Spoken Languages


Flusser, Vilem. ‘Spoken Languages’ Does Writing have a Future? trans. by Nancy Ann Roth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2011) 63-69

When programming has set itself free of alphanumeric writing, thought will no longer need to work through a spoken language to become visible.
Thought and speech will no longer be fused, as they were when the alphabet was predominant.
This fusion of thinking and speaking is actually remarkable. For there certainly have been other codes besides the alphabet for making thought visible, for example, codes of painting and codes of mathematics. So people were always aware that speaking was only one of the ways to play with thought, and they repeatedly attempted to find a common denominator among them.
But the alphabet was the dominant code.
As the alphabet is surpassed, thought will liberate itself from speech, and other, nonlinguistic thought (mathematical and pictorial, and presumably new ones as well) will expand in ways we cannot yet anticipate.
Speaking, on the other hand, will not be surpassed at all. On the contrary: released from the alphabet, spoken language will flood the scene, tapes and speaking images will scream and whisper to society.
The danger will be that language, released from the alphabet, will revert to an uncultivated state. Our languages have passed through the filtering and caustic grid of the alphabet for thousands of years, and in this way, they have become powerful and beautiful, delicate, precise instruments. If they are allowed to grow unchecked, they – along with a great deal of thinking – will become barbaric.
The alphabet’s effect on speaking should not be overestimated, however. For in observing the contemporary linguistic situation, one notices that the overwhelming majority of writing and speech is nonsense and worse.
If this twaddle, this demagoguery, ceases to dominate thinking after the thinking after the loss of the alphabet, it might be regarded as an epistemological, political, and aesthetic catharsis.
Our languages (the Indo-Germanic and Hamito-Semitic) are inflected; that is, in them, words change meaning according to their position in the sentence order. Sentences formed from such words are pro-nouncements: predicates pushed out by their subjects. Accordingly, the things our languages say (the universe of our languages) consist of projectile, arrow-shaped situations. For example, the sentence “Hansel loves Gretel” is a sketch of “loves” that goes out from Hansel and aims at Gretel.
This is not true of all types of languages.
In agglutinative languages (e.g., Tupi-Guarani), there are word collages instead of sentences so that their universe (that of which they speak) has a circumstantial rather than a projectile character. In some isolating languages (say, in Chinese), there are no sentences, but there are juxtapositions of syllables, and instead of a projectile character, their universe therefore has a mosaic character.
So long as we think in ways bound up with language, we will be disorientated in these two universes. They make our thought unsteady because they offer evidence that our universe is structured not by reality but by our languages. So the unsteadiness is a good thing, but it also shows what we owe our languages: they offer us the net in whose threads and knots we think, feel, desire, and act.
For our languages are open systems: elements of other languages (words and rules) may be incorporated without loss of character. Translation enables us to say something we’ve said before in our own language, differently. The variety, the structural similarity and the functional difference among our languages means our universe is always open to a creative renewing of ideas, feelings, desires, and acts.
Our languages are codes in which various wordings are locked into symbols for concepts, and the rules of sentence construction are locked into rules of thinking. They are double-locked codes.
Now codes tend toward two opposite horizons, toward denotation, where each single symbol means one particular element in its universe, and toward connotation, where each symbol refers to a region of that universe that is ambiguously defined, and each element in the universe may be refered to by more than one symbol.
The advantage of a denotative code (e.g., symbolic logic) is that it is clear and distinct; that of a connotative code (e.g., painting) is the wealth of references and resulting variety of possible interpretations.
The double locking of our languages means they can be expanded toward both horizons. We can speak exactly and precisely (denotatively) as well as allusively and suggestively. We can even do both at the same time. our languages are exceptionally productive codes as a result.
And yet the experience of hundreds of generations is stored in our word forms and sentence construction. When we speak, this collective memory presses from us out into the public arena, where it is enriched.
Most languages – the so-called primitive ones – are not sufficiently codified to serve as memory. In some Indian languages, the vocabulary changes from decade to decade because many words become taboo and may no longer be used.
Some other languages are by contrast so highly codified that they seize up and can no longer be developed (ancient Egyptian would be an example).
We face the challenge of preserving and passing on our languages’ precious balance between rigor and elasticity.
For if the future brings a new code that relies less and less on linguistic codes and more and more on codes of calculation and computation, if the swell of speech that will then flood over us turns out to be no more than background noise for the new mode of thought, then we may well fear the loss of language, the precious legacy we have abandoned.
We may comfort ourselves with the thought that before the invention of the alphabet, spoken language as a unique code was continually enriched and transmitted, and that the same might happen after the alphabet becomes obsolete.
For with respect to spoken language, prealphabetic conditions are categorically different from postalphabetic ones.
Homer may be an example of the transition from speaking to writing as a language-preserving and language-creating gesture. (The mythagogues were probably singers, incidentally, so that the transition to alphabetic writing could have been perceived as an impoverishment of a whole dimension of spoken language.)
After the alphabet becomes obsolete, there will no longer be an elite entrusted with the preservation and enrichment of spoken language. Left to itself (that is, to prattle), language will run wild.
A glance at the current situation, though still embryonic, shows how little hope there is that an illiterate elite of the future might take care of the language.
Here the new mythagogues (Dylan Thomas, Brazilians, Indian and African bards) seem to have a creative effect on language and to restore its lost musical dimension.
Not until the invention of the tape recorder, one would think, has linguistic creativity had such an immediate and extensive impact as with these poems distributed in their millions. But are we actually dealing with poetry? However one defines this word etymologically – whether as dictation or as adage – on closer consideration, there is something different going on with these new mythagogues.
For cassettes and records are largely obsolete. Not so much because an opera on videotape carries more information than one on a record but rather because images suit the rising new mode of thought better than sound.
And so exactly because contemporary spoken poetry is so creative, it shows that spoken language is doomed to enter the service of new codes and to become background noise – as we know it from sound film, in music, and still more in speaking as an auxiliary function, so that it can be said of silent film that it is the true filmic language.
In the postalphabetic situation […] speaking will merely assist (as, say, gestural codes do today) the dominant codes. This suggests that with the rise of speech in an unimaginably distant past, a rich and creative gestural code was degraded into something auxiliary, just as speech is about to be degraded.

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