Needless to say, linguistic beauty is as elusive as its fairy tale counterpart. We are not told, for example, what the original jealous queen looked like, we are only told that she was beautiful. Which means that we don’t know what exactly is it that made her beautiful and, therefore, what exactly is it that the mirror is going on about.
Linguistic mirrors pass similar obscure judgements. Take language X, for example. Whether we know the language or not, when we say that it is a beautiful language because it is the language of love, we’re not judging the language: we’re judging love, because we do know that love is a beautiful thing. Language Y, in contrast, is a language of war, and hence ugly. Or conversely, of course. Some people love the smell of napalm any time of day.
Statements such as these seem to imply that speakers of language X and language Y spend their linguistic lives basking in beauty and ugliness, respectively. If true, this would mean that multilinguals in those languages might have an expressive edge over monolinguals or multilinguals in other languages. Multilinguals in general, however, switch language in order to mind bedchamber, barracks and other business appropriately, not aesthetically.
Such statements forget that any language can be put, and is put, to any use which it is called upon to serve. As the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson wrote, in his 1959 book On Translation, “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they can convey.” In other words, we can express ex-aequo beauty and ugliness in any language, which means that no language beats another in the contest. The same is true of words: you can have a look at this Lexiophiles post, Discriminating words on aesthetics grounds, to appreciate the election process – and you can participate in it too. The bottom line is that it all depends on where you choose to look for your evidence.
|Image: © Nieve44/La Luz (Flickr)|
When we say that some languages are beautiful and others aren’t, what we’re saying is that we’ve now joined the ranks of fellow well-behaved mirrors. We can now be relied upon to reflect judgements about languages which derive from love, war, and other things that have as much to do with intrinsic features of those languages as a shopping list or a fairy tale. Whether Miss Language is indeed the fairest one of all on its own merits is irrelevant: the reason why the mirror knows best is that we’re looking at it blindfolded.
Languages that we take to be beautiful are desirable languages, perhaps on the persuasion, or the hope, that the ruling mirrors will thus approve of their users too. But languages come in varieties, and varieties are played by ear, not by looks. Mastering Miss Language may mean little if you don’t heed its sidekick, Mister Accent: the desirability of languages swells and fades along time, but accent beauties seem never to go to sleep. Beauty contests turn ugly when you find your job application, or yourself, rejected not because of what you have to say in your languages, but because of the way you have to say it. I’ll leave this for next time.
© MCF 2011
Next post: Accent cosmetics. Saturday 10th September 2011.