of the mouth and vocal cords), referred to as "opening," "fracturing," and "contracting," and different movements of the same letters produce differences in meaning. The letters k-t-b, for example, can mean "he wrote," "it was written," "books," and so on, according to the different kinds of movement that the Orientalists translate into vowels.
The movement, however, is not the equivalent of a vowel. As the Tunisian linguist Monçef Chelli has pointed out, the movement cannot be produced independently of the letter and a letter cannot be produced without a movement, whereas vowels and consonants seem to exist independently of each other. This independence, Chelli suggests, gives words in European languages a peculiar appearance of fixedness, as opposed to the movement of Arabic words. In treating words as moving combinations of letters, Arabic writing remains closer to the play of differences that produces meaning. Seen this way, the vowel is not something missing in Arabic. It is a strange artifice, whose presence in European writing masks the relations of difference between words, giving the individual word the apparent independence of a sign. Chelli goes on to argue that this apparent independence endows words with an object-quality. As sign-objects they seem to exist independently of their being said. Their existence appears as something apart from the material repetition of the word, and seems to precede such repetition. The realm of this prior and separate existence is labeled the "conceptual," the independent realm of meaning.
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